Minding the Iotas

“Theology is unimportant. It’s more important that we focus on people’s hearts. That’s the real work of the gospel.”

There you have it. It’s a simple statement, a simple argument. With a wave of the hand it brushes aside your passion for an area of theology, for accuracy in theology. It makes you out to be a kind of spiritual curmudgeon for caring about something so dry and harmful to faith as theology. It claims that you are arguing about how many angels dance on the heads of pins while there are needy people in the world. In the end, under this argument you are summarily dismissed as a person who is harmful to the ‘actual’ gospel. I am startled and saddened by how often I encounter this opinion.

Expanded, the accusation is this: that a focus on accurate theology cripples faith and turns seekers away from the faith. It claims that the details of theology are unimportant to the mission of the Church, and indeed are opposed to that mission (i.e., the ‘real work’ of reaching people’s hearts). Under the aegis of this kind of thinking, a person (like Jefferson Bethke) who speaks passionately is excused for speaking inaccurately.

There are two responses (broadly) to an argument such as this. The first response is to point out that the argument is itself a theology. It is a structured way of thinking about God. The problem, however, it is that it is a theology of ignorance. Consider this: if I were to tell you to “Stop thinking!” I wouldn’t actually be telling you to cease all thought; rather, I would be telling you to think a certain way. I am telling you to think the way I want you to think. In the same way, this argument isn’t actually against ‘theology,’ it is rather the proposal of a different theology—one that ignores the details and ‘gets the work done’ (whatever that means). In laziness or apathy it spurns the difficult work of real theology (which seems immaterial) in favor of what it perceives as real value. It argues that we should exchange good theology for sloppy theology.

Consider it this way for a moment. Imagine that you are supervising a building project and have two builders under you. One builder carefully attends to and follows the blueprints. The other builder looks at the outline on the page and wings it. Whose building is more likely to turn out right? Which building is likely to fail? Of what value is ‘getting the work done’ if it is done in ignorance of the blueprint? Thus, we should no more celebrate the ignorance of sloppy theology than we would celebrate the sloppiness of a builder—quite the opposite, I suspect we would fire such a builder altogether!

The second response to this argument is this: theology matters. It really matters.

To illustrate just how much it matters, let’s consider together one of the most famous debates in Christian history. It is a debate that centers on one, tiny little letter. When the early church was working out its orthodox understanding of how God the Father and Christ the Son interact, they introduced a specific term. They said that Christ was homoousios (of the same substance) with God the Father, meaning that they were both, equally, and fully God. But an opposing opinion voiced by the Arian heretics claimed that Christ was not homoousios but homoiousios (of a similar substance)—in other words, that Christ was not God, but very like God. The only difference between the two words (homoousios/homoiousios) is that tiny little ‘i’—called an Iota.

We can look at this debate, and, in the spirit of the argument which opened this discussion, dismiss this as a pointless, divisive quibble over a letter i. Why should the Church divide, they ask, over something so trivial? Why should we disagree about something so meaningless? But is it really meaningless? I am enlightened here by Baron Friedrich von Hügel’s assessment of the debate. He challenges us to consider, for a moment, a string of zeroes—000,000. Now consider a string of zeroes with a small hash mark at the front of them—1,000,000. To one person the only difference is that little mark—“It’s merely a stroke” they say. But to a banker, or even more to an account holder, that little ‘1’ makes all the difference in the world. Theology is the same way. The iotas matter. They aren’t incidental. And to dismiss theological debate as unhelpful on those grounds is an opinion that is birthed from pure ignorance and folly.

After all, it makes the greatest difference in the world if Jesus is God or not. If he is God, then he is worthy of our worship and praise, of our adoration and following. But if he is not… well, then he was a liar or a lunatic. Certainly not someone worth sacrificing your life for.

