Friday, June 17, 2005

Boasting in What Should Make Us Humble

Skip the last pages of a novel and you're left clueless. You don't know how the story ends and what ultimately becomes of the characters whose lives you've followed throughout the book. Reference works are different. Especially when each chapter is a self-contained unit, there's not as much at stake if you choose not to read the three to four page wrap-up at the end.
Last night I was reading about the final states of the righteous and the wicked in the second edition of Millard Erickson's Christian Theology. Upon completing that section I noticed the title of the next and final chapter - "Concluding Thoughts." I had more studying to do in other volumes and I didn't think I'd find anything in those few pages that would be of aid so I was close to closing the book. I'm so glad I didn't. In my opinion, the content of this chapter should have been put up front. Erickson discusses the importance of ideas, describes the relationship between orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right conduct), and shows how theology is integral to appreciating God's grandeur. He also warns of the dangers associated with the study of theology:
There are certain theological diseases to which one is exposed and which one may contract as a result of this endeavor. Helmut Thielicke has described several of them quite vividly in his Little Exercise for Young Theologians. One of the most common and most serious is the sin of pride. When we have acquired a considerable sophistication in matters of theology, there is a danger that we will regard that knowledge as something of a badge of virtue, something that sets us apart as superior to others. We may use that knowledge, and particularly the jargon we have acquired, to intimidate others who are less informed. We may take advantage of our superior skills, becoming intellectual bullies. Or our knowledge of theology may lead us to a type of theological gamesmanship, in which the arguing of one theory against another becomes our whole purpose in life. But this is to convert what should be the most serious of matters into a sport (p. 1251).
Usually, the ultimate end of playing a game is to win - to beat one's competitors thereby proving superiority and gaining acclaim. The proper goal of theological education (whether formal or not) should be to become a better worshiper of the triune Lord and a better lover of fellow image bearers. If my study of theology doesn't lead to greater conformity to the character of Christ, if what drives me is the desire to amass weapons of theological destruction to improve my "record," something is seriously wrong. Debate is necessary, to be sure. Jesus' followers have a divine mandate to contend earnestly for the faith and to refute doctrinal error. There's no doubting that. But we must guard our hearts with all diligence in the process. I will never outgrow the need for reminders such as Erickson's.

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