In J.I. Packer’s 1973 classic Knowing God, he pointed 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 that of theology. Our calling is to know God and if we deny that responsibility then we deny what it means to be Christian.
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, etc.—but they do not have a relationship with him. This could be described as a cultural theology but 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, reveals the loving nature of the parent. Experience only confirms this knowledge and this produces trust, which in turn fosters obedience.
Others may take very seriously the study of the President and his office, its history, legal powers, etc. 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.
A proper biblical theology, that every follower of Christ should pursue, is one which seeks to know the character and nature 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. How can one successfully live in the world without knowing about the One whose world it is and who runs it?
In John 17:3, Jesus provides the best definition of theology – he equates knowledge of God (which is theology’s ultimate goal) with Eternal Life. Here Eternal Life is not our merely our experience after death, but a life lived now qualitatively different to our old lives and the lives of those around us. A life we do not yet fully experience but one which mirrors the depth to which we know God; the greater our knowledge of God, so the more abundant is our experience of Eternal Life.
In recent weeks I have tried to offer critical analysis and a thoughtful theological 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 personal feelings or culturally induced ways of thinking, which they attempt to validate by 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.” (2Cor 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 their assertions rather than a systematic approach to theology, which considers the whole of Scripture. 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 is to ignore the 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 points out, in individualized Western culture, we hear Paul’s teaching about our being members of Christ in precisely the wrong way. For many Westerners [and apparently the critic above] a “member” is a person who merely belongs to something like a debating club or a political party. The member in this sense is a collection of individuals who happen to have joined the 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 this illustration 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 their inadequate theology, remains for now, resolute in their individualism and thus will not submit to the biblical admonitions to do otherwise. Because they lack theological protection (armor) from the culture, modern individualism has, for them, replaced biblical community as the medium responsible 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 co-workers, relatives and friends. However, the individual inevitably fails at some point and thus Christianity is seen to fail. By holding hands and living as disciplined congregations, we have a much better chance of offering 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.
© 2008 by S. Michael Craven
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S. Michael Craven is the founder and President of the Center for Christ & Culture. 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 recapture and demonstrate the relevance of Christianity to all of life. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, additional resources and other works by S. Michael Craven visit: www.battlefortruth.org
Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.