About four years ago, I left the pristine walls of graduate theological academia completely intent to transfer my vast body of knowledge to my truly blessed students. While in grad school, it was never communicated verbally that our system of doctrine, the Reformed tradition, was the only system to accurately reflect the fullness of Christ’s teachings (meaning, in other words, Jesus was a Reformed theologian and practitioner), without a doubt this sentiment was communicated implicitly. I left believing that I was certainly included in God’s family principally because I had finally discovered the right dogmas and it was now my job to get others in the family by teaching them to say what I said, think what I thought and do what I did. Along with my degree, I had with me an unbelievably impressive, even daunting, theological castle fortified with high walls and strategically placed defenses. Only one problem. I learned there were cracks in the foundation.
My first year back in a teaching classroom was a year where most every question asked got the Reformed Catechism answer. I taught that year with a rancid theological pride. Without much emotion I simply articulated what was actually true despite the questioners’ or my particular dislike. Yet, by the end of the first school year I had begun to notice something not quite right with my castle. Sure, it looked impressive. And, I would struggle to think of many theological systems that are as well reasoned as the Reformed system. Yet, I began noticing stones shifting and mortar cracking. Why the movement? The foundation was faulty.
My entire system of doctrine was based upon an idea implied (though, almost stated explicitly) that said we knew certainly these things were true. Certainty in the Christian life is a terrible thing to build a system of doctrine because to know God with absolute certainty would require said person to be God. And, if there was one thing I was certain about, it was that I am not God. Theolgical certainty is impossible. My foundations were cracked. What do you do when you have a poor foundation? You tear down and start over, beginning by laying a good foundation.
Years 2 through 4 in the classroom were where I did the demolition and reconstruction. The questions I was asked my first year were asked each year following (because they are the most basic questions for seniors in high school to ask). And, I noticed that my answers were different in year 4 than year 1. What I was “certain” about crumbled. I kept coming up against the person and work of Jesus. No longer was I seeking to read the Bible as a book to fit my theological paradigm. I wanted to stop fitting God into my already established Reformed way of thinking. I wanted my thinking to be fit into how God reveals himself in Jesus Christ, God and man. God was far more mysterious than I had imagined, and nothing more mysterious than God, who created all things, to take on human flesh, live, teach, love, die and rise in human history simply because he loved what he made.
My previous castle was built more on knowledge about a text than knowledge of a person. While Scripture is essential in the disciple’s life, it can become an idol, much like it did for the Pharisees where knowledge about superseded love for God. I would do theological and textual gymnastics so as to show how perfectly established my Castle of Truth stood. I failed to see that the Person upon whom the text centered had disagreements with parts of the text. One particular example concerns marriage where the Israelites were practicing a part of the Law Moses prescribed. It turns out, Jesus disagreed with Moses by saying what Moses wrote wasn’t the way it was supposed to be (Mt. 19). My castle was built to protect ideas. And, castles are designed to keep things out or in. Following a person meant not being isolated, protected or hidden from the world, but in the streets, in the hallways, out in public life being what Jesus was, light in the darkness. While it may seem like splitting hairs, this difference changes things.
A few years ago I read Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Excellent biography! In it, Metaxas shares at length many of Bonhoeffer’s ideas. Here is one rather applicable to this post:
If it is I who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not immediately pleasing to my nature and which is not at all congenial to me. This place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever would find him must go to the foot of the Cross, as the Sermon on the Mount commands. This is not according to our nature at all, it is entirely contrary to it. But this is the message of the Bible, not only in the New but also in the Old Testament. (2011:137)
I determined to find God in Reformed theology. I became comfortable with certainty and found the certainty, stability and consistent logic of Reformed thought pleasing. But, the more I looked at Jesus, the more uncomfortable my “certainty” became to hold. Let’s face it, the person of Jesus Christ will mess you up. Jesus did and continues to do so to me.
I had lunch with a good friend recently with whom we talked about theological certainty. My friend is rather brilliant and I found the way he put the issue simple, yet profound. He said, “I really don’t care what you believe, I care about how you live. Are you faithful?” What leads towards certainty; how is an act of faith. How we live, I think, is the central concern of Scripture’s witness. I think this is what the Sermon on the Mount is all about. The ambassadors of the Kingdom of God are not known as such by their theological acumen, but by their resemblance of the person of Christ. This should be what we strive towards.
What I’ve said here has had Reformed thought principally in view, but I’d feel safe saying every theological paradigm could find itself built upon certainty, too. I spent almost a decade in the Pentecostal tradition with about ten years before that in the United Methodist tradition. Yes, each tradition seems to emphasize a great deal theological certainty. God’s not looking for people who simply believe the right things. He’s calling people to be a certain way.
I close with a text from Amos 5:21-24. (If you want to hear it in song form, and be completely humbled, convicted and pushed towards being like Jesus rather than knowing about Jesus, see https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=video&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CB0QtwIwAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DUihssQZoUd4&ei=yWeEVfzPE8rIogT7lomADA&usg=AFQjCNGh4l1OJGcanyl8EBccz-MuV9MHiQ&sig2=Xr7J_L1kVlJ_yw4–g09qg&bvm=bv.96042044,bs.1,d.aWw) Amos writes:
I hate all your show and pretense—
the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
an endless river of righteous living.