The Great Evangelical Divide: Part 1 of 2

The study of theology does not equal relationship with God any more than than the study of a person equals relationship with that person. I’m pretty sure some of you just cheered a rousing, “amen,” after that first sentence, while others of you just went on high alert, your hackles got all… hackled, and you have just entered into your best ninja fighting crouch. All I ask is that before you assume I am on one side or another, please allow me the opportunity to encourage and exhort (or, depending on how it goes, alienate and offend) both sides before you pass judgement.

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A picturesque divide on the Island of Hawaii.

There is a great and- I would argue- illegitimate divide within the Evangelical Church today. A schism that if left unchecked will continue to eat away at our witness and stifle our worship. In almost every church I have been a part of (not to mention Christian College, seminary, discipleship program, etc.) the debate always seems to come up between learning about God and experience of God, between truth and unity, between head and heart and Word and Spirit, etc. Rarely, if ever, does either side of this debate think they are proposing an either/or scenario, rather they believe they are seeking a good balance, or right ordering of priorities. However, in an effort to make their case, both sides often talk past one another, almost as if speaking different dialects of the same language, and so using words in a way that completely throws the other party for a loop. I am not sure if I can avoid this language barrier here, but here goes….

First off, let me lay all my cards on the table. I love theology! I am student, practitioner, and, at times, teacher of theology. If I am not talking about theology, I am probably reading about it, if I am not reading about it, I am probably thinking about it (or I’m watching a movie… I do like movies….). To be honest, I find it ironic- and somewhat humorous- when I hear Christians saying they do not like theology. I do not believe it is possible to be a Christian and truly dislike theology (generally when a believer says that they do not like theology what they mean is they do not like a certain aspect of, or perspective on, theology). Many believers think that somehow theology gets in the way of real relationship with God. But is that really the case? I do not think so. Theology is, according to Webster’s, “the study of God and of God’s relation to the world.” So, for a Christian to say, “I love God, but not theology,” would be akin to a husband saying, “I love my wife, but don’t want to know anything about her.”

I am turning forty this January and for the last couple months my wife has been asking me what I would like to do for this milestone birthday. A couple weeks ago the subject came up again, but this time she asked, “babe, would you like to go to San Diego Comic Con this Summer for your birthday present?” Words can hardly express what I felt in that moment… my inner nerd (Who am I kidding? My outer nerd!) was doing back flips. Not only did my wife know me, she was willing to celebrate this knowledge of me for my birthday! I love that my wife knows enough about me and loves me (perhaps in spite of that knowledge… remember all analogies break down) so much that she would even make such an offer!

Growth in theology is growth in knowledge about God. It is a necessary- and hopefully very exciting- part of our relationship with Him! Theology deeply affects how we see God the Father, how we understand the Person and work of Christ, and how we experience the work of the Holy Spirit. Depending on my theology I may have a right or wrong (better or worse, etc.) view of God’s love and justice, mercy and wrath, grace and law. But… but… it is not the end-all-be-all of our relationship with God! In the words of Greg Dutcher, “theology is not an end in itself. It is simply a window to the awe-inspiring universe of God’s truth, filled with glory, beauty, and grace” (‘Killing Calvinism: How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology’). I love that! Theology is the window, or lens, through which we glimpse and begin to comprehend the glorious revelation of God in His Word, through the Person and Work of Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Christian & Missionary Alliance pastor, A. W. Tozer, was no stranger to this struggle. In his classic book, ‘The Pursuit of God,’ he spoke to both sides of this argument when he wrote, “Sound Bible exposition is an imperative ‘must’ in the church of the living God. Without it no church can be a New Testament church in any strict meaning of that term. But exposition may be carried on in such way as to leave the hearers devoid of any true spiritual nourishment whatever. For it is not mere words that nourish the soul, but God himself, and unless and until the hearers find God in personal experience they are not the better for having heard the truth. The Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God.”

That being said, I think part of the reason why so many Bible believing, Jesus loving, Spirit indwelt believers, have such an aversion to the study of theology is that they have seen it presented- more often then not- as the end of, and not a means to strengthen, our relationship with Christ. On this point, I must concede that all too often we theological types, we students of Calvin, Bavnick, Machen, and Sproul, can tend to get so caught up arguing over the trees of doctrinal peculiarity, we miss the forest of our shared relationship with God in Christ.

Conversely, we relational types (and yes, I put myself squarely in both camps…) can tend to be so focused on our shared experience of God, that we do not stop to realize that certain trees do not belong in this forest and that certain vines- if allowed to continue growing- may choke out the healthy trees. So, while one group cannot get past the Oak tree in the middle of the forest, they are so in awe of its size and beauty, the other group is in danger of getting a bad case of poison ivy, while dining on berries that will eventually make them sick. Sadly, both of these groups are wandering separately through a forest that they were created to enjoy together. Instead of being encouraged and enriched by one another, they stand at a distance staring suspiciously at each other and wondering if the other will ever really “get it.”

Is there a way for both of these camps to come together? Can knowledge of God and experience of God, head and heart, Word and Spirit be joined in our worship of God? Can this false- but very painful- dichotomy that exists within the Evangelical Church be healed? I believe the answer is- and must be- a resounding, “yes!”

We’ll pick up this “yes” next Monday. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

-Soli Deo Gloria

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One thought on “The Great Evangelical Divide: Part 1 of 2

  1. Pingback: The Great Evangelical Divide: Part 2 of 2 | Reflections on Truth in Love

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