Sunday, June 25, 2017

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The Academic Side of Theology

I was recently listening to a news report about (then) Cardinal Ratzinger, who is currently the pope of Catholicism. To be clear, Messianic Congregations do not accept the authority of a pope – nowhere in Scripture do we find such a concept. That aside, one element of the report caught my attention because it applies to all those who profess Messiah Yeshua. In my experience, it applies to any Evangelical congregation, be it Messianic, Baptist or otherwise.

The report discussed the zeal Ratzinger had for sound theology (albeit of a Catholic flavor). For example, one priest held a debate of sorts about homosexuality in a magazine article– mind you the article just discussed it not endorsed it - and the priest was chastised for it (N.B.-I didn’t read the article). The media had dubbed Ratzinger “God’s Rottweiler” because of his passion to weed out bad theology from Catholic teaching. Of course, the report was chastising Ratzinger for being too “rigid” or too “conservative.”

Now, again to be clear, I don’t support some major doctrines of Catholicism – take for example the near-deification of Miriam. But the defense of sound Biblical theology is important – maybe CNN doesn’t care about this, but God does. After all, Paul vigorously defended sound Biblical doctrine and expected Elders in Congregations to do the same (1 Timothy 1:3-10). Yeshua told some Sadducees they “did not know the Scriptures (Matthew 22:29)” – thus the postmodern/multicultural notion that “all views are valid” is not found in the Scriptures.

Back to the main thread - the report also demonstrated that while Ratzinger was willing to weed out priests with unsound theology, he was far less willing to weed out priests who had been suspected or convicted of crimes, even serious ones. He had passion to put priests who taught against Catholic doctrine on notice, but did not have passion to put priests who lived unholy lives on notice. N.B. – I remain unconvinced that some Protestant churches are much different – but I hope I am wrong about that.

My focus here is not to point out deficiencies in how Catholics handled this issue of these deviant priests, one thing is clear – sound theology was more important to Ratzinger than sound faith practice. And he isn’t alone. Protestant groups aren’t exempt from this – Messianic believers included. Theology to many of us is basically an academic exercise – study, take the test, and move on - just like high school. And just like school, we care more about the grade than we do the understanding.

And this is the crux of the problem.

I see this happening a lot amongst believers: what we say matters more than what we do. For example, I have run across some men with sound “academic” theology. They know the Bible verses – they read the books – they know lots of stuff. But they can also be, to put it mildly, total jerks. Arrogant to a fault. Unloving. Mean. Scoffers. In other words, they have the academic side of theology down-pat. But evidence that these doctrines have actually made them more Messiah-like is lacking. Again this is not to say that sound theology is unimportant – it is. But before we get all warm and fuzzy inside that some preacher/teacher/guy-on-a-blog knows Bible verses, should we not ask – no, in fact demand – that there be the equivalent wisdom in spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:19-24)? Otherwise this knowledge just puffs us up (1 Corinthians 8:1).

Again to be clear, I am not suggesting a works-based salvation plan. There is no doubt that the world is full of works-based salvation plans. I understand that we do not want to insinuate that good behavior will make one righteous for salvation from the wrath of God. But sometimes we go so far in defending theology that we swing the pendulum too far to the other extreme: behavior and practice is not important. How might James, the Lord’s brother, reacted to this duplicity? Very simple – he said that “Faith without works is dead.” Well said, sir! (James 2:14-26)

In my mind, the irony is that practice, in an important sense, is really belief. Your theology is inseparable from what you do, not just what you say. I can say I love my wife, but what have I done to show her my love, my affection? If my defense is “well, I know that I should love her but I just can’t get around to showing her I love her” – it is going to be a painful marriage at best.

You see, in Scripture you cannot separate theology into separate categories of belief vs. practice/conduct. Even amongst Messianic believers, we tend to think that as long as one “confesses” and says the right things, that such verbiage is enough evidence of the inward transformation required for salvation. It can’t be. Why? Because words can be faked – you don’t know a person’s true heart. How many politicians sound sincere a few days before election night – and sing a different tune the day after? How many addicts say they want to change and then fall into the same trap days later? How many times have adulterers told their spouses I love you – then ran onto the arms of another lover? How many times do we hear people say they are filled with the love of Yeshua - and then explode in anger because of a small misunderstanding?

The eyes may be the window to the soul, but works and spiritual fruit are windows into the heart.

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