Twinkle, Twinkle, Simple Faith?

Every now and again I speak to believers who don’t enjoy the notion of Christian theology one little bit. Their faith, you see, is a simple faith. Theology? Well that just confuses people! “Forget all the boring and complex doctrine”, they say, “I just want to love Jesus…that’s all”.

But, one only has to ask, which Jesus is it that they ‘just want to love’? And of course, to answer a question like that, one needs very complex and and precise doctrine. And while being able to properly identify the Jesus whom we love does absolutely nothing to take away from the simplicity of our faith (viz., our complete and utter trust in the person of Christ), the same cannot be said for those who do not know their theology. Not only do they end up in great danger of heresy, but their faith becomes simplistic – not simple.

The following story (from Mark Dever’s “Message of the Old Testament”) serves to illustrate well that this is something which cannot be commended;

“George Buttrick… was [from 1927 to 1954] pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. One week he had been off on a speaking engagement and was flying back to New York City. On the plane he had a pad and a pencil and he was making some notes for next Sunday’s sermon. The man seated next to him was eyeing him with curiosity. Finally, the curiosity got the best of him, and so he said to Buttrick, ‘I hate to disturb you—you’re obviously working hard on something—but what in the world are you working on?’

“‘Oh, I’m a Presbyterian minister,’ said Buttrick. ‘I’m working on my sermon for Sunday.’

“‘Oh, religion,’ said the man. ‘I don’t like to get all caught up in the in’s and out’s and complexities of religion. I like to keep it simple. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule, that’s my religion.’

“‘I see,’ said Buttrick. ‘And what do you do?’

“‘I’m an astronomer. I teach at the university.’

“‘Oh, yes,’ said Buttrick. ‘Astronomy—I don’t like to get all caught up in the in’s and out’s and complexities of astronomy. Twinkle, twinkle little star, that’s my astronomy.’”

A Sacred Grip

In the last post I summarised a New Testament missional philosophy as ‘Closed-hand, Opened-hand, Go”. This is a truly important paradigm, and it presents many different facets of application. To begin with then, I’ll highlight one of these as it relates to the idea of ‘closed-hand’.

Remember that in talking about our ‘closed hand’ we are speaking about all things relating to the sphere of the sacred (and yes, contra to all that popular folk-theology out there, there is a very real distinction between sacred and secular in the Christian life). One of the main things in this ‘sacred’ hand, then, is our doctrine. We have an ironclad grip on our theology. No negotiating.

But just as surely, this means a willingness to swim against the stream. Missional philosophy these days will typically argue that in order to do mission well, we need to dumb everything down and restrict our theology to the basic essentials. If it’s not both absolutely vital and easy to understand at the same time, it has to go. Put another way, this approach asks the church to relax its ‘sacred’ grip, and like sand running through loosened fingers, let all the richness of biblical teaching fall to the earth. Only the pebbles remain, and even among these the sharp ones are jettisoned. This is the idea behind everything from liberalism to seeker-sensitivism: the sacred hand is opened for the sake of mission. But it never goes well.

Here then is a better way. Despite this constant pressure upon churches and ministers (the pressure of true wordiness), we must move in the opposite direction. Rather than open our ‘sacred’ hand, we close it — and tightly.  Moreover, we must work daily to strengthen this grip. We study our Bibles. We want more doctrine, not less. We want all of our theology, and we’ll even contend for it. We want the big, historic confessions–not the small, stupid DIY ones. We want deep Bible exposition on Sundays, not moralistic, therapeutic ‘Christian’ TED talks.  We want the whole Bible and all of its teaching, not a post-modern form of resurrected fundamentalism.