In J. I. Packer’s 1973 classic Knowing God, he points out that “ignorance of God—ignorance both of his ways and of the practice of communion with him—lies at the root of much of the church’s weakness today.” The ignorance to which Packer refers is first and foremost theological. To some, the term theology evokes images of scholasticism and ivory tower elitism with little practical use. However, the science of theology is simply the organized and systematic study of God. Every Christian is called to know God and if we deny that responsibility then we deny what it means to be Christian. Therefore every Christian is to be a theologian in the strictest sense of the word.
I think many in the American church know God in the same way they know the president—they know some facts about him, where he lives, what he does, and so on—but they do not have a relational knowledge of the actual person who is president. This could be described as a cultural theology. A biblical theology is more akin to the relationship between a child and a good parent. The child in this sense has a much more intimate knowledge that, through time and maturation, transmits the character and expectations of the parent. Experience only confirms this knowledge, producing trust, which in turn fosters obedience.
Others may take seriously the study of the president and his office, its history, legal powers, and so forth, but this is only theoretical since this knowledge exists apart from any relationship with the person who is president. For many, this is their approach to theology; it is only theoretical knowledge that often serves to “puff up” and make people intellectually proud. In the end, they may be more enamored with the office of the president than they are the person of the presidency.
A proper biblical theology that every follower of Christ should pursue is one that seeks to know the character, nature, and will of God as revealed in Scripture so that they may live in a way that pleases him. There is a practicality to theology that produces relevant wisdom for living in the real world. Some refer to this as the Christian worldview, which is really only another way of referring to a coherent biblical theology; it functions less as a set of academic facts than as an analytical framework for living properly. How can one successfully live in the world without knowing about the one who made and continues to govern that world?
In John 17:3, Jesus provides the best definition of theology—he equates knowledge of God with eternal life. Here, eternal life is not merely a reference to our experience after death, but a life lived now that is qualitatively different from our former lives and the lives of those around us. In other words, the greater our knowledge of God, the more abundant is our experience of life in Christ.
In recent weeks I have tried to offer critical analysis and a thoughtful response to Christendom’s collapse and the lingering influence of the Constantinian system. Many were challenged and responded with recognition that these are relevant and serious questions that must be considered if we seek to recover a biblical understanding of the gospel and the mission of the church. Others however responded in ways that reveal a lack of reliance upon proper theology and instead rely on emotional impulse or culturally induced ways of thinking, which they attempt to validate by use of selected proof texts.
For example, this comment which appeared on ChristianPost.com:
Mr. Craven has come [sic] the conclusion that: “Christians living within a distinct community is an essential witness to the mission of God.” Oh? What is your biblical basis for this assertion? My Bible informs me that: “Therefore if any man [be] in Christ, [he is] a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 Cor 5:17) “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ.” (2 Cor 5:20) “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19–20). You’ll note that 2 Cor 5:20 did not say that “We are AN ambassador,” communally. It says that “WE,” individually ARE AMBASSADORS for Christ. These pleas for unity for the sake of unity alone are getting rather old!
This response demonstrates a less-than-thorough proof text theology, designed to support the commenter’s assertions, rather than a systematic approach to theology, which considers the totality of Scripture and Christian tradition. The fact is to “be in Christ” as conveyed in 2 Corinthians is to be participating already in the new creation, which includes “one new man” or humanity, as the original Greek proclaims in Ephesians 2:15. To deny the corporate or “communal” nature of the church (the visible body of Christ) and Christ’s call for unity (cf. John 17) is to ignore an essential teaching of Scripture. In Paul’s epistles, it is abundantly clear that the Christian life is about being incorporated into a new humanity. As Christians, we become members of the body of Christ.
However, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, in individualized Western culture we hear Paul’s teaching about our being members of Christ in precisely the wrong way. For many Westerners a member is and remains an autonomous individual who merely belongs to something like a debating club or a political party. The member in this sense is a collection of individuals who have voluntarily joined an organization. But Paul uses member in an organic sense. We are members of Christ in the same way that the eye, ear, hand, and foot are members of the body.
I use the illustration above to demonstrate how our failure to develop a coherent and systematic theology affects our ability to live as faithful followers of Christ. This person, because of his inadequate theology, remains for now, resolute in his individualism and thus will not submit to the biblical admonitions to do otherwise. Because he lacks theological protection (armor) from the culture, the modern notion of the autonomous self has replaced biblical community as the principal medium God calls to demonstrate the attractiveness of Christianity. This means that each individual is required to be a perfect practitioner of the faith, whose performance is meant to elicit admiration and the question “Why?” from coworkers, relatives, and friends.
However, as individuals we eventually fail at some point, and thereby Christianity itself is judged a failure—a private religious belief incapable of real transformation. By joining together and living as disciplined congregations, we have a much better chance of presenting Christianity as a compelling public truth and an attractive alternative to the prevailing culture.
This point was recently reinforced by Dr. Dudley Woodberry, professor of Islamic Studies at Fuller Seminary. Dr. Woodberry’s research, spanning nearly 16 years, sought to understand what factors were involved in Muslims coming to faith in Jesus Christ. One of the most essential factors he identified was “When Christ’s love transforms committed Christians into a loving community, many Muslims [identified] a desire to join such a fellowship.”
Does theology matter? It does when you consider that poor theology leads to a less than adequate understanding of what it means to be Christian, which in turns leads to a less than adequate witness of the gospel.
S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture. Michael is the author of Uncompromised Faith (Navpress).The Center for Christ & Culture is dedicated to renewal within the Church and works to equip Christians with an intelligent and thoroughly Christian approach to matters of culture in order to demonstrate the relevance of Christianity to all of life. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit the Center for Christ & Culture.