I recently had the privilege of listening to a friend share a message on the importance of asking questions in our faith walk. Asking questions allows fellow believers to speak truth into our lives and it allows us to be stretched in our understanding of who God is. That is why I am very excited to have Chris and Julie join us today to speak into some of the common yet difficult questions many believers have but are too afraid to ask.
Let’s define some terms first. What is theology? And exactly what makes someone a theologian?
The origin of the word “theology” means “the study of God” or “word about God”. In basic terms, theology is what we think and say about God.
People who are regularly referred to as “theologians” by a wider community are usually influencing others’ thoughts about God in a formal or occupational setting. Theologians by profession will have spent years studying and preparing to talk about God in accurate and edifying ways.
John Calvin probably says it best when he states that we study theology to know what we think about God so we may understand man. Without knowing God, it is impossible to know ourselves and our purpose on this earth.
So what theological topics do you personally love to speak about?
Chris: I watch the trends of current theological discussions. I enjoy emphasizing aspects of God or the Christian life that are being neglected by the current trends. Presently I think end times is being under-emphasized in most churches.
Julie: We both love to speak about emotional healing through the power of the Holy Spirit. I love to share on aspects of spiritual formation as well as specific insights God has given me through His Word, the Bible.
Many agree we experience God in two main ways—with the head and the heart. That is, we can understand Him in the intellectual sense or we can understand Him in the emotional sense. Some Christians say they lean more towards one than the other. Would you say there is an importance for all of us to experience Him in both ways?
In the end, we need to experience God through our whole being, consisting of the body, the soul (the mind, will, and emotions), and the spirit. We need to worship and encounter God through all these ways. I don’t think there’s any dichotomy here, as God reveals Himself to individuals in specific ways based on how they are “wired”.
Those of us who have taken the Myers-Briggs personality test know whether we fall more toward the thinking (T) or feeling side (F) when making decisions. Feelers need to feel more, and thinkers need to think more, and it’s okay to acknowledge that God has made each of us different. We need a careful balance of head and heart in the Church, especially while talking about God and human experience.
A recent study found that only 20% of Christians regularly read their Bible. Why do you think so few Christians today spend time in the Word? Why is it important to spend time reading Scripture?
Chris: We’re not too surprised. There are probably several reasons why people don’t read their Bibles regularly. The first would be the residual sin left over from our old lives and the world; we’re still living based on what we see or feel, and we forget that Scripture is food for the soul. (Matt. 4:4)
I also suspect a lot of people feel they don’t get a lot out of their Bible readings. They don’t understand what they’re reading, because many don’t have any historical or cultural context for what they’re reading. Finally, people may not have come to the place of depending on the Holy Spirit to make the Scriptures come alive for them, where the Word of God is alive and breathing into our souls. If every one of us came to the Word like that, we would want to feast on it every day!
Julie: We try to survive on too little spiritual “food” until we become strong and healthy, then we can’t do without. It’s like becoming a gourmet cook or coffee connoisseur; after having discovered a richer way, you don’t want to go back to being malnourished or unsatisfied. As we feed on His Word, we grow a hunger for His Word that leads to more hunger for God.
Hmm, quite a few ideas there to consider. So what practical advice would you offer to people who struggle with reading their Bible regularly?
Julie: It’s okay to come to the Scriptures with a commentary to reference when you need it Knowing the background to the Scripture you’re reading is very helpful for understanding and inspiration. Knowing the whole story of Scripture, including Old and New Testament, and how the two connect, can help you understand the difficult sections. Knowing the historical context, the cultural milieu, the background of the writer and the audience he is writing for really helps.
Many people may not have formed the habit of reading the Scriptures to meet with God. God’s word is not only the written word [Greek logos] to us, it is also a specific ‘living word’ [rhema] for our situation. When we look into the Scriptures to know God and to have an encounter with Him through a relevant word or promise, we see the Scriptures as a means to go deeper in our relationship with God. Meditating on the words of Scripture can help us to carry that rhema with us throughout the day and allow Christ’s nature to be formed in us.
If you lack a desire or the discipline to read God’s word, ask God to increase your desire for Him and to help you find Him in the Word.
I recommend that seekers or young Christians read the Bible like sponges soaking in water: read all you can in one sitting as often as you can. As you become more familiar with it, take longer to “savor” a passage: take time to think about it and imagine yourself as a character or onlooker in the story or setting. This leads to the Holy Spirit’s personalizing it, so the Scripture feels more applicable to your context.
