Don’t Trust Overconfident Theologians
In the earliest days of the Church, one of the greatest theologians of the Holy Land was knocked off his horse by a mystical encounter with the Living God. Saul of Tarsus, a protégé of the esteemed Jewish rabbi Gamaliel, was absolutely certain of his theology. So certain and zealous was he that it drove him to violence that he perceived to be the “will of God.” He was on a righteous rampage in an attempt to snuff out the fledgling 1st-century Jewish sect which eventually became known as the Church. In that moment, he came face to face with the God he thought he knew, but who told him point-blank that he was persecuting Him by his actions.
At that time of his life, Saul was the epitome of an overconfident theologian – well versed in theology and history, and with an arsenal of supporting arguments at his disposal. Yet in one moment, he experienced a life transformation through an encounter with the God of Israel. No matter how much learning we have accumulated, an authentic encounter with God trumps well-packaged theology… Every. Single. Time.
Similarly, Peter the disciple was a Jew who encountered the rabbi Jesus (Yeshua) in a profound and life-altering way. Often facing persecution from the likes of people like Saul, the early believers continually counted the cost of their faith that was undergoing a new-found transformation. Every day was an opportunity for their faith to be stretched all over again.
Into the environment of Acts 10, God showed up in Peter’s open vision on the rooftop at Joppa (Jaffa) where Peter was staying, and Peter saw a sheet filled with animals coming down from heaven as God’s voice said to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter responded, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean” (vv. 13-14).
Have you ever argued with God when He offends your mind to reveal your heart?
Here was Peter, doing his best to be an observant Jew and not disregard centuries of Jewish theology. But God was up to something: He was about to sovereignly open the way for the Gentiles to enter in and become part of His family, through Peter’s subsequent divine appointment with Cornelius the righteous centurion. Peter’s confidence in his theology had to be shaken in order for the door to open for the gospel to the nations.
Lessons from Paul
Changed forever by his own experience, Saul (Paul) the persecutor became the most prolific writer of scripture in the Christian Bible. The theological knowledge that he had amassed in his life became subject to a higher authority than his own world-class intellect. The apostle Paul learned something that cannot be taught by years of seminary classes: his theology was transformed through the power of humility and the necessity of mystery.
Today, in all our learning and our increased access to theological material, I have found an alarming decrease of humility and mystery in the leaders of the Church. Appreciation for church history has declined massively in the thought process of the current generation of leaders. Adherence to denominational (or non-denominational) expectations has become in many cases the greatest unit of measure for determining who is “in” or “out”. Churches have become personality-driven spiritual entertainment manufacturing companies rather than biblically-based houses of prayer and discipleship. We are often quick to promote leaders without requiring them to demonstrate the character that it takes to handle the enormous responsibility of shepherding the flock of God’s people.
Humility has become a lost art in our society, and I think it is probably a significant reason as to why our churches have in many cases been too weak to ward off the onslaught of cultural forces that have come against our faith in this hour. In this age of self-sufficient human omniscience masquerading as technological advancement, we have lost our sense of dependence on God.
In addition, in a closely related way, it is imperative that we reclaim the element of mystery in our theology today. The only way to get theology right is to have mystery in it – the recognition that the wisdom of humanity cannot even scratch the surface of all that God is. Theology without mystery is like joints without cartilage. It lacks the ability to move and act like the living Being that it represents. As servants of the Lord of heaven and earth, we must suspend our ‘right’ to have answers to every question, and be ok with a God whose knowledge supersedes ours, and who only chooses to partially reveal Himself.
As God Himself declares to us:
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 58:8)
Paul said it this way in his letter to the Corinthian church: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away” (1 Corinthians 13:9-10). Paul was intimately aware even in his later years that he still had theological blind spots. He could not place his confidence in his own understanding, despite his years of training in Jewish theology and the years of embattled experiences and attacks that he faced as an apostle of the fledgling Church.
Whether it is in the revered bastions of intellectual learning, the search engines of instant information, or the spirituality of Charismatic or prophetic expression, my advice is the same: don’t trust overconfident theologians! If someone has a theological concept or end-times eschatology all figured out and tied up confidently with charts and corresponding books, they may be worshipping at the altar of a Golden Calf.
Invitation to Humble Encounter
Theology cannot simply be a spiritual transaction by which we attain vocabulary and understanding that makes our Wikipedia biography look impressive. By doing so, we reduce God to an ATM machine or résumé builder.
On the contrary, the book of James says,
But He gives more grace. Therefore He says:
“God resists the proud,
But gives grace to the humble.”
Therefore submit to God… Draw near to God and He will draw near to you… Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up. (James 4:6-10)
True theology must walk hand in hand with spiritual encounters and spiritual journeys. True theology can only be discovered through humility – the inner posture of living on one’s knees before God – and by a personal commitment to worship a God whose mysteries we cannot fully understand.
From the Jewish community of which Jesus Himself is a part, we learn the perspective that no one is able to confine God in one’s own intellectual corner. For a Jew, truth is not an inactive, institutionalized monument – but the continual process of asking questions that lead to still more questions, on the journey of discovery of the God who created the universe. It is a journey of relationship.
In this technological generation of immediate answers, the litmus test for our theology must be to possess a teachable nature in the midst of the theological constructs that we hold dear to ourselves. If we would embrace a theology that speaks a sure word to the world, we must embrace humility and awareness of the mystery of the God of whom our theology speaks.
May this exhortation from Paul always be before us on our theological journey:
Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him. (1 Corinthians 8:1-3)
The next time you encounter someone who appears to be an overconfident theologian, don’t turn away in disdain. Listen to what is being communicated, as there is most likely some truth that you can glean in that moment. But as you prayerfully search for God’s truth in the midst, let it serve as an ardent reminder to seek the humble path of encountering the Person behind the theology – even as that Person encounters you.