Who's Your Theologian?

Why theology debates have gone from debating ideas to debating the people who came up with them.

We’ve all seen it—it begins with a simple status update, someone ripping on a prominent Christian theologian. An offended individual inevitably replies with a snarky holier-than-thou rebuttal. Sometimes the author just lets it go or deletes it, but more often than not they’ll post a retaliatory response—and the battle begins.

Before long, friends, relatives, neighbors and—depending on your privacy settings—complete strangers have entered the debate, defending or rebutting the theologian in question. Fifty comments later, the thread is littered with accusations, rants, page-length personal essays, article links and a litany of emotional mini-sermons.

Facebook theology wars are emotional, personal, cruel and have the propensity to be either highly entertaining or highly irritating. But what’s really going on behind these digital quarrels?

It has less to do with the arguments, and more to do with relationships. A person’s association with a particular theologian evolves from liking their ideas, beliefs, and understandings, into a pseudo-relationship and mark of identity. Their theology becomes aligned with whoever their theologian is. Thus, whether the affiliations are fair or not, universalism has turned into Rob Bell, anti-universalism is embodied by Francis Chan, Calvinism has become John Piper, open theism is Greg Boyd and complementarianism is Mark Driscoll. Theology has transformed from agreeing with a set of ideas to associating with (or opposing) certain individuals.

Theologies have become personified. This isn’t a new thing, Calvinism is named after John Calvin, the Lutheran church formed its identity on Martin Luther and many other ideologies are founded on famous namesakes. But today more than ever, Christians are constructing their theologies based on relational preferences.

On a micro-level, if someone we deeply love and care about has a certain theology, we naturally give it more weight and significance than a stranger’s. The same thing happens between a churchgoer and their pastor. On a macro-level, the rise of megachurches, megapastors, and their legions of followers have only exemplified this trend.

We adopt people’s theologies because we trust them. Maybe it’s because they love us and have invested in our lives, or simply because they’re smarter than us, or because they’re gifted public speakers, or because they have credentials, degrees, and can give convincing answers to skeptics ... or maybe because they’re simply likable.

I once observed a debate at a conservative Bible college between an evolutionist and a creationist. The majority of the audience were staunch creationists, and at first I didn’t think the poor evolutionist fellow stood much of a chance. But as soon as the event began, it became quickly apparent that the creationist was condescending, rude, obnoxious and irritating. Contrarily, the evolutionist was kind, considerate, respectful, humble and professional. At the end of the session, I suspect some audience members couldn’t help but prefer the evolutionist’s arguments because he was more endearing than his opponent. Even if you did identify with the creationist beliefs, you wouldn’t have wanted to be associated with this spokesperson arguing on its behalf.

Sure, it’s superficial, but while these people align themselves with Rob Bell, others adopt Mark Driscoll, N.T. Wright, or John Piper as their personal theologian for the exact same reasons. We use these famous Christians as avatars to create an identity for ourselves. We’re all guilty of doing this—choosing our “favorites” and blacklisting others. We do it in part because of a theologian’s personality—are they engaging, good storytellers, likeable? We are often more interested in charisma than data, and even if a message is rationally sound, it’s likely to be ignored if it’s boring.

When you challenge someone’s theology you aren’t just questioning their worldview and system of beliefs, you’re attacking their community.

Christian colleges continually report that incoming freshman know less of the Bible than the previous year’s students—a trend that has repeated itself for years. Students don’t know dates, places, names, or even the simplest references from the Bible. In the same way, our ideas of theology have seemingly transformed from logical arguments to relational affiliations. This is one reason younger Christians have flocked toward the social justice movement: Actions speak louder than words. And actions are usually interpersonal and relationally-driven.

Using “academic” theological reasoning to convert people to Christianity (or other Christian sets of doctrine) is empty without a personality behind it. When you challenge someone’s theology you aren’t just questioning their worldview and system of beliefs, but suggesting that their spouse, relatives, friends, babysitter, neighbors and other relationships they’ve developed because of that particular theology are built on a false premise. In other words, you’re attacking their community.

We align ourselves with theologians instead of theologies because they are warmer, friendlier and actually personify a complicated idea. We can use them as easy references—accessing their books, podcasts, websites and seminars. And even though we don’t always have an authentic relationship with them (most people have never met their favorite theologian), they present themselves—and their ideas—in a relational manner.

Fancy words, logical arguments and detailed presentations mean nothing if you don’t have a relationship. Simply spewing out facts and data is no longer effective to a population that thinks and acts relationally. Many churches have already realized this and have transformed their mass messaging from being informational to communal. But I’m continually surprised by how many Christians fail to realize this, and despite the reality of damaged relationships and offending hoards of online friends, they continue to force their theology in an abrasive and matter-of-fact way .

