I read recently in a book by an author I admire and love a sentence that made me stop and think: “Sound theology produces sound thinking and living.” As someone who is a closet theologian, I understand the heart behind a statement like this one.
Yet I have lived in spiritual communities shaped by that kind of statement and I see some dangers in it. It implies that anyone with sound theology has sound thinking and living. The focus can turn into making sure you have sound theology. It all rises and falls together. The logic is “if you have ‘right’ theology you are feeling, thinking and living the way you should.”
And ultimately that is true if we are continually examining our functional beliefs about God and all he is for us in Christ. But often, especially in camps that care a lot about theology, theology becomes an established set of beliefs we hold on to – a confession, a creed, a theological position. Doctrine becomes ultimate and not always re-examined in light of the story line of redemption or in light of what our finite understanding keeps grasping about an infinite God.
I know what it is like to place my confidence in sound theology. It seems to guarantee what I need to live rightly. But I have seen in my life and the life of others that you may hold to a sound theological statement, be very passionate about confessional Christianity and not bear the fruit of sound thinking, feeling or living.
I have seen a lot of unsound living in churches with “sound” theology:
unwillingness to learn from others; sexual abuse cover-up; emotional abuse; family dysfunction enabled because of the pride and arrogance of that community; unrepentance; minimization of the sin of those who have spiritual authority; isolation from other believers that don’t hold to the same sound theology; cynicism and deep suspicion of God; self-righteousness.
I think when our confidence- our faith- is in sound theology, the above is the kind of fruit that you can expect. Confidence in sound theology is not at the root of living by the Spirit. It is a work of the flesh (Philippians 3: 3-4).
Paul’s logic in Galatians 5 is fascinating to me. He explains that the works of the flesh come from living as if our righteousness – or our rightness – comes from anything else than a Person:
“You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision [or a specific theology or denomination] counts for anything but only faith working through love (Galatians 5: 6, paraphrases mine).”
So how do I know if my confidence is in my theology more than in the Son?
- I am more excited to talk about theology than about the gospel and specifically about Christ (1 Corinthians 2: 2).
- I expend more effort in helping people see a set of doctrines more clearly than I expend in helping them see the Father and all that He is for them in Christ (John 14: 7-9).
- I care more about people embracing a set doctrines and thinking rightly than about caring for them as whole people.
- I look down on others who don’t hold to the same theology as mine.
- The solution for the problems in my life or in the life of others is right theology (more than really knowing the Father through Christ by faith).
- I spend more time studying church history and what theologians wrote than studying God’s word (Psalm 1).
- I depend more on what theologians wrote about doctrine than on the Holy Spirit.
- I allow a theological framework to inform how I read God’s word, instead of critically reading theology in light of what I see in God’s word.
Of course this litmus test isn’t exhaustive. And we all are somewhere on the spectrum. So it is not a matter of “is this me or not?” but asking rather, “where am I on this spectrum?“
So What? Do I Walk Away?
I have noticed that when we see the kind of horrible fruit that I mentioned above, the temptation is to walk away from the theology represented by the people who sinned so deeply. But what is interesting to me is that this kind of fruit happens in every denomination. The insidious life of the flesh can hide in any theology. As long as our confidence is in anything other than Christ, any theological camp has the potential to produce really bad fruit. No exceptions.
Of course, theology matters. Orthodoxy matters. Paul makes that clear (Titus 2: 1). What I believe about the Triune God will bear fruit in my life in the same measure I am grounded in God’s word. But knowledge and doctrine in themselves don’t produce anything in our lives. It is absolutely possible for us to profess God and deny him by our works (Titus 1: 16). That is what is so insightful about Paul’s teaching to Titus – he commands him to teach what goes together with sound doctrine: namely, a life that is sound, whole, that adorns the gospel (Titus 2: 1).
When there is bad fruit in someone’s life the first question is not what is wrong with their theology. It is usually much more nuanced than that. And typically, it begins with very real suffering. So we do well to ask, what suffering is happening (or happened) in their life that they are turning to self-saving coping mechanisms? Then the question becomes, how can I help this brother or sister see the Father better through Christ? In what way can I show them Christ really tangibly?
On the flip side of that, just because someone has a different theology than ours, we can’t assume it isn’t sound nor that there is bad fruit. I live in a context surrounded by believers that don’t necessarily hold to the same theology I do. Our ecclesiology is different, and what we believe about the Holy Spirit and how he works is not the same. We likely have different views on the importance of expository preaching and they may not know what I mean when I say that my church in the US holds to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. Our exegetical approach to Scripture differs in some ways. But these friends have taught me much about how to live by the Spirit, and what it looks like to be at home in God. I know my Father better because of them.
This makes me think of Spurgeon who wrote of someone he disagreed doctrinally with,
“Where the Spirit of God is there must be love, and if I have once known and recognized any man to be my brother in Christ Jesus, the love of Christ constraineth me no more to think of him as a stranger or foreigner, but a fellow citizen with the saints. Let me find a man who loves my Lord Jesus Christ as George Herbert did and I do not ask myself whether I shall love him or not; there is no room for question, for I cannot help myself; unless I can leave off loving Jesus Christ, I cannot cease loving those who love him. . . . I will defy you, if you have any love to Jesus Christ, to pick or choose among His people.”
I know it may seem like just a difference in semantics but I would rewrite the statement I referenced earlier to say, “Faith in the Son produces sound feeling, thinking and living.” It truly is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh – even in its more respectable forms in the church – is no help at all (John 6: 63).
Confidence in the Son frees me to love His people to live without fear and to trust His ability to keep me. By the Spirit’s help, I will always cheerlead sound theology. But more than a set of doctrines, I want to spend my life promoting a Person – the Son – and faith in Him. All I want is to know the Father through the Son more and more, and help others do the same.
Madeleine L’Engle said it so beautifully,
“We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Seeing Christ more clearly, savoring who he is by faith, and resting in him is what produces sound thinking, sound feeling, sound living. Christ alone is the one that makes us whole.