Let’s consider again the particular claims of the argument for ignorance: Does such theology cripple faith? Far from it! Faith is built on theology such as this. Does it keep seekers away? Not likely, because those who come to faith will know Who it is they are believing. Does theology stand in the way of God’s mission? Heavens no! Theology is the blueprint for God’s mission! Does theology cripple the work of reaching people’s hearts? Of course not! What is the point of reaching hearts if you reach them with a falsehood? What is the motive of Christian action if it is not a right understanding of Who God is and what He does?

So the next time someone tells you that theological words don’t matter, that you’re quibbling over details, that you’re crippling faith and God’s mission in the world, that passion matters more than accuracy, remember that that person has no idea what they’re talking about. Oh, and remember to mind your iotas. They matter a great deal.

26 comments on “Minding the Iotas

  1. Agreed. Perhaps there’s a third builder who would rather argue about the blueprints than every getting around to building anything? Not at all advocating we abandon or even neglect the blueprint, but I also see a danger of a theology that doesn’t build anything.

    We seem to have a propensity to separate the theologians (thinkers) and pastors (doers), but it seems we need more pastor-theologians.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hey Steve–thanks for your comment. As I say more elaborately below, I don’t think there is any such thing as a theology without praxis. To continue the metaphor, the blueprint demands a builder to follow it. And to continue the metaphor again, a builder who spent his days looking at the blueprints only will be fired just as the one who builds without attending to the blueprint.

      I think we separate thinking and doing in almost everything we do. But in the Gospel there is only one thing: being in Christ–and that is both a thinking and a doing at the same time.

  2. Jeff Fuller says:

    Agree with Steve. We need to be both knowledgeable AND active, wise AND passionate. I doubt you’d argue with that, so to the actual debate at hand, I would only venture that if we HAD to be either one or the other, I don’t think there’s much question that God would rather have us be doers without understanding than understanders without action. We may not understand WHY we must love our neighbor, but there it is in black and white. The command, the action, can be followed to a good extent without understanding. Its scope, its meaning, its impact will almost certainly be increased by understanding, but that’s the next level, not the thing itself, which is what I would generally understand theology to be. Though he had plenty of negative and innaccurate things to say about the chuch, I do like this quote by Voltaire. “Is there anyone among you – is there someone on earth who thinks that God will judge him on points of theology and not upon his actions? It is quite evident that you must be virtuous whether the Holy Spirit proceeds out of the Father by spiration or proceeds from the Father and the Son. It is not less evident that you will never comprehend a proposition of this kind. You will never have the slightest notion of how Jesus had two natures and two wills in one person. If he had wanted you to know, he would have told you.”

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Jeff, you say “I don’t think there’s much question that God would rather have us be doers without understanding than understanders without action.”

      But this is clearly a false and unbiblical division. In no place in scripture can the Christian beliefs be accurately separated from the Christian way of living–they are all one piece. I am reminded of something that Kazoh Kitamori says: “Theology is a witness to the gospel.” And the gospel is our whole way of living, not merely our thinking. No true Christian can separate the two–and any such separation is heresy.

      To state this more clearly, inaction is not an option in matters of faith. If you believe it, you are doing something. And I believe that all true action stems from belief. We believe, therefore we do. That doesn’t mean (as you seem to imply) that we need to know perfectly in order to do–obviously we begin to do as we begin to believe, and our doing is modified by our increasing belief. But in no place is action praised qua action.

      As a scriptural example, consider Luke 14:28-30, where the man who builds a tower is considered a fool for not having planned properly. It is not a question of whether or not he will act, it is a question of whether or not his actions have been thought out. I think the application of that passage here is appropriate.

      • Jeff Fuller says:

        Ok, I’m done.

      • Jeff Fuller says:

        To say that I think your response is unfair, given what I actually said, is an understatement. …however, I did think that you’d like the following from Chesterton. With your enthusiasm for theology, I imagine you’ll approve. “When once one believes in a creed, one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries. If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it’s elaborately right. A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident. But a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key.”

