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.