It was May 20th and I was with some men who have been very formative in my own Christian development. I made a flippant remark about it being the end of the world tomorrow (due to the false prediction of Family Radio’s Harold Camping that Jesus would return on May 21st). One of the guys I was with said he saw the hand of Satan in this sideshow which essentially made Christian belief a laughingstock. The other guy I was with said he thought it could be helpful as at least it made the world think about the End Times. All three of us knew that Jesus would not return on May 21st due to the clear teaching of scripture. All three of us were also convinced that Jesus could not return “at any moment” without warning due to Jesus and Paul’s explicit teaching on the “signs” to look for, and therefore thought that the widespread dispensational view which has become popular in the US in the last 100 years (a view didn’t even exist before 1830) that there will be a secret rapture is a terribly misguided deception. However the alternate approaches to wrong theology made me stop and think – Is wrong theology always bad?
In his letter to the Philippians Paul rejoices that some are preaching the Gospel out of envy and rivalry while he is in prison. Does this mean that we should rejoice if people are getting it wrong, no matter what they are saying. I don’t think so, Paul is pretty clear what he thinks about people teaching bad theology – they are false teachers. In Philippians there is no mention of such bad theology just bad motivations so this is a little bit of a red herring – it seems like bad theology is still bad.
My Own Journey of Bad Theology
It is probably germane to this blog to reveal a little of my journey. I grew up in church, the Methodist tradition, the House church tradition (if you can use that word), the Charismatic and the Pentecostal tradition. I was not often challenged to think deeply. In fact it would not be unfair to say in some settings there was a distinctly “anti-intellectual” emphasis and flavor. I can think of numerous occasions where I was told that God was trying to bypass our minds to get to our hearts. I recall someone’s experience where Jesus told him that when he got to heaven God was not going to require of him perfect theology. Being fairly bookish and with a weakness of over analysing things I accepted these challenges as legitimate and I certainly appreciated the challenge to greater heart devotion to the Lord. Despite this however, it still bugged me that if things are wrong, they should be tested and rejected as such, if not we are in danger of succumbing to every wind of teaching and heresy. I really did want to worship God with my mind as well as my heart, my soul and my strength.
Because I grew up in a more Charismatic/Pentecostal setting, I grew increasingly aware of the “orthodox, straight laced heresy hunters” who would point out all the errors not only of the tradition I was a part but the churches which I had visited. The spirit of such guys was always mean and unhelpful. I really think if they lived 400 years ago, they would have been at the front of the line to burn the heretics. Theirs really was the gospel of being right – although not before God, but before the jury of the religious right. All these guys proved to me was that both sides were wrong. They often had a smidgeon of truth in their articles, but mainly it proved they were unloving, unfactual, unrighteous and just plain wrong. But the question remained, will we ever get our theology right and does it even matter.
Which Tradition is Right?
Because of this battle largely between the New Churches and the Reformed Churches, it seemed that many of my friends became confused. What was truth and who decides what truth is and because of such disagreements I have known several friends who have turned to older traditions. To the Eastern Orthodox Church, to the Roman Catholic and to the Anglican Church. While I truly appreciate different traditions and the good things that all traditions can bring to the Body of Christ. All traditions have the same problems; weak and broken people. The reason why many will jump ship to become Orthodox or Catholic is because of the belief in Apostolic Succession. This is a belief that Jesus commissioned His disciples, who commissioned their disciples, who commissioned their disciples in turn. This means the church of today (be it Catholic or Orthodox) can trace their authority back to Jesus and in this way they are authorized as THE true church and in this way they become the arbiter of truth. The evolution of this belief was to counter Gnosticism in the second and third centuries and it was useful then to counter the belief that Jesus had secret disciples with secret teaching. It was useful then, but even then it was at risk of abuse with certain churches falsely claiming an apostolic foundation to increase their prestige and importance. However the belief in Apostolic Succession has outlived its usefulness, it became a power play by about the fourth century and it has remained so. It is not an argument for blind faith in human traditions. All of the guys who claim Apostolic succession are as bad if not worse than the rest of us. Roman Catholics are hugely implicated in anti-Semitism throughout the centuries in addition to large scale child abuse in the last century. The Orthodox are not spotless when it comes to collusion with the Mafia, organized crime and everything that that entails. And the Anglican Church, well I had a Chaplain at College who was evangelistic in his sexual immorality, urging students that a “promiscuous stage” was perfectly normal, while he was very open about his homosexual exploits. All of this has led me to believe that while human traditions are not necessarily good they are also not necessarily bad, but when it is all said and done they can not supersede the word of God.
On the other side of the argument it is important for us to understand that our interpretations of the Bible are not the Bible itself. This should make us less forceful about proving our point, but should not lead us to give up the battle for truth. There are certain points from the scriptures that are as Mark Driscoll so nicely puts it “close handed issues” they are fundamental to our beliefs and the church believed in such things so much that we find them in very ancient creeds and statements of faith, issues such as the divinity and the incarnation of Jesus, The very real problem of sin (and how that is defined), the atoning work of Jesus etc. We must contend for these points as sound doctrine and not back down. While Jesus is not going to ask me if I had perfect theology when I meet him. I think he will have some things to say if I redefine “sin” as “not sin”. That said other theological points are a little more open handed. While I love my reformed brothers commitment to the Bible, I cannot accept their view on Predestination which creates a view of God which I find untrue to scripture. These open handed issues do not put in jeopardy the salvation of an individual.
So in conclusion, I believe bad theology is always wrong and we should strive for sound doctrine. Did Harold Camping’s bad theology matter? Well it certainly did to the duped guys who spent their life savings on advertising the end of the world, and on a wider scale it proved to a wider audience (including Christians) that those who talk about eschatology are kind of crazy. Considering that much of the bible is concerned with eschatology, this is not a little worrying. Having said this I think we must all be humble enough to accept the fact we will all have some bad theology be it in thought or in action (yes, how we act does reflect what we believe). But let us not give up the fight: there is absolute truth and that absolute truth is found in the Bible, but the Body of Christ at large needs one another to encourage us in our weaknesses, so that when it is all said and done, the body of Christ will come to maturity.