How can we distinguish between good & bad, right & wrong theology?
The answer to that can be challenging. The subject of theology is never simple and it certainly isn’t a science or math problem where you can follow a few clear steps and arrive at a provable, correct answer.
This isn’t to say that truth is relative, that everyone can simply arrive at what’s “true for them”, or other similar statements which I completely reject as nonsense. I believe that even while we can rarely prove theology in a definitive way, any given theology is either right, wrong, or a little bit off.
Let’s be honest– we all have some theological beliefs that fall into each of those three categories. We’ve got some of it right, some of it wrong, and some of it is most definitely a “little bit off”. I think the sooner everyone admits that we each hold to some theology that is most likely errant, the sooner we can begin a process of flushing out those areas of our belief structure to make room for a better way of thinking about God.
The question becomes, how? Many of us have spent years studying theology in an academy setting, but what about those with no theological training at all?
I believe there are a few key ways, a few key questions we can ask about our theology, to help us see if our theology is a “little bit off”. My hope is that you’ll use these questions to inventory your own theological positions, and find those “weeds in the garden” that need to be uprooted and tossed away.
Here are the questions:
1. Does my theology cause me to act in an unloving way towards others?
This should be an easy first litmus test for theology– is it causing you to act more, or less loving towards others? If any given theological belief is leading you in a trajectory of acting less loving, there’s a good chance– okay, there’s practically a guarantee– that you’re theology is a bit off. The entire message of scripture is one of love: God created the world– including you and I– and loved it. Sin entered the world, and temporarily messed up the plan. Out of God’s love, he immediately enacted a loving plan of redemption before he did anything else. Today, through the enemy love Christ displayed on the cross, anyone who wants to experience the reality of their reconciliation to God is free to come and experience this reconciliation and the depths of his love.
If our theology isn’t causing us to act loving, we are acting in a way that is completely outside of the narrative of scripture, and it’s a pretty good sign that our theology is a wee bit off.
2. Does my theology cause me to think of a loving God or angry deity?
When I listen to various people describe God, I often feel like I’m listening to people describe completely different things. As I said in the first point, the basic narrative of scripture is a loving God taking loving actions. Yes, there are times when God certainly gets angry, just like you and I do. I believe God looks at orphanages, regions without clean drinking water, genocide, and violence– among of host of other things– and feels angry because these things disrupt his love. However, if the first thing we think of when we think about God is an angry deity who wants to smite us, we’ve missed his character as revealed through the person of Jesus… and it’s a pretty good sign that our theology is a bit off.
3. Does my theology cause me to be optimistic or pessimistic about this life and the future?
Going back to this “narrative of scripture” I’ve mentioned, we see that the narrative of scripture is one of love, one of beauty, one of redemption, and one of reconciliation. Everything about God’s story for humanity should prompt one to feel optimistic about life and the future, not pessimistic. A pessimistic view of life or the future reveals that our image of God (our theology) is hyper focused on the one part in the story when things went wrong, instead of focusing on the grander narrative which is God’s loving redemption of humanity.
A great example is the toxic “end times” belief system: this is a theological system which reveals a god who is leading us on a path of doom and destruction instead of the God of scripture who is leading us in a story of beauty and restoration– a pretty good sign that our theology is a bit off.
One of my favorite verses in scripture is from the Apostle Paul. In the passage, he reminds early Christians of the need to bury arrogance and to instead clothe ourselves with humility. He writes (my paraphrase) “But this is a saying I think every Christian should be quick to say: Jesus Christ came to save sinners and I am the absolute worst one out of all of them.” (1 Tim 1:5) When a Christian has a judgmental attitude toward others, especially a chronic judgmental attitude, it’s usually a sign that he or she has not yet understood the seriousness of their own shortcomings before God- and is a good sign that their theology is a bit off.
Good theology on the other hand, leads us into a humble gratitude over the fact that God has included us– the worst of sinners– in his beautiful story of reconciliation.
5. Does my theology compel me to change?
As I write in my book, Undiluted, the invitation of Jesus is an invitation first and foremost to change ourselves before we even think of trying to change someone else. It’s easy for us to point fingers at others and say they need to change, but it’s much harder to stop, take a step back, and consider how we might change ourselves. A good sign that our theology is a big off is when such a theology seems to leave us all comfortable– something that’s not part of the deal when following Jesus. Jesus wants to disturb our peace and invite us to experience radical change in our own lives, as we live out God’s story of reconciliation on an individual level first. When our theology sits us comfortably in the “I have arrived” section instead of the “I don’t have my shit together” section, it’s a pretty good sign that our theology itself is a wee bit off.
If you’re a Jesus follower with a desire to live a more vibrant Christian life, I hope you’ll start asking these 5 questions. These questions, as they have in my own life, will reveal areas of theology that are causing you to walk in opposition to God’s beautiful story, instead of walking in harmony with it.