Beware of sacrosanct theology—that perfect, unchanging, holy definition of what can be known about God and his plan—it doesn’t exist. For many, their theology has become an idol that is worshiped as a replacement of what God has declared. The idea of the infallibility of church doctrine, ministerial decisions, or historical church councils are all misplaced belief in religious traditions. Per the voice of God:
“’You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.’ And he said to them: ‘You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!’” (Mk 7:8-9)
Jesus confronts all religious leaders who allow human defined doctrine to override reliance upon the actual words recorded in the Bible. Theological tradition and denominational doctrines can become idolatry. It is not only possible, but actually very common, for Christians to worship what they believe ahead of whom they ought to believe in. Knowing Jesus is far more important than being skilled at explaining him. The former requires submission and faith; the latter allows for independent control and manipulation of explanations that favor what we desire.
Theology, other than the specific wording of Scripture, is not the same thing as Truth. Theology is a human expression of divine revelation. The revelation is always trustworthy, but the theology, like the human believer, should always be presented with the humble acknowledgement that it is in a constant state of maturing and may not fully reflect the truth at any given point in time.
Again, there needs to be a distinction made between theology that is directly stated in Scripture, and that which is derived from Scripture through the words of men. They both are important, but only the first is absolutely trustworthy; the latter should always be held cautiously, used carefully, and continually allowed to be questioned and re-measured to what Scripture actually says. Theology stated in Scripture is always true and timeless, such that theological statements declared in the Old Testament are just as valid and reliable as those stated under the New Covenant. Such theology, like truth, never changes.
In the following example, Jesus gives us a theological statement that is not just correct, it is specifically a statement of divine truth as well. The declaration is given as a biblical statement of theological truth, but subsequent religious efforts at adding definition to what it means to be born again, which extend detail beyond what the text actually states, would become human-impacted theology, and should be allowed to continually be re-measured to what Scripture actually records:
“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (Jn 3:3)
Theology that is derived from Scripture and worded by religious men and church councils is very necessary and often helpful, but should never be taken or maintained over time with the same degree of trust that is reserved for theological statements directly preserved in the Bible. Such theology–like views on the Trinity, life-after-death, heaven and hell–can point to passages of support in Scripture, or be formed from commands of application that appear to reveal further fundamental truths beyond just that specific focus, but they should never be taken as inspired-without-error like those words given through the writers of Scripture. Both involve human writers and speakers, but the first is the only group that God declares is entirely his own breath and “will never disappear”.
Our human tendency to distort everything we touch is so pervasive, that it is worth noting that even direct biblical statements that are simply quoted verbatim out of holy writ, can still be mis-applied, mis-defined, and mis-used for personal gain. The theological statements themselves remain true, but the context in which many try to use them, and the human agendas that are mixed in with those declarations, and the defined meanings that ministers use to explain those statements, often distort the truth contained therein. With this understanding, a wise student of Scripture will bring every thought captive to Christ, even direct quotes from the mouth of God, so that they can be purified and used according to the holy and divine will of God, and not distorted into “no gospel at all”. This is how Jesus confronted the Devil who tried to quote Scripture to deceive the Lord into sin.
Human language is a vessel which can contain truth, but the word of truth is spirit, which is why no amount of education can discover truth without dependence upon the Spirit of God. So when Jesus identified his words as truth and spirit and life, he was not speaking of the Aramaic language through which he spoke; he was speaking of the meaning hidden within those words, which can be conveyed without error even when translated from one human language into another. In the same way, the idea of “the original Greek” used to write the New Testament words of Scripture are themselves a translation as well. All quotes of Jesus are Greek translations from the local Aramaic language that Jesus used, and also the Greek was a human language that was used as a vessel to contain and convey spiritual words of truth breathed by God. Again, we need to be careful how we depend on our human words, human definitions, and human traditions in claiming to speak theological truth.
For many churches and Christians, their fundamentals of theology are taught as the bedrock of belief, and cannot be questioned or viewed with doubt. It is lost on many that those fundamentals are all human inventions, though they claim to be grounded on scriptural passages. The noble character of the Bereans is rare—to search the Scriptures daily to see of those theological statements are true. In practice, many assume that if their church has determined the theology is accurate, or the individual members are satisfied with their own brief study, then the theology becomes sacrosanct—holy and unchangeable and unquestioned, as if it was the breath of God that could never be distorted by a human touch.
Those who don’t embrace the theology this absolutely are often pushed out of those churches. It is the primary reason for the unbiblical practice of congregational membership, and away from dependence upon membership in Christ. It puts pressure on attendees to accept what that leadership defines in contrast to all other churches in the area that claim belief in the same Lord. The Bible, and its specific wording, is rarely the primary basis for accepting someone’s profession of faith in Christ.
Sacrosanct truth exists; sacrosanct theology (other than the uninterpreted wording of Scripture itself) does not. Humans need theology to describe and formalize the revelation of truth into doctrines that can be taught and used to measure right from wrong, but such theology must never be viewed as an acceptable replacement of truth. It is truth we are to maintain, believe, and promote, not our wording of that truth that we have found useful.
Of itself, theology is not something bad—in fact, God requires that we invest ourselves in teaching what we can understand about him, and that means that we are expected to form theological statements. Just as each believer is a fallible “temple of the Holy Spirit”, so our theological wordings are also fallible containers of truth. Theology is very important and necessary, but it has a place and purpose that should not be allowed to replace the truth of God. It is only a tool for aiding the teacher and believer in understanding and accepting the revealed words of God.
God reveals truth; when we begin to comprehend that revelation, we identify that truth by formalized statements that become the basis of theology. In this way, theology is intended to be a record of what God has revealed. This difference between truth and theology is why it is necessary for humans to continually humble their ideas and traditional explanations to what God actually reveals, because theology can only reflect truth—it never replaces it. Theology can miss details and get some things incorrectly defined. Truth never changes.
Theology, as a structured study of God, is presented in language to reveal what should be accepted by humans regarding God and his word. The only way we are capable of recognizing truth is through revelation. Humans are incapable of identifying any truth of God by natural effort. We are entirely dependent upon what God reveals and has preserved through his holy word. In this way, truth is never a by-product of scientific observation or of human reason. It is always something we receive from God as he chooses to make it known.
Even the first apostles struggled with this distinction. You may recall the vision of Peter, about eating unclean meat in the sheet let down from heaven, to which he replied, “not so Lord, I have never eaten unclean animals”. As his own mind