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Personal theologies: All God's chillun have one
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Personal theologies:
All God's chillun have one

Brian Knowles
By Brian Knowles
Mr. Knowles, former managing editor of The Plain Truth, published by the Worldwide Church of God, makes his living as a writer. This article is part of his "Out of the Box" series of columns.

MONROVIA, Calif.--John Adams, second U.S. president, signer of the Declaration of Independence, considered a career in theology. But he abandoned the idea. Of theology he said:

"I perceived very clearly, as I thought, that the study of theology, and the pursuit of it as a profession, would involve me in endless altercations, and make my life miserable, without any prospect of doing any good to my fellow man" (quoted by Norman Cousins in In God We Trust, p. 77).

Adams had a point. What good does theology do anyone? Has theology made the world a better place?

I see little evidence that it has.

Of course, a lot depends on how you define theology. Theology has been called faith seeking understanding. It is also the study of or reasoned discourse about God.

Formal theology, like the study of medicine, is divided into a myriad of specialties, each a world unto itself. The findings and fulminations of formal theology rarely filter down to ordinary church members.

Rather, theological discussions happen in the rarified atmosphere of academia where high-domed theologians throw esoteric jargon at each other until one side buries the other in obscure polysyllables.

We need our scholars

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying esoteric discussions should not take place. The study of God is a fascinating, gripping, vitally important one. The more we know about God, the better we understand the universe.

The church should celebrate, encourage and support its scholars. They help the rest of us comprehend what it means to be a Christian in our time--or any time, for that matter.

From the death of Jesus' original apostles to the present, the church has embroiled itself in internecine controversies, many of which have proven fatal to the participants. We see, even within the Churches of God Pod, "endless altercations." Participating in them can only make one miserable.

Levels of understanding

As I've written in earlier columns, theology takes place at three levels: the academic, the pastoral and the level of ordinary church members.

Ordinary church members cannot be expected to hack their way through the overwhelmingly dense thicket of theological machinations in an effort to find the pearl of great price.

For the most part, church members rely on their pastors to clue them in to "the truth." Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. The net result is that every Christian has, whether we admit or not, his own personal theology. It cannot be otherwise. One would have to be terminally stupid simply to sign on the dotted line of any denominational or cultic doctrinal package. That would be irresponsible in the extreme, especially in light of Paul's admonition: "Test everything. Hold on to the good ..." (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

Theology by osmosis

When we come to God in the first place, we are often blank slates, theologically speaking. We know little about Him. Most of our feelings and opinions about Him are subjective or inherited from relatives and friends.

This mentality often results in theology by osmosis. Had the truth of God been perfectly preserved without complication from the first century to the present, that might be an acceptable way to go. But it's not that simple.

Why not just the Holy Spirit?

The documents of the original church were written nearly 2,000 years ago in another language. To apprehend the truth held by the first believers in Yeshua, we must build a bridge of scholarship from that time to ours.

That process, unfortunately for some, often involves theologians and scholars.

I realize that some take exception to the idea that theologians are even needed. Didn't Jesus teach that all that is necessary to understand the truth is the Holy Spirit? (John 16:12-13). Why, then, do we need scholars, exegetes and hermeneutical rules (rules of interpretation)?

Of course, many of the people who sincerely believe that all they need is the Holy Spirit arrive at differing conclusions about the same issues. Why is that? Does the Spirit of God lead us in multiple, contradictory directions? How do we know which authority is truly led by the Holy Spirit?

We have some 5,400 extant fragments of copies of original documents. They fall within four families: Alexandrian, Caesarean, Western and Byzantine. Scholars must compare these thousands of manuscript copies and fragments to determine the "original" text.

There is also good evidence that fiddling with texts has taken place to accommodate emerging doctrine, as described in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, by Bart D. Ehrman.

Professor Ehrman explains the purpose of his book in the opening paragraph of his introduction:

"My thesis can be stated simply: scribes occasionally altered the words of their sacred texts to make them more patently orthodox and to prevent their misuse by Christians who espoused aberrant views" (p. xi).

We need scholars to help us understand which copies of texts are indeed accurate and complete. We need them to help us translate texts from their original languages into our own, and every translation is an interpretation.

Paul believed we need to study to gain God's approval (2 Timothy 2:15). The word study here is translated from the Greek spoudazo, meaning to "be zealous or eager, take pains, make every effort" (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, by Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, p. 763; this reference work is commonly known as BAG).

The highest form of worship

In Judaism, study was often viewed as the highest form of worship, not something to be discounted and denigrated. Great Torah scholars, like Jesus Himself, were to be admired and respected.