        • jmichaelrios says:

          Hey Jeff,

          I’ve re-read your post, and re-read my response, and I can’t identify how I’ve been unfair, or even ungracious. I kindly and sincerely ask that you tease that out for me more.

          From my re-read I would like to add this, however: in your original comment you say, “We may not understand WHY we must love our neighbor, but there it is in black and white. The command, the action, can be followed to a good extent without understanding.” But that’s precisely a separation I find odd. If we are going to love our neighbor, we’ve got to have two things before we can act: first, some idea of who our neighbor is (not as a way to justify ourselves), and second, some understanding of what ‘to love’ means. Here, ignorant action can be more harmful than inaction, especially given our fallen nature.

          What I want to point out is that as soon as obedience is asked of us, it is a certain kind of obedience–that is, we are asked to do a certain thing. Understanding that certain thing, though an incomplete understanding (because nobody has perfect understanding), is the ongoing work of theology.

        • Jeff Fuller says:

          You don’t find it unfair that you lectured me on precisely what I said at the beginning of my post, and chose instead to magnify my hypothetical “if” statement to the main thrust of my argument? Steve and I were both (at least from what I read) cautioning you on seeming to go too far to the ‘let’s all be theologians of a high caliber’ side of things. “We need to be both knowledgeable AND active, wise AND passionate.” That’s the main point of my post, and you said it right back to me as if I hadn’t said it at all. I’m just concerned that one could read your article and think that you want us all to be high theologians, which isn’t even possible (does God call all to be theologians?), certainly hasn’t been the pattern all through Christian history, and probably wouldn’t be advisable even if it was possible. Maybe you’ll say that’s another false distinction – between high and (low?) theology, but just pretend you don’t think I’m arguing everyone has to be Barney just because I DON’T want everyone to be Calvin. That also would not be fair.

          Since you mention loving your neighbor, I’m not sure that that supports your point much. Here was another leader of the people (with plenty of theological knowledge) being spoon-fed the basics by Jesus. He was all theology and little obedience. The Samaritan, on the other hand, with no theology at all, without even a connection with the true faith, managed to do what was right. He acted.

          Maybe we both just want more nuance from other side – I know I do from you, and I have every sense that you do from me. I’m not saying theology isn’t important. I like theology myself – not to quite the same extent you do, but a lot. My spiritual life is enriched by going into the Word and preparing lesson plans, etc. I can’t, however, ignore the fact that there are LOTS of Christians who know much less about theology than I do, and who do a much better job of just following what God has said. The basics of what God wants us to do as Christians are not hard to understand (the mind); they’re hard to do (the spirit is weak). Was Jesus not, in essence, telling the Teacher of the Law to climb down out of the mental part of the Law and embrace the spirit?

          Maybe that helps. Maybe it doesn’t. I’m not trying to be difficult. :-)

        • Sam Giroux says:

          When you saw that you see many others who have less theology knowledge than you are better Christians, how are you basing that assumption? Remember that, yes, the Samaritan made the better choice in that one instance. But what about the rest of his life? Because to judge holiness by one action.

          Now, I am not going to the extreme to say that theologians are by default better Christians. Obviously, that cannot be a true statement. But knowing the theology can make us better by Christians by understanding what it takes to be a Christian and what it requires of us. I am a lay leader like you (assumption) and am leading a bible study at my church. I love the read the Word and then disseminate it to a lesson plan. I love to study it and understand more than the black and white words. It helps bring depth to the Word and relates it to my life.

          I will agree with Rev. Rios in that action without knowledge CAN be very dangerous. Passion is awesome, but without knowledge to guide that passion it can be disastrous. So, as people with more knowledge, we are charged with the task to educate the passionate to focus it appropriately.

          Keep up the good fight and God Bless!

          Sam

        • Jeff Fuller says:

          Sam, thanks for the input. I’ll reply on a new string, cause we start getting into such narrow columns. (At least that’s how it shows on my computer.)

        • jmichaelrios says:

          True, I could turn the nesting off, but I think it would be more confusing. Unfortunately I don’t have the power to set the tab width, otherwise I’d make it a little less drastic!