Many Christians struggle with taking the Bible literally and believing that all its stories happened just as they were reported. To some, stories of talking serpents and donkeys, the Creation account, and people living much longer lifespans that we know today just seem impossible and almost mythological. Often this struggle can become a stumbling block in our faith. What advice or encouragement would you offer here?
Chris: Obviously, we don’t take everything in the Bible literally, such as imagery in the Psalms (God with giant wings) or parables (stories told by Jesus to make a point). We do take the stories, events and history of the Bible literally.
From a secular standpoint, when historians look at ancient records, they rely on what eye witnesses said as being the most accurate. Especially when the eye witness accounts differ slightly, we see it as historically valid, because that is the nature of real eye witness accounts. We obviously have different perspectives in the Gospels through the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Another rule historians use is to prefer the more honest account. There is no more honest and self-effacing history anywhere in the ancient world than the Bible. No other ancient culture writes of its own failures, pride, and downfalls with such transparency than the culture of the Bible.
Just because something seems fantastical, such as Jericho’s walls falling down or parting of the Red Sea, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. In comparison with outlandish fictional characters or events in mythologies, such as a seven-headed beast or half-human demi-gods, the Scriptures are not hard to believe at all. Archaeology and fossil evidence have proven the Bible’s historicity again and again.
It is very easy for biblical knowledge to become an idol. I have seen this idolatry in two extremes. On one side of the spectrum, I see people feeling that they do not know the Bible well enough to attend a Bible study, lead at church, or even call themselves a Christian. On the other side, I see those with a high level of biblical knowledge believe that the more they know, the closer they are to God. What can you say about this form of idol worship? What can you say to those who struggle with this idol?
Chris: In theological swings, we always want to avoid extremes. Among others, two easy extremes are mysticism and confessionalism. Mysticism is a spirituality that lacks a high regard for Scripture and doctrine. Confessionalism, the opposite, is the memorization of doctrine as the essence of Christian identity and living. Christian life requires a partnership of Word and Spirit.
But Christianity is not an information-based religion. It is a relationally-based religion. It is knowing Jesus Christ. Chinese has two words for “know”: 认识 ‘renshi’ and 知道 ‘zhidao’. One describes knowing through relationship and the other is knowing information. Christianity is the first type.
Julie: Jesus affirmed this when He said, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, but you refuse to come to me to have life.” John 5:39-40
Chris: The thief on the cross is a great example of this. Somehow, the thief knows that the man next to him has the authority and power to save him, so he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” That was all he needed to be saved: to know Jesus Christ, the Savior.
Amen! With the advance of technology and social media, we have a vast amount of information readily available at our fingertips. Now we can access many theological writings, Christians blogs and podcasts, and sermons on our devices. What would you say are the advantages and disadvantages here?
Chris: As with anything on the internet, it’s important to check your sources. It’s best to go with well-known Scriptural teachers when reading an article online or listening to a podcast.
Julie: Obviously having access to such resources anytime has the potential of adding great spiritual benefit to our lives. But we must never allow another’s account of his or her experience with God to take the place of a personal encounter with God through time alone with Him. We need to keep personal prayer, solitude, Bible reading, and the physical (not virtual) gathering with other believers as the mainstay in our spiritual diets.
Chris: Reading great theological writing helps us see how similar we are to one another. Two theologians of the Church who tend to be seen as being at odds with each other are John Calvin and John Wesley. It’s only when you begin to read their writings that you realize how close in doctrine and how balanced they actually were. In fact, John Wesley, who was born after Calvin’s death, said he was only a “hair’s breadth” away from John Calvin. Theologians of the classical tradition show us what we agree on, and what we’re allowed to disagree on.
Worshipping in an international church exposes us to many different Christian denominations, practices and beliefs. How can we reconcile with beliefs and practices we don’t share? How can this diversity stretch us in our faith?
One thing about worshipping with believers from different cultures and traditions is we begin to recognize what our core beliefs, the essentials of the Christian faith, already are and where our blind spots are. If we as evangelicals disagree on a point, it is usually not a core belief. Bible teacher Beth Moore explains this as “spine” and “rib” issues. The “spine” issues are those we all agree on; “rib” issues are those where two can disagree and both still know and love God. Not only has our experience of God at work in the Church been enlarged, our list of core beliefs has become shorter, clearer and better as a result of worshipping in a diverse fellowship.
Amen! Well Chris and Julie, thank you so much for sharing with us today. I especially appreciate the reminder to experience God with our body, soul, and spirit.
Readers, I encourage us all to ask the hard questions and allow ourselves to be stretched in the way we know God. Also, let’s not be afraid to step up and answer the questions our fellow believers have.
Last week’s post: Ask a… Camper!