A Biblical Balance: Embracing and Living Theology
In a world obsessed with the latest and greatest [insert just about anything], many Christians run against the grain. Instead of seeking the newest and shiniest things of this world, Christians often seek what they perceive as the oldest and truest.
The recovery of forgotten truth in history isn’t uncommon.
One of the tasks of history is to discover that which was and why it was that way. When we think of history in the context of the church, theologians often ask what Christians who lived before us believed while also trying to uncover their reasons for believing that. This results in fruitful theological progress.
THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD OF HISTORY
“Listen to advice and accept instruction,
that you may gain wisdom in the future.”
— Proverbs 19:20 (ESV)
History has a twofold way of helping the modern Christian. We can use past Christians as examples of what to do or believe, and we can use past Christians as examples of what not to do or believe. It’s a double-edged sword that must be carefully treated.
If we apply history in positive terms only (i.e. what to do or believe) then we could end up accepting falsehoods as truth. Likewise, if we apply only the negative aspects (i.e. what not to do or believe) we run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
STRANGE THINGS ARE HAPPENING (MAYBE?)
Some of you reading this may have, at one point, known someone who went from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. There are perhaps many different reasons people may give for why they’ve done this, and I can’t presume to know all of them.
I know a couple people who have gone from confessional, Protestant positions to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. The reasons they give for doing so vary. Either a family member influenced the change, they found one side more intellectually defensible than the other, or they were seeking a sense of piety not often found in Protestantism.
One has to ask whether or not there is at least some correlation between a person emphasizing one “edge” of history and their change in theological convictions. There are certainly countless variables which go into a person’s switch of theology. We could think of their environment, their relational influences, and more.
It’s probably not the case that theological change is always prompted by one’s view of history, but people who are intellectually invested in Christianity do tend to seek piety when knowledge alone leaves them wanting; and piety is closely linked to tradition, making historical theology a necessary area of exploration.
Once a person associates history with truth––in a manner which almost identifies one with the other––they run the risk of elevating tradition to a magisterial deciding factor when it comes to theological beliefs.
This really is no surprise. People making a turn for the worst, theologically speaking, isn’t anything new. Scripture warns us of this happening. 1 John 2:19 reads, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.”
Regardless of speculation concerning why people change from sound doctrine to unsound doctrine, one thing is for certain––their doctrine and practice are being influenced by unbiblical factors.
USING HISTORY RIGHTLY
Speaking of philosophy, Francis Turretin used the term handmaiden. Philosophy, he thought, was always to be seen subservient to our theology, a helper, if you will. Our view of history should be no different. Both history and philosophy have something to do with one another, and both have biblical warrant. However, neither can be used to determine our view of the Scriptures; neither have the necessary authority to drive a correct worldview. Only God’s revelation can do that.
Scripture sets forth its own philosophy and view of history. It’s God’s Word which gives us a proper view of that which has happened in the past. Church history itself bears witness to this very fact. Scripture tells us that God ordains all that which comes to pass (Is 46:10). We also know that reality is essentially God’s plan of redemption playing out in history. Historical study serves this end, to study the glory of God’s plan and His faithfulness to His promises.
The early church searched the Scriptures to determine right doctrine and practice. The Christians in the 4th century rarely tried to draw a one-for-one correlation between themselves and the church in the 1st century. Rather, the church changed according to its knowledge of the Scriptures.
If we were to fast forward to the Reformation era, this principle of deriving doctrine organically from the Scripture is revitalized in the famous latin tenet Sola Scriptura. Scripture alone is the magisterial deciding factor for the church’s doctrine.
We may consider history like we would philosophy, as a secondary source, always to be thought of in context of––and subservient to––God’s revelation. We ought not elevate history to heights it should never see.
REASONS FOR THE THEOLOGICAL SHIFT
It’s hard to give reasons for theological change in people without becoming over-speculative. It’s easy to paint with a broad brush. We know as Christians that if someone changes for the worst, thus falling away, they were never regenerate to begin with, as 1 John tells us.
Yet, we know that in God’s providence many factors play a part in why someone chooses the theological routes they do. My observation has been that an exaltation of historical tradition has taken place within intellectually-minded professing Christians. However, this usually seems to take place only after they realize that their current system of theology isn’t providing the wholeness of a religiously substantive Christian life.
This can come from a lack of balance in the teaching at their church, their lack of fellowship, or their over-emphasis of lone theological facts rather than facts being seen as the engines which drive practice.
Without a theological balance, on which we carry principle and practice, and without a proper ground––that being Scripture––our theology will waver. We will be blown around by every wind of doctrine. An ungrounded theology is prone to disturbance, and a lack of balance in the Christian life is prone to ungrounded theology.