Evaluating Theological Ideas

CS Lewis once compared theology to a map of the ocean. Certainly walking on a beautiful beach is far more enjoyable and real than looking at a paper map that shows the ocean. But the map was created from the observations and experiences of many people who had sailed the ocean, making it quite valuable to anyone who wanted to get to a country on the other side. In the same way, theology may seem dry compared to experiencing the presence of God, but it is a valuable tool for those who want to know God deeply.

The world is filled with ideas about theology; so is the church. The world’s ideas are invariably incorrect because as Paul tells us, the natural man cannot understand spiritual things. They are foolishness to him because they can only be discerned spiritually. By “spiritually”, Paul means the man who has submitted his life and intellect to God and has learned to judge all things by correctly applying the Scriptures. New Age spiritualism is excluded. In fact, some modern spiritualists are more lost in wrong theology than the mere atheist.

Our necessary task as believers pressing after the knowledge of God is to know how to evaluate theological ideas and to reject those that are in error. Recently I heard a church leader state that the acid test for evaluating theological ideas is what Jesus will think of them at the Judgment Seat. I must respectfully disagree with this premise. In the first place, if you think about it, his statement is itself a theological idea and you cannot use one theological idea to test another. But more importantly, we must state emphatically that there is (and ever shall be) only one absolute measure of any theological idea, and that is what the Bible actually says about it.

One could argue that what the Word of God says and what Jesus will think at the Judgment is synonymous. And in reality that would be a true statement. However, there is an important reason to avoid substituting “what Jesus will think” in place of saying that scripture alone must be the final authority on all issues of theology. And that reason is the tendency of the human mind to ascribe its own desires and beliefs to be among those that Jesus approves of. A current example of this can be found in Matthew Vines’ book, “God and the Gay Christian”, which is getting a lot of press right now. While I haven’t read the book I did watch a debate between Vines and evangelical apologist Dr. Michael Brown. As Dr. Brown points out, Vines is attempting to re-interpret the Bible to support his own sexual agenda rather than allowing the plain teaching of scripture to shape his own sexuality. But not all error is this easy to discern.

No, trying to use “what Jesus will think” is too ambiguous a standard- not because Jesus is in any way ambiguous in His doctrine- but because we take far too much liberty in our own hearts when we consider what we think He will approve. We must insist that accepting and applying what Scripture actually says is the only safe and error-free way to know the truth about theology, or any other aspect of life or death.

Notice that I have said twice in this article that we must adhere to what Scripture “actually” says. One of the reasons the church is fractured into dozens of denominations, schisms, and groups is that people build theological ideas around what they want the Bible to say, or what their families or denominations say, rather than what the Bible actually says. From the hard core cessationist who claims that manifestations of the Holy Spirit are “strange fire”, to the exuberant charismatic who is obsessed with signs and wonders and “feeling the fire of God”, the body of Christ is in desperate need of returning to the foundation laid by the Apostles and Prophets.

One of these Apostles gives us a bold statement about how strongly he feels regarding the truth of Scripture. Peter experienced one of the most amazing events recorded in the New Testament: The Transfiguration. He was there on the mountain with James, John, and Jesus. Suddenly the Lord was transfigured before their eyes and His glory was revealed to these three men. As if that wasn’t enough, Moses and Elijah appeared and began to talk with Jesus. And if THAT wasn’t enough, a cloud of glory overshadowed them and God Himself spoke audibly to them! This experience far surpasses any Charismatic manifestation I’ve ever heard of. Toward the end of his life, Peter commented on this supernatural event. What did he tell us? He declared that we have a more sure word of prophecy in the Scriptures than hearing God speak audibly.

For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received from God the Father honor and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mountain. We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto you do well that you take heed… (2 Peter 1:16-19a, emphasis mine)

This is a staggering verse of Scripture. Jesus’ chief Apostle is telling us that the Scriptures are a more sure thing than hearing the voice of God audibly from heaven. Why? Because when we hear the voice of God (audibly or otherwise) we have no proof it was actually God unless it lines up with what Scripture actually says. How many well-meaning Christians have been sidetracked (or worse) by following dreams, visions, angelic manifestations, and voices from Heaven that were not actually from God? Peter’s supernatural experience trumps anything you or I have ever had happen to us, and the Apostle charges us to give heed to the Scriptures as a more sure word.