Professor David Flusser, an Orthodox Jew, wrote of Jesus: "Jesus was part and parcel of the world of the Jewish Sages. He was no ignorant peasant, and his acquaintance with the Written and Oral Law was considerable" (Jewish Sources in Early Christianity, pp. 18-19).

Jesus, like other Jewish sages, taught His talmidim--His students or disciples--well. Just as Paul had studied at the feet of the great sage Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), the apostles had studied at the feet of an even greater than Gamaliel, Yeshua Himself.

Those who heard them could tell that they had been with Jesus simply because it was clear that, though they were not members of the scholarly class, they, like Jesus, had an uncanny ability to set forth God's redemptive plan. Not only were they filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8) but Jesus had personally taught them.

Before we move on, let's explore a couple of the Greek words used in Acts 4:13. The first is translated in the KJV "unlearned."

Not doctors but good writers

In Greek the word is agrammatos. According to the most authoritative Greek lexicon (BAG), in this context the word means "lacking in expertise concerning the law." The word can mean "unable to write, illiterate."

In other words, Peter and John were not scribes or doctors of the law, yet they were by no means ignorant. Both wrote their own books, none of which is badly written.

The second word is translated "ignorant." It is from the Greek idiotes. This word means "layman, amateur in contrast to experts or specialists. An untrained man" (BAG, p. 37c).

That Jesus' disciples came from the Galilee is no proof of their ignorance. Professor David Flusser writes: "Contrary to popular notions today, the inhabitants of this district [Galilee] were not rude back-woodsmen" (Jesus, p. 46)

As Christians, we can and should learn from Jesus Himself (Acts 28:20) and from His apostles (Acts 2:42). Yet between their teachings and our understanding lies a vast army of "Church Fathers," creeds, scholars, preachers, denominational leaders and fellow Christians, dead and alive.

Each of us must sift through the mountain of doctrines, dogmas, creeds, understandings, arguments, claims, catechisms, denominational statements of belief, church constitutions and interdenominational bickering and somehow determine what "the truth" is.

Good luck! You've got your work cut out for you. So far, in nearly two millennia of Christianity, no one has successfully accomplished this herculean task.

Ultimately all of us who try wind up with a personal theology that is the distilled essence of all of our studying, praying, comparing, sifting, weighing, reading, thinking and wrestling.

Three things, yea two

Many years ago my friend and mentor, David Jon Hill, used to say to me in the midst of the internal chaos that characterized the old WCG, "Brian, there are three things that I know: God exists, the Bible is His Word, and this is His church."

Later he revised that down to the first two tenets. As I've written before, I don't believe "the true church" can be identified denominationally or organizationally. But truth itself can be detected wherever it flourishes.

The key to recognizing it is to become intimately familiar with the teachings of Jesus and His original apostles. The more we study them against the Jewish background in which they lived and functioned, the better we'll understand their legacy--and the more valid our personal theologies will become.

As much as we'd like to cop out and buy into someone else's theological package, we are faced with the need to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).

As an exercise in clarification, ask yourself: What do I know for sure? Upon which doctrinal hills am I willing to die? What beliefs and practices would I go to the wall for? What's real and what's not? What have I proven, and what do I merely suspect to be true? What's worth clinging to in the face of persecution? What things are nonnegotiable? What things will I take to the grave with me?

Remember John Adams' caveats about the pursuit of theology. If it makes you miserable or others miserable, something's wrong. Truth shouldn't make us miserable; it should set us free (John 8:32). If it leads only to endless altercations and theological arguments with others, it's not worth pursuing.

Sooner or later the Lord will bring us together in perfect doctrinal harmony. In the meantime, we are responsible to Him for our spiritual journey through life.

Then think about John Adams' other thought about theology. It is, he wrote, "without any prospect of doing good to my fellow man."

It is far more important to do good than merely to go around knowing things. As Paul said, knowledge puffs up, but love edifies (1 Corinthians 8:1).

Grow your theology

Everything life throws at us is a test. The more we arm ourselves with the knowledge of God, the better we can pass those tests and help others pass them.

Ideas have consequences. We should be zealous, not reluctant, to expel bad ideas as rapidly as possible. Why cling to theological detritus?

President Adams was describing the theological life as it is often practiced, not as it should be conducted. If it makes us miserable, leads to endless altercations and does no good, it's not cool, kosher or legit. It's bogus.

Let's close this discussion with the wise words of Jesus' half brother (from James 3:13-18, NIV):

"Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

"But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.

"Such wisdom does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.

"For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

"But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure, then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

"Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness."

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