  3. drivingwheel says:

    Further to Steve’s point (Hi Steve, btw) is J.I. Packer’s exhortation in pretty much every Systematics Overview class session: “Theology is for doxology!” If the study of God doesn’t lead to the praise of God, you’re doing it wrong.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hey Paul!

      It’s funny how our awareness of the Glory of God in theology can go two different ways. We can, as Packer of course observes, remember that all we do must glorify the God we seek to know and speak about. But at the same time, many come to think that the business of theology is to somehow protect God’s glory. That seems to me to be the source of many of the hottest theological controversies–that party X is convinced that the theology of party Y somehow impugns God’s glory.

      Maybe the central question is this: does my perspective in theology attempt to sit ‘above’ God, protecting Him, or is it ‘beneath’ God, receiving from Him? Maybe I’m even asking the wrong question, but I think there’s something here.

  4. Sam Giroux says:

    JMR –

    I agree with the majority of your comments above and truly believe that our”theology” is just as important as the actions. This is because our actions are a direct result of our theology, as you have much more eloquently stated. Yet, I believe the problem is more like this: You have builders trying to build a house, yet there are MULTIPLE blueprints. Which is right? Do we need 2×4’s or 2×6’s? Do we need a 5/12 pitch roof or a 8/12 pitch roof. In my opinion the difficulty lies in the the laypersons journey of faith. Is baptism by immersion the only way, or is a trickle soon after birth O.K. How should be served? Who should be served? These are the what unfortunately divides too many sects of our church, Think of our power to proclaim the beauty of the Trinity if we put aside some of these “minor” iotas.

    True, there are some MAJOR iotas that cannot be compromised, as you have states above as well (Jesus and God ARE the same) and the Bible is vital to our focus as Christians. I have been reading some blogs and such from those of the “Emergent Church.” At first, I was motivated by the passion and realism in the words. But when some went as far to say that the Bible cannot be followed because it was written by sinful and imperfect humans, that goes to far, They seem to claim that we should simply follow how the Holy Spirit tells us and that is that. Well guess what guys, As the authors of the Bible were sinful and imperfect, so are you. We all struggle to discern God’s voice from our own wants, this is why our theology is so important. It helps us interpret God’s will and focuses our thoughts.

    Yet, I am not one to stifle the passion of a young Christian. I applaud Jefferson for his willingness to put himself out there to question some of the hypocracies of the FOLLOWERS of Christ. Yet, agree that his ignorance of his word choices can be dangerous. For the time being, I am willing to give him a bit of artistic leeway here because it was obviously in prose form. Yet, I will try to keep a close eye on how this unfolds and will definitely be at the ready to question him if he strays too far.

    All the best and keep up your great work!

    Sam

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hey Sam, thanks for your response – let me offer a few things to continue the conversation…

      First, re: “which blueprint”, there are, of course, some basic differences. But there are more similarities than differences. Just as most medieval churches were built along the same pattern, but also had great variety. In other words, there may be slight differences in the blueprints, but they all create, unmistakably, Churches. As to theological diversity, let’s take the issue of Baptism as an example, I, for one, have definite and formed ideas about what I think is the scriptural, New Testament approach to the great dip. But I also recognize that my opinion, in the history of the church, is clearly the minority opinion. So, while I think many of my brothers are wrong about this issue, I don’t think it excludes them from fellowship, nor does it limit dialogue or friendship. Sure it’s worth fighting over, but not every issue is worth dying over. I’ve got some other pieces on dogma that I’ll publish eventually. We’ll see if those don’t help us here a little bit.

      As to the stifling of young passion… well, I’m not so sure. Paul, immediately after his conversion, has a great deal of passion for Jesus. He goes out and preaches right away. But amazingly, the decision of the church is to send him off to Tarsus (a backwater) for years (I heard once that it was 14 years). There, it seems, Paul is trained and discipled. Is this not a tempering, or at least a shaping, of his passion?

