With recent polls showing a declining awareness and interest in theology among evangelicals, we thought of ten reasons why theology matters to every evangelical beyond simply avoiding heresy.
1. Because even evangelicals need evangelizing.
There is much handwringing today over what it means to be evangelical, and the temptation is strong to define an essential evangelicalism—to pin it down to one particular form. Theologically, the problem with this response is that “taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) is not a once-and-done proposition. It is a task that has to be taken up anew again and again. Just like God’s grace, this fundamentally theological undertaking is “new every morning” (Lam. 3:23).
Evangelicalism is not a fixed and secure religious form or doctrinal system. It is not a confessional tradition or a denomination. Instead, evangelicalism is a way of relating to God and the world, one which emphasizes the good news of Jesus Christ and its importance for how we live our lives. There is no single right way to be an evangelical. In truth, evangelicalism is always in via, always “on the way.” Evangelicals thus always need to be evangelized.
2. Because we can’t feel our way toward knowledge of God.
Experience has always been an important part of evangelicalism. From Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney to Henry Blackaby and Dallas Willard, evangelicals have long understood that the gospel demands a response of the will and a conversion of the heart. Such an emphasis often gives the impression that we can “find” God in experience. Chuck Colson’s assessment here is right: The belief “that doctrines must be extracted from inward experience—that is, personal feelings” is “a version of Gnosticism.” The problem is there is no guarantee that one’s experiences do in fact point to God. We need a more certain way to know God.
Thankfully, God has provided just such a way: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known [exegesato]” (John 1:18). In Jesus we have the exegesis of God and a firm foundation for our faith.
3. Because the Bible is not a grab bag of facts about God.
In an effort to avoid the pitfall of improperly enlisting experience as a foundation for our knowledge of God, some have turned to Scripture as their infallible guide to faith and practice. But often this turn is made without giving enough thought to the difficulties involved in biblical interpretation—and not only the difficulty of learning strange languages! Appeals to this or that text have been used over the years to justify any number of ethical positions, from slavery and apartheid to the subjugation of women and anti-Semitic pogroms. Furthermore, all the so-called “heretics” in Christian history knew their Bible very well and could find ample support for their positions within its pages.
In order to address this problem, the church from the outset developed two rules of interpretation: the “rule of faith” and the “rule of love.” The rule of love stipulates that one must read Scripture in a way that promotes the love of God and neighbor, and the rule of faith offers the church’s shared theological affirmations as a similar guide for reading. Jesus Christ stands behind each of these rules: He is the one who both enacts perfect love for God and neighbor, and he makes the Father known, as already mentioned. We must read Scripture with one eye fixed on Jesus Christ, and with a constant effort to see how each portion of Scripture points us back to him. This is the burden of Luther’s claim that “whatever promotes Christ is the Word of God to be sought and found in Holy Scripture” (Luther’s Works 35:396).