We all have doctrinal templates in place that we filter our understanding of Scripture through. Some come from the church denomination we were raised in, or perhaps from being a part of a non-denominational group. Other filters may have been developed in college or from our own private studies and life experiences. One of the marks of maturity in the faith is learning to recognize these filters and doing away with them. Only then can we truly begin to recover the faith that was, as Jude writes, “once delivered to the saints.” For example, we might have belonged to a church that teaches a pre-tribulation rapture, or that the church has replaced Israel. (I’ve belonged to both camps in the past.) When we hold such ideas, we tend to look for reinforcement of them in the Bible, rather than testing them to see how they line up with what is actually written.

How can we know when we are veering off course with our doctrine? How can we rightly divide the word of truth as Paul exhorted Timothy to do? After all, if one can rightly divide, one can also wrongly divide. I would suggest that one very good place to start is by examining our theological idea in light of how the New Testament writers spoke. If Paul gives a lot of weight to something, then we should also. If Paul barely mentions a thing, then our pastors and leaders shouldn’t place major emphasis on it. One word of caution, however: It can take great courage to admit we have been wrong, or to break away from deeply held beliefs that are common to our family or church.

Let’s use revival as an example. For the record, I am one hundred percent all in for revival! I pray for revival for America regularly and my heart’s cry is to see another great awakening in my country. But when we look at Paul’s letters or read the book of Acts, do we see much talk of revival? Does Paul ever instruct the churches to pray for revival? Did Peter, or James? Jesus Himself sent seven letters to seven real churches; not once did He mention revival. To hear some charismatic preachers, you would think that all the New Testament ever talks about is signs, wonders, and revival! And if you were to ask them, they would enthusiastically tell you that preaching on revival continually is something that Jesus will think highly of at the Judgement Seat, scriptural evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Paul spent two years in Ephesus and there was revival, so much so that the Bible records that all that dwelt in Asia heard the Gospel. God did special miracles by the hands of Paul so that cloths from his body healed the sick. Friends, that is revival! And yet, Paul did not start having seminars on how to have a revival. He did not focus at all on signs and wonders, or on attempting to duplicate what happened at Ephesus in other towns. What was Paul’s message? He told the Corinthians that his message was the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified, nothing more. Paul taught that true Biblical hope was looking for the resurrection and being found fully mature in the Day of the Lord. In some cities that message caused revival. In other places it got Paul stoned and left for dead. He did not change his message to encourage revivals in other towns, nor did he alter it to avoid getting stoned in the future.

So what are we to conclude about revival as a theological idea? If we stick to the Scriptures we can clearly see that our message is to be the Gospel of Christ crucified, and God will take care of revival when the time comes. Again, this is not to say that we shouldn’t ask God to send revival. I just participated in a national seven-day time of prayer and fasting for revival. But in some circles this topic is emphasized far beyond what the Bible actually says, having the dangerous effect of producing more hope for revival than for the biblical hope of suffering now in order to be glorified with Christ at His appearing. If revival preachers were to use Paul’s letters and example from Acts, this could be brought into balance and the true work of the Gospel would be going forth more effectively.

Evaluating theological ideas in light of what Scripture actually says, using the language and emphasis of the Apostles, is a crucial skill to be learned by every believer. It isn’t enough that pastors and leaders do this; we are not told to surrender our discernment to others. This is exactly how many are led astray. Rather, we are encouraged to be like those in the city of Berea:

Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11)

Deception will be the first danger when facing the end times. Jesus and Paul both said so. Let us learn to evaluate every theological idea, every book, every teacher, every doctrine, and every apparent sign and wonder by rightly dividing the Word of Truth. The survival of our pure faith will depend on it in the very dark times ahead.