      • Sam Giroux says:

        Cool. So, to continue the metaphor, what are the vital details in the blueprint that cannot be changed? These are the ones worth dying over. They are the foundation of what Christ is and what his message and charge is to us. As I replied above, the charge to people more knowledgeable in the Word is to help shape and train those with the passion. That is why your work and the work of this blog post is so important. Education.

        Above all, I conclude that the answer above all else is LOVE. Now, we can obviously write and very lengthy dissertation on the definition of love and the varies types, especially in the Greek language; and declare that it is a love beyond words and above sexual terms. But in general when you love someone and express that true love…the love that Christ has for us…we are at least on the right track.

        • jmichaelrios says:

          I’ll try to post about the ‘essentials’ later this week. That post (adapted from a sermon) also deals with our manner in executing/living out our theology. But, for the sake of our present discussion, I’ll give you one of the main points right now:

          1) Dogma is good
          2) We must be dogmatic
          3) To truly be dogmatic means to live the dogma, and therefore to be (truly, faithfully) dogmatic and unloving is an oxymoron. How can I say that I have faith in the God who is Love and be unloving?

        • Sam Giroux says:

          It only too me reading that about four times to really “get it.” :). That makes sense.

      • Jeff Fuller says:

        We had a lengthy discussion (without result) in our Bible study about the 14 years. It depends on whether the events chronicled in Acts are in distinct order, or whether some are taking place during the same time when others are.

        • jmichaelrios says:

          Yeah, I’ve heard 14, and I think 10, and sometimes 7. Either way, it’s interesting that they ship Paul off!

  5. Jeff Fuller says:

    Let’s see here. Now of course I have to keep looking up and down. Ah well…

    I would say that my roommate is a good example of what I mean. He hasn’t read as many theological books as I have, he doesn’t make ‘theological’ remarks during Bible study. But he is humble, passionate, knows the Bible probably better than I do, and most importantly, I think his faith flows out in his actions at least as much as mine does. His vacations are mission trips, he volunteers with the youth group, he does walks for various things. Just a great all-around kind of guy. And I know plenty more people who know even less theology (by far) than he does, who still manage to do what their Lord commands of them.

    With regard to your comment about the Samaritan…I feel very uncomfortable going there. It was a parable; the point was what was done right before our figurative eyes, not evaluating what may or may not have been done behind them. Second, I would question strenuously the assumption that a person who makes one good, self-sacrificing choice was in other respects probably a deadbeat or a heathen. I just don’t think we have the right to go that far in our interpretation.

    Your second paragraph I agree with entirely. The third as well – in fact, I’ve had almost those exact words written down in my ‘diary’ for years now. Which makes me wonder why Jer and I have such a strong disagreement. That all seems fairly straightforward. Perhaps our definitions of theology are very different. Jer – you want to weight in here? I just need a good example of what you would call theology, or what sort of theology you would wish to see as a necessary part of the activity of the church. Your FB quote today, for example. I could see myself agreeing completely using one definition of theology; being violently, distressedly opposed using another.

    I hope you’ll see the connection here if I leave off with a C. S. Lewis quote, since I’ve been busy going through The Screwtape Letters getting ready for my introductory lesson tomorrow. (Pray for me! I think it’s all together, but it’s still good to be prayed for.) “The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin which they already had…The “Gospels” [any systematic theology – to make my own insertion] come later, and were written, not to make Christians, but to edify Christians already made.”

    • Sam Giroux says:

      Well, I hope your lesson went well today. I read this post earlier this morning and did say a short prayer for you. Hope it helped.

      I will agree that I stretched with the Samaritan metaphor, but by point is the same. Don’t assume someone is a better Christian just because you see one or two acts of “Christian-like” behavior and do not know the whole picture. Yet, upon more reflection, I really do not like the term “better Christian” anyway. Everyone of us has sin in our lives and as Christians we are all equally forgiven by the Lord. So, to quantitatively compare our Christianity to others is not what we are charged by Christ to do. God has chosen us, as imperfect as we are, to be his disciples on Earth. We each have our own strengths and weakness and that is why as a congregation and group we can achieve our goals.

      On to theology. I will not assume Rev. Rios’ definition of theology, but can only comment on my thoughts regarding the issue. First, I think that your friend is more of a theologian that you are giving him credit. But, before that, I think that can be a distinction between a Theologian and a theologian (capital “T” compared to lower case). Theologians (capital) are career scholars on religion. The have the time and talent to research and discern in-depth topics that, as laypersons, we simple do not have the time to do. Lower-case theologians do take time to read the Bible, possible participate in some sort of “bible study”, and/or understand that there are a set group of rules and charges the Lord has given us to preach the word. Neither one is more important than the other and we both offer growth the Good News. Therefore, those you see “better Christian” (still don’t like the phrase) can still be considered as theologians…just in a different way than you. Is seems that they understand there is a Word of God and there is a significance to the Word. The dangerous people are those that act first with no regard to the foundations laid by the Scripture. These people believe that you can simply “feel” your way to Christ and that the Bible is not significant.

      So, without the eloquence of C.S. Lewis, I believe that being a theologian (lower case) does not mean being locked in a Library for days at a time, but simply a belief in the process and institution of Christianity and understanding it is their to guide and help us develop during our journey in faith.

      I pray that this helps,

      Sam

  6. Jeff Fuller says:

    That’s a distinction that I’m comfortable with, though in that case, it almost seems like small-t theology is almost a meaningless term. If by it we mean individual and corporate examination of Scripture, that would seem to be a basic responsibility of anyone professing to be a Christian. And Jer, if that’s more what you have in mind, and are just responding again to the Christianity-lite approach of that “Why I hate religion…” post, for example, I’m sorry for misunderstanding. I have the feeling, though, that you have a rather bigger definition of theology than that.

    And yes, first class session tonight went very well. Thanks for the prayers.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      I’ll reply here ;)

      I think we’re closer to an understanding, now (although, honestly, I’ve struggled over the past few days to identify where the misunderstanding occurred…)

      At any rate, as to a definition of theology: EVERYONE has a theology. It is not a question of whether some people do and others don’t. The only real question is whether you will have an ignorant or a faithful one. So, to the person who says, “Doing is all that matters.” I say, “That’s a theology–let’s evaluate it and see how it measures up to the scriptures and tradition.” And I think it falls woefully short. In other words, it’s a poor, anemic theology–especially in comparison to an educated and more holistic theology.

      If Christlikeness is the goal, then our theology (for every believer) is the thinking we do when we think rightly about Christ and God, and act in accordance with that thinking. (Here I’m paraphrasing Lewis a little–“Truth is when I think accurately about reality.” By extension, theological truth is when we think accurately about Christ.)

      So, I would resist the idea of small or big ‘t’ theology. There is just theology. While there are ‘professionals’ whose job it is to plumb the depths of theology and share their teachings with others. But the task is still incumbent upon every follower. After all, we are all called to Christlikeness!

      (Incidentally, I think the Samaritan has been misused throughout this discussion. Sadly, it’s Sunday night and I have now spent the last dregs of my mental strength here. Another time.)

      • Sam Giroux says:

        Totally admit that the Samaritan metaphors was not well thought out. Where is a flux capacitor when you need it?

        Also, cannot agree more that everyone has some sort of theology. Just trying to relate that we are all theologians just to varying extents.

        In regards to this topic, a good book is Why Religion Matters by Huston Smith.

  7. Jeff Fuller says:

    And yes, ‘better Christian’ is presumptuous. ‘Better witness’ might perhaps stand scrutiny, but is still tricky. And here am I, with I Cor. 4:5 being one of my favorite verses. “Therefore, judge nothing before the appointed time. Wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness, and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time, each will receive his praise from the Lord.

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