Monday, February 17, 2014

Deciding What is Really Important in Theology

Theology is one of those mysterious, challenging, and often difficult to understand topics in the church. It is a topic that has the potential to inflame passions and divide believers, often creating more heat than light. At the same time, it is a vital and crucial subject. Theology proper is, after all, what one believes about God. From that flows general theology, which is all the rest of what we believe related to who God is and what he has revealed about the world, mankind, Jesus Christ, and the future, to name just a few.

Because theology is so important, many of us take it very seriously. The fact of our seriousness about theology – even to the point of inflamed passions and divided believers – is not always a bad thing. It is, after all, good and right to determine, with conviction, what the Bible teaches and commit ourselves to it. Contrary to the old World Council of Churches dictum that “doctrine divides, service unites” the problem is not with doctrine, per se.

The truth is that doctrine does define. It defines who we are and establishes a framework for ministry in the world. But our problem is not with doctrine. It seems to me that our problem is with thinking that every doctrine is equally worth fighting over. In fact, I used to be just that way. I thought that doctrine had to be a seamlessly integrated system, with no room for divergence. When I found someone who disagreed with me over an area of doctrine, I would argue at length to convince them of how wrong they were.

That all changed when I read a piece by Dr. Al Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Mohler’s piece described doing “theological triage;” a process by which Christians could determine which doctrines were indispensable as opposed to those in which honest disagreement was within the bounds of orthodoxy. I learned a lot by reading about that concept, specifically the fact that I had argued about way too much doctrine in my life. (You can read Dr. Mohler's piece here. He also wrote on the subject in A Theology for the Church, ed. by Dr. Danny Akin.)

For those who have never read about theological triage, I will do my best to represent the idea here. I do not pretend to have developed this idea, nor do I represent myself as describing Dr. Mohler’s position, although I will use his terms. The examples I will use are my own (to the best of my memory) and can best be described as my “takeaways” from reading and reflecting on the issue over the last few years.

Theological triage is an attempt to assign levels of seriousness to theological concepts; similar to the way in which medical triage assigns levels of seriousness (or, urgency) to medical conditions. A hangnail is not as serious as a heart attack. The hiccups are not a stroke. However, our tendency is to treat all theological issues (or at least our favorite doctrines) as if they are equally non-negotiable.

Using theological triage one can divide beliefs into three categories: dogma, doctrine, and debatable. Dogma describes those beliefs which define Christianity apart from other religions. They are the beliefs that, if absent, Christianity ceases to be Christianity. I would place the doctrine of God – including belief in the Trinity – at the forefront of dogma. Also included would be the full humanity and deity of Jesus Christ, the inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of Scripture, and justification by faith alone. If any of those core beliefs are missing your doctrine is not consistent with historic, orthodox Christianity. In fact, it is not Christianity.

The second category is doctrine. I realize that is a little confusing since the overarching term for all these beliefs could be called doctrine. Here I mean doctrine that is unique in defining Christians from one another. Dogma distinguishes Christian as opposed to non-Christian beliefs. Doctrine distinguishes Baptist from Presbyterian or Methodist beliefs. Committed Christians who agree at the level of dogma can (and often do) disagree on this level of beliefs. Issues such as infant baptism, women serving as pastors, and church polity are examples at this level.

The final category can be called debatable. Debatable means exactly what you think: these are issues that Christians disagree on, and often do so in the same congregation. The debatable category is different from the doctrine category in that disagreement on these issues can happen within a congregation. I think, for example, of eschatological issues (i.e. the end times). Within the same congregation amillenialists, dispensational premillenialists, historic premillenialists and even postmillennialists can worship, serve, engage in missions and evangelism, all while disagreeing over the specifics of Jesus’ return. The details of soteriology (i.e. Calvinist vs. Arminian), type of worship, Charismatic gifts, and the like are issues that disagreement does not need to destroy fellowship.

My experience has been that the fiercest debates rage over issues at this third level. That is incredibly sad. It need not be that way. Rather than divide over honestly debatable issues, believers need to accept one another with love and understanding and agree to disagree over such issues. I am learning to do that more and more each day. Every time I learn something that helps me know Jesus better from someone who does not dot all their “i’s” or cross all their “t’s” exactly the way I do. I pray that God would grant us greater courage to hold matters of dogma with unwavering conviction, matters of doctrine with great commitment, and matters that are debatable with tremendous charity. 

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