When I started to think through my Christian faith, I would do so in terms of fixed categories. For example, Calvinist or Arminian. The Trinity. Premillennial, Amillenial or Postmillennial. Baptist, Anglican, or Pentecostal. Cessationist or Continuationist and many, many more. These are all systematic categories, and they’re helpful because they help the Church to navigate the often muddied waters of theology (of what to believe and not to believe). This kind of approach to neatly defining the Faith is very Western. Starting with the early church fathers through to the reformation and into the modern age we often (not always) find systematicians heavily influenced by Western categorical approaches to Christianity. Despite the influence of deconstructionism, this has actually been a good thing. Faithful theologians like Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli have used systematics to both guards against heresy and to recover biblical Christianity. However, the use of these sorts of categories has not always been so helpful (at least in my experience.
Throughout my time studying theology and living the Christian life, I have encountered many people who have taken these systematic categories and formed an identity out of it. All of a sudden Calvinism or Arminianism is equated to true Christianity, and anyone else needs to repent and believe. Instead of one Faith, one body, one Spirit, other Christians become second class where they’re ostracised and considered unclean. Tribes within Christianity are formed, and instead of defending the walls, we turn on one another desperate for theological supremacy. Theology in many corners of the Faith has gone from serving the Church to destroying it all because of pride. I admit I have played my own part in this terrible ordeal and as I continue to move past it, I look back, and I can count three main things that helped me shed my theological prejudice and pride:
- Biblical theology
- Jesus’ commands to love others
- The opportunity to love others
For me, biblical theology saved me from possibly years and years of tribalism and systematic theology supremacy. While categories were helpful, I began to learn that the Bible isn’t a systematic textbook. Instead, it’s a narrative leading to Jesus Christ and the salvation of humanity. Sometimes categories like free will, God’s sovereignty, the trinity, and total depravity, while correct weren’t so cut and dry. All of a sudden, I went from neatly coloured boxes to colouring just outside of the lines which actually unified the Scriptures for me better overall than ever before. This is where I began to hold “tensions.” Yes, humanity is totally depraved, yet we have stories such as Noah or Abraham, finding favour in God’s eyes because of their faith. Yes, God is sovereign over every atom and movement throughout history, yet we see God hold people accountable for their own free actions. Things weren’t so neat anymore, and I loved it. It was freeing to not bind myself to any-one camp or tribe instead I now strive to commit myself to biblical Christianity (yes I see the irony in that statement, you gotta draw a line somewhere). Now I have genuine friends whom I love in all sorts of camps that I love to float to and fro from. Which leads me to my next point…
The second thing that saved me from my theological pride was to take the command to love others seriously. This is, an ongoing journey, but until recently, I just hadn’t obeyed this command. For me being an Arminian was more important than loving my Calvinist brothers in Christ. It was more important for me to defend human free will then it was to bear their burdens, to weep with them and to rejoice with them. I thought “if only I could convince them that Jesus really did die for every single person and not just the elect then they’d be better Christians” when in reality what they needed was someone to pray for them and to minister to them in love. God placed one such person in my life that until recently was an ongoing struggle to love and be a brother too. For the longest time, we took every opportunity to one-up each other, to flex our theological minds until the Spirit broke us and bonded us in love. Now we can’t stop talking to one another as we bounce off one another in love for each other’s benefits to the glory of God.
Finally, biblical theology and systematic theology needs one another (sprinkled with a bit of love). Without biblical theology, systematics become rigid, demanding and inflexible. Yet without systematics, biblical theology can easily be led down the path of liberalism. Our categorised theological traditions safeguard the Faith and have done so for thousands of years. So let us study theology to our heart’s content. Let us do so with discernment and wisdom, the love of Christ and a spirit of worship.
The goal of theology is the worship of God. The posture of theology is on one’s knees. The mode of theology is repentance. – Sinclair B. Ferguson