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).
4. Because God likes highways, not cul-de-sacs.
The point here is not that God despises the suburbs and prefers the open road. As a metaphor, however, it is hard not to see that God prefers to be—to borrow C. S. Lewis’s language in describing Aslan—“on the move.” But this theological insight is easily forgotten under the pressure within our pluralistic society of defining what “we” believe as opposed to “them.” The result is what Roger Olson has described as “a certain militancy in defense of perceived evangelical doctrinal tradition” and “a tendency to fill up the ‘essentials’ (dogmas) category of Christian beliefs with non-essentials.” This desire to stabilize the tradition and protect against perceived deviations can easily lead to a sort of theological ossification. If the Word of God is indeed “living and active” (Heb. 4:12), then a militant defense of the past can result in the silencing of God in the present. Those who follow such a living God must also be on the move, bearing dynamic witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in our own place and time.
5. Because the New Jerusalem will be more urban than suburban.
Christians often labor under the false assumption that the cultural forms we have inherited from our ancestors in the faith are distinctively “Christian.” Our cultural blinders lead us to misread the biblical text, to find rules and guidelines that just aren’t there. Cultural norms about money, gender, race, work, and family seep into our subconscious and percolate into our daily life. They appear in television ads, on magazine covers, in playground chitchat, on highway billboards, in church-sponsored parenting seminars, and even in sermons.
Behind all of this is the assumption that there is only one way to be truly human and live a truly human life—and, of course, that one way happens to be our way. But when we look at the Bible, we see a manifold diversity of human identities and social structures. The “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2) is not a blueprint but a command to follow Christ in the diversity of our local contexts and the unity of God’s coming reign. When Jesus rejects the prevailing family values of both his day and our own (Matt. 10:35–36), he is not telling us to hate our families. He is proclaiming a vision of fidelity to God’s kingdom that is bigger than a single culture’s social norms.
We are dealing, after all, with the God of Pentecost, a God whose kingdom embraces the full panoply of cultural diversity. We witness in the story of the gospel a God who does not have a “one size fits all” vision for human life, a God who rejects a monochrome creation, a God who prefers the vibrant messiness to spiritless homogeneity.
6. Because God isn’t just a good self-help instructor.
American culture surrounds us with the notion that we possess within ourselves all the resources necessary for success and happiness. Indeed, the United States was founded on the notion that we possess certain “inalienable rights” of self-actualization: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Unfortunately, this mode of thinking has found its way into Christian faith, preaching, and worship. One hears sermons for spiritual—or even material!—fulfillment, sings worship songs that seem more concerned with the singer’s needs and emotions than with Christ, and finds titles on bookstore shelves that promise to give you a fulfilling life now. We start to view God in terms of ourselves: We are weak, so God becomes strong; we are lonely, so God becomes our friend; we lack knowledge, so God becomes the cosmic answer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that theology is not in the business of “exploiting human weakness and human limitations.” Rather than understanding God in terms of human life, human life should be defined by the power of God in Jesus Christ. Christian faith acknowledges a God who discloses to us our true weakness—sin—and sovereignly acts in Christ to reconcile us to God and to each other. As the community of this God, the church is not a community of self-help instruction but a place of missionary self-giving. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
7. Because God isn’t a cosmic dictator.
Many people find comfort in the belief that God is in complete control of our lives. Knowing that God has a “perfect plan” not only provides certainty of salvation, but it also offers solace in times of great suffering. Perhaps it is no surprise that, in an age of political chaos fueled by an inability to find common ground, we find assurance in a Cosmic Decider that makes such clear and final decisions.
Viewed abstractly, we have here another version of the self-help deity—one who seemingly meets our needs and solves all our problems. But as Donald Bloesch observes, “Biblical Christians do not affirm the God of absolute power, the one who can do anything.” God’s sovereignty is not the arbitrary power to make the circle square or evil good. Naked sovereignty leaves us with no confidence in who this God really is and whether God loves us and will be faithful to us. Thankfully, the Bible teaches that “God’s power is manifested not in arbitrary decrees but in sacrificial, other-serving love” (Bloesch), namely, in Jesus Christ.
8. Because God’s will for your life isn’t really about your life.
The question, “What is God’s will for my life?” is a vexing one for many believers. But,
the attempt to “find” God’s will presupposes a separation between God’s “hidden” and “revealed” wills. According to the Reformers, God providentially rules over the world according to God’s hidden or eternal will, while Jesus only provided access to God’s revealed will concerning salvation. We are therefore left searching for clues in Scripture and experience, treating God’s hidden will like a murder mystery to be solved by a prayerful sleuth.
A second look at the New Testament calls into question the notion of two wills in God. According to the apostle Paul, “He [God the Father] predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will. . . . With all wisdom and understanding, he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and things on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:5, 8–10).
The “mystery” of God’s will is not confined to the dark recesses of eternity but is “made known to us . . . in Christ.” The question about God’s will is never first and foremost about our own lives, but about his life. God’s will is therefore not a riddle to be solved but a reality to be praised and proclaimed.
9. Because the Christian life isn’t all about eating.
If there’s one thing Christians know how to do, it’s eat! Potlucks, coffee hours, picnics—if you can load up a table with food, you can count on church-folk showing up for times of “fellowship” and “spiritual refreshment.” Maybe that’s why the Lord’s Supper so easily becomes a focal point of our communal lives together: It just makes sense. Indeed, it has become increasingly central in recent years even among traditionally “low church” communities, who find the emphasis on communion helpful as an aid to focus on the divine Shepherd rather than on the human pastor.
But here’s the thing about eating: do too much of it without exercise and you get fat. While eating is a restorative and often pleasurable experience, it is finally aimed at a purpose beyond itself. We eat in order to live. The same holds true in the Christian life. We come to the Lord’s table to eat in order to live a certain kind of life. The Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:19–20, describes the sort of life for which Christians are nourished at the table: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” This is the church’s mission, the exercise that it must perform to keep from growing fat and indolent, the life for which it is nourished by word and sacrament. Christians are never fed simply for their own benefit but always on behalf of others.
10. Because it’s not just what you believe that matters, but why you believe it and how.
We are convinced that engaging in careful theological thought is an essential task of the Christian life. We can no more abandon theology than we can abandon God, since theology is involved in some fashion whenever we think or speak about God. Consequently, every person is a theologian. The only question is whether we will be thoughtful, responsible theologians or irresponsible ones. The journey of Christian discipleship is a matter of learning why we believe, and thinking hard and carefully about this belief, not so that we can bludgeon others with our knowledge but so that we can bear faithful witness to God in the totality of our life.
Theology is less about the what and much more about the how. We are called as Christians not to sign up to a certain doctrinal statement but to follow a certain way of life. To be a thoughtful believer is to be commissioned for a life of disciplined reflection in conversation with the prophets, apostles, and the theologians who have reflected on God in the past and whose legacy we have inherited. The goal is not simply to repeat the words that they used to proclaim the gospel in their time and place, but to think under their tutelage about what words we must use today.
Theology is inherently an act of prayer, insofar as we offer up our words and thoughts in service to God in the expectant hope—by the grace of the Holy Spirit—that they will build up the body of Christ. And this prayerful task of theology is never done. Like God’s mercies, it is new every morning.
David W. Congdon is associate editor at IVP Academic and author most recently of The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch. W. Travis McMaken is associate professor of religion at Lindenwood University and author of The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth.