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Heretical Thoughts On Doctrine

So, with some guys on Wednesday nights we’re going through the book Doctrine by Mark Driscoll. I’m actually just listening to the podcast, but Marky Mark does a good job of cogently and very concisely explaining many important concepts in systematic theology. I don’t want to criticize his book. The group of guys I meet with are great and I really enjoy our time together. I love the Scriptures. It’s just that the older I get, the less of a point systematic theology seems to have.

I think that systematic theology has a good heart behind it. I myself have read and talked for hundreds of hours on concepts that come out of that way of looking at the Bible. I am even tempted to use that tool of interpretation as the primary way I draw out the meaning of Scripture. It is a really easy, simple, and pragmatic way to do theology. All you have to do is search the Bible to figure out what it says about different concepts and then define those concepts using all the Scriptures that talk about them. The Bible then becomes a book of true concepts and it is our job as interpreters to discover what the true truth is. It’s quite clean, straightforward, and allows a lot of debate. A part of me loves all these things, but when I have the humility to be honest, I believe it has some big flaws

For all of its focus on the text, it separates us from the text. By grabbing a verse over here, a passage over there, and combining all these different things throughout the Bible that are said about a particular concept in order to define that concept, we end up with a definition that is actually quite distant from what each text on its own was saying. I’ll use the trinity as an example. Let’s say we gather some words from Genesis, the words of Jesus, the gospels, and some words of Paul together that are about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We take these separate individual verses and use them to develop and explicate a systematically defined concept of a 3 in 1 God. But the central messages of these passages and the verses within the passages probably is not to define the Trinitarian nature of our divine being. We can easily miss the point of Scriptures by choosing to make up our own point. If YHWH had thought it was really important that we have a clean and crystal clear definition of how He was actually three persons, He probably would have made sure one was contained in the Scriptures.

Systematic theology is a great tool for division and exclusion. It is concept driven theology that is often a point of division in churches. I’m all for having a lot of different churches and different ways of expressing faithful worship to Jesus, but unity amongst those churches despite differing ideas about specifics is ideal. But churches and denominations often split with some ferocity toward the other because one group believes one thing is true about a particular systematic concept and another group believes something else is true about a particular systematic concept. Both are right and justified because they can prove systematically how Scripture evidences what they believe. When the doctrine of the trinity was being discussed amongst the scholars, they decided that God was three distinct persons that made up the one. One group, the modalists, believed that God was just one person who functioned as if He was three distinct persons but was actually one. They were excluded and written off as wrong. I’m not convinced by Modalist arguments, but does it really have a dramatic effect on the redemption of their lives? It doesn’t seem that useful for doing teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training that all lead to righteousness. The fact that God is three in one does not have much of an effect on my life. That concept doesn’t change me, convict me, transform me, or encourage me. So, because God is three persons we know He is relational… the rest of Scripture has already made that reality unmissable. Does reading 40 pages on the Biblical idea that God reveals Himself generally through His creation and specially through direct interaction with people help me become more righteous? I believe it’s true, but is it really all that important to our pursuit of Jesus to discover what a truly systematically biblical concept of God’s revelation is? If it is vital to know the truth about these doctrinal ideas, then why didn’t God write the seminal work on systematic theology instead of this crazy book by crazy authors with crazy stories?

We can lose the story doing systematic theology. When the goal of interpreting Scripture is the discovery of the correct concepts, we miss something. In the first year of my Jesus following, I really just wanted to read Paul and proverbs because both of them seemed to have straightforward ideas laid out in a simple, logical, conceptual format. When I read stories, I read them to try to find the intellectual concept behind the story, because obviously the point of the story was gleaning a logical truth about God-reality from them. But, while I think the stories are meant to convey something true, they weren’t meant to be simplified to being a proof text for a theological idea. They convey truth in a different way and their manner of conveying truth is important to actually understanding that truth. When we lose the stories by making them into evidences of true concepts, we lose the truth. The way we do systematic theology rarely treats the story of God’s word with honor and reverence. That’s really the core of why it bothers me.

  1. February 6, 2011 at 4:01 am

    Heretic! Let’s burn him at the stake!… Jeremiah, this is one of the many reasons I love you. You make me think. You challenge me. I appreciate you brother. And your provocative heretical blog entries worthy of excommunication 😉

  2. February 6, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Thank you. It’s my great joy to write about the silly things that go on in my head and heart. You’re inspiring.

  3. David C. Miller
    February 6, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    While I understand and appreciate the exhortation to not miss the forest for the trees, saying Systematic Theology is being too ‘nitpicky’ about the Trinity is silly. The unity of the church flows from unity in doctrine. You may consider some of those doctrinal differences to be small and of no consequence, but…the Trinity? Really? Reaaalllly? The lines leading from the Trinity to Christology and Soteriology seem super-clear to me.

    Who is that guy up there on the cross? What’s he doing there? If he’s just a human, why should I care? If he’s not a human, how is he related to me? If he’s indistinct from the Father and the Spirit, why even bother with this whole relationship between the Father and the Son, and the Son and the Spirit in the first place? What does the Father do? What does the Son do? What does the Spirit do?

  4. February 6, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    🙂 I truly appreciate you for bringing stuff like this up. I don’t think I said systematic theology was nitpicky about the Trinity. I’m not anti-doctrine. I think doctrine is great. But the standard for how it is done is through systematic theology. I don’t think that’s helpful, although I do think a systematic manner of interpretation has benefits and is not necessarily inherently harmful.
    Yes, the trinity, really, really. If some person or group of people looks at Scripture and thinks, “hey, the Lord our God the Lord is one,” and because of this thought take an honest look at Scripture and think that its necessary to see God as one, I’m okay with that. If they think that God isn’t three distinct persons but is one who functions in three different ways with humanity that makes it seem like He is three persons, I think that they’re okay. If they think that, because of our subjective infinitude, we don’t really get how the Lord can be one and still function the way he does in Scripture and so the authors talk about three different beings being ]tantamount to God but really do so in only order to describe a reality that otherwise wouldn’t make sense, I believe they can still love God and trust His word. I think that if it was necessary to have such a clearly defined and well articulated definition of the trinity, God would have inspired a Biblical author to insert one. But I don’t see one. Perhaps I need to read more Scripture.
    I agree to a point that to some degree doctrine brings unity, but, in my idealistic mind, it better not be similar beliefs about reality and similar faith in a God we perceive similarly that form our strongest bonds. I hope that our primary source of unity is not ultimately our doctrine. My hope is that our separate relationship with the same God will be what brings unity with one another. I want our unity to come from a network of interrelationships all revolving around our most Beloved mutual acquaintance. And I think there is some room for error in how we perceive of that Being of Love. We can still know and be intimate with someone we do not fully understand. I think that can unify.
    Your questions are important. I do think that most of them can be answered with a cursory reading of the Gospels and Acts and do not require a systematic approach to the Trinity to answer. Perhaps I’m wrong.
    Live Loved.

  1. February 5, 2011 at 5:55 pm

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