There’s nothing wrong with “serious” theology, where rational formulas, philosophical reasoning and the gritty knowledge of Greek and Hebrew shed light onto a particular scripture verse or idea. This information is extremely valuable, but to resound with individuals in a lasting way, it must be presented within the context of a meaningful relationship.

Some pastors fail to realize this and will spend days preparing a sermon about love, kindness and following Jesus, but won’t have enough spare time to meet a church member over coffee. For Christians, the truth that theology is communicated better through actions and relationships than by information should be taken to heart.

This is how Christ won over his followers: By setting an example and investing in people’s lives through loving relationships. We should do the same.

25 Comments

84,032

tyrannynot commented…

I think the article justdescribedthis comment.
I think that Christ was the best theologian that ever was & his teachings, along with the rest of the Bible is pretty plain in it's explanation. And just in case you missed some of the details Paul, John , James & Jude kinda iron out the wrinkles.

84,032

redeemed commented…

I enjoyed the author's viewpoint, a few of the plenary comments reminded me that I am to feel "bad" about some of the things I believe as a Christian. This constant agitation by believers who claim to know better is both sad and frustrating.

Throughout my formative years, my Mother made sure I never missed a Sunday at First Baptist Church. There I learned most of the King James version of the Bible and memorized the words to most of the hymns we sang.

Unfortunately, the Church taught me little that was actually true about the geological history of our planet, or the biological and psychological origins of our human conscience and spirituality. The Church taught me nothing about the history of the development of Christian doctrine, during which some of the ideas and beliefs of good Christ-like people were suppressed by those who desired authority on those issues.

The Church taught me incomplete and misguided doctrines that bordered on psychological child abuse, involving emphasis on hell fire, Armageddon, and the rapture. There was never any discussion of issues like preterism, or premillennial dispensationalism. There was never any clue that some of the beliefs that were described as eternal had been popularized in the last 150 years.

I was told that the Jews had been in Israel for thousands of years, without any mention of their absence between the time of the utter destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the first century and the time of the Jews' return in the twentieth century. I was told about the ancient, paternalistic, authoritarian beliefs of a Semitic tribe in the Middle East and how they repeatedly failed God, yet I was supposed to accept their antiquated notions of divinity as I tried to apply the Bible to my very small life in the modern world.

The Church did not teach me about the historical, political, and often demonic intrigue related to the selective assembly, translation, and interpretation of scripture.
Truly, I have never felt more enlightened than the first time I heard my Methodist minister's sermon that summarized the Bible in less than an hour. He concluded by arranging 34 different styles and types of Biblical texts on the stage, and asked that we pick one and read it.

Given the knowledge that is readily available to literate adults, it is absolutely ridiculous to suggest that the Bible advocates teachings that education, common sense, and direct evidence tell us is a lie. To believe and preach those lies undermines everything that continues to be important about Jesus' ministry. Compare those stubborn beliefs to the long held notion that the Sun revolved around the earth.

What the theologically trained and authoritatively inclined have a hard time understanding is that they have no authority whatsoever over their fellow man to issue pronouncements that certain interpretations of scripture will result in exclusion from salvation. Unless the church focuses more on what this article advocates and humbly accepts the desire to learn the shortcoming of what many claim as Bible inspired doctrine, the Church will suffer and so will the people who need it.

The Bible is a living, breathing source of inspiration for the people who seek its message today. Why would anyone even suggest that the message should be identical to the one received and advocated by early Christians. I believe many of those early Christians would concur on this point if they had the benefit of living in our time.

James Aaron Fretz

37

James Aaron Fretz commented…

Who is our theologian? God. 'Nuff said.

Kiel West

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Kiel West commented…

I reject Theologians based on their silly outfits. Bye Mark! Bye Rob!

Kiel West

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Kiel West commented…

In all seriousness, I think this misses a crucial point. One must ask, if we find a "relational" likeability in a given Theologian, doesn't it stand to reason that what the Theologian believes holds significant bearing over how they behave relationally? Bad beliefs betray a lack of character, and vice-versa. The most "correct" Theologians therefore would have the most Jesus running through their veins, and therefore be the most likeable to followers of Jesus. Or are we so convinced that in our depravity, we can't recognize Jesus in the theology AND in the personality of a Theologian? Let's start giving some credit to our regeneration. If after due consideration, a Theologian smells off—does not have the sweet aroma of Christ, enjoy shaking the dust off your feet as you exit the camp.

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