Mean(s)ingless Theology


Meansingless TheologyYou’ve all heard the phrase: “The ends justify the means.” Basically it means that sometimes there is drastic or hard effort (means) which must happen in order to produce some specific result (ends).

This is what drives people to do hard work in order to achieve things they want to achieve. However I have noticed that “means” are becoming more and more scarce in our world today. We like to cut out the middle man and reap the results without the effort. That’s because we live in a world where means have been outsourced to brand name companies.

This is why we live in a world crushed by credit card debt: want to live like you make 30K more than you actually do? Mastercard it! You see rather than understanding what it takes to work, budget and plan, we can charge and experience the reward without the effort.

Unfortunately our unfamiliarity with means (how things are accomplished) is leaking into our theology, and this theology is shaping the face of Christianity in America. Meaningful discussions on doctrine and theological opinions are seen as antiquated and irrelevant. Culture says we can have the ends without the means. “Why can’t we all just love Jesus and love each other?” Doctrine is dead, but loving people is good and real. Is the means of theology really necessary for the ends of love and cultural engagement? As one author has put it:

What’s absolutely astonishing is that the whole movements of evangelical and post-evangelical churches now call for Christians to deemphasize orthodoxy (right belief) for the sake of orthopraxy (right practice), thinking that this call will somehow free Christians to love truly and authentically.” -Jonathan Leeman

Theological Mutations

The problem is that in wanting to distance ourselves from “cold dead doctrine” we are actually creating bad doctrine. Our desire to distance ourselves from theological debate fails to make us athelogical (without theology) and instead makes us mutant theologians: attempting to create theological ends without understanding the theological process. This is partly due to the fact that our generation has become increasingly unaware of means as a whole. We don’t really know or care as to how something happens, we just want to experience or have the end result.

We want popular Pastors, artists or Twitter accounts to tell us how we should think without ever doing the work of thinking ourselves. Rather than weighing and examining how theological conclusions are made, we simply believe whoever has a checkmark next to their name on Twitter. What we fail to realize is that it is exactly the means of theological reflection which enable us to come to the ends of love and service we so desperately want.

Locally Sourced and Organically Harvested

To further highlight this problem we need to only look at the food industry. Netflix is littered with documentaries highlighting the underbelly of mass food industries. While some of these can be chalked up to creative fear-mongering, Americans have largely realized the need to have at least some awareness of where their food comes from. While we might not be able to grow our own crops or raise and butcher our own meat, we should want to be able to look and understand where they come from and how those products end up on our table.

I pray for a similar revolution in terms of Christian belief and thought. In regards to theology and important doctrinal conclusions, we need to at least have some awareness of how people are coming to their conclusions. A means-less theology seeks to prop up empty solutions on the basis of how they sound, without actually understanding what is being said. Just because something “works” or sounds nice doesn’t mean it’s actually good.

If we are unaware of how our content or opinions are sourced we could be eating out of a theological Taco-Bell dumpster. True practicality, practicality which actually loves and knows what love is, is the result of Biblical wisdom and theology done in submission to the will of God, not the god of culture.

Let me highlight two areas where we tend to outsource means, and then provide a couple ways where we can make ourselves aware of the dangers.

Worship “Experiences”

God is a God of emotion. In the Psalms and the prophets we see passages which seek to portray God’s own emotion towards sin, his people, and his glory. Likewise a believer who claims to know and love Jesus, but who has never been emotionally convicted or stirred by the power of the gospel might need to reconsider some responses we ourselves see in scripture (look at Paul’s doxologies for instance).

However we will often worship at anything which stirs our emotions. Working with college students I have often encountered individuals who say they can’t worship in such and such a church because it doesn’t “feel” like worship. The problem is that if we cannot worship without feeling the emotion (which is often stirred by today’s production level services: lights, audio/visual displays, fog machines…etc) then we have subtly placed emotion as the initiator of worship instead of the Holy Spirit. When this is the case we don’t really care what or how our emotions are being stirred, we just care that they are. We have lost sight of the means. We should be made emotive not by the basis of external stimulus only, but first and foremost by the gospel truth our Christian worship services ought display.

Just as an experiment, the next time your emotions are piqued in a worship service, ask yourself what your heart is responding to. Even if it is a song lyric, what is that lyric pointing to? What is it describing? This heart vetting is good and part of what Paul prescribes when he says “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things….” (Phil. 4:8). Paul could have said: think about purity, think about love, think about honor…etc, but instead he calls us to think on the source, the means, the “whatever” of these attributes. He is calling us to think deeply on Jesus himself. Our worship should be led by us experiencing the gospel, not simply an emotion.

Bible Study

To throw out a fancy word, what we are talking about here is called exegesis, which means: what are we pulling out of a text, and how are we doing that. I recently read an article where an “evangelical pastor” said he is changing his views on core beliefs because he was tired of the church’s historic “simplistic answers.” In order to refute the historic tradition of the church he uses a series of proof texts to make his point. Proof texts are simple passages listed at the end of a sentence intended to prove ones point. While proof texting certainly has a point, it can often be done at the cost of truly explaining what is going on. For instance, I can get drafted as an NFL player (Phil. 4:13).

On the surface the content of Philippians 4:13 seems to affirm what I just said, however when we look at the context of the book of Philippians we know that Paul isn’t saying we can all achieve our greatest dreams. He is calling us to persevere when all of our dreams are reshaped by the weight of the gospel and persecution and hardship ensue.

This proof texting problem manifests itself in many ways: on twitter, in blogs, in sermons, in Bible study. It happens when we hear something nice or catchy, but it comes with scarce or no Biblical explanation. However when we ourselves are doing our devotions, or consuming content from someone else, we should be able to look and see from the text (their exposition) how they came to that conclusion. We need to be able to see the means they used to get to their position. Otherwise the message we are consuming might be of the messengers own creation instead of a careful reflection of what the Bible actually says. The means are essential to understanding the Bible and the Bible is essential for loving Jesus and others well.

Often we can become over simplistic in our Bible study because it takes time and effort to really understand what the Bible is saying. This isn’t because there is hidden knowledge that only PhD’s can find, it’s because the Bible is like many other books. It has a plot, and the writers are writing for specific reasons, to specific people and if we are unaware of any of these we can often misinterpret or misapply what is actually being said.

However look at the way Jesus himself uses scripture when speaking with the two men on the Emmaus road: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

Jesus didn’t just drop on these guys one text, but he did the work of Bible study, he explained to them the message of scripture as a whole and let that shape the message he delivered about himself. If Jesus used a more robust understanding of scripture to make the theological point that he was alive as he was physically alive and talking to two individuals…we should learn to read the Bible and understand what God has said in greater clarity and submission.

What’s the point?

Why is this issue of means important? Because we are coming, and may come to a time where worship experiences and pithy Biblical interpretations won’t hold up to culture. A Christian unaware of the means necessary to worship as the church and study as a believer will not hold up to cultures increasingly hostile examination. But the one who is able to worship like David worshiped in the dry desert of emotion in Psalm 42, and the one who takes Paul’s task of “rightly dividing the word of truth,” they will endure. To walk as Paul urges Christians to walk in Ephesians is life dedicated to understanding the means of our faith as essential to the end goal of gospel love and service. I pray that this will be me, and I pray that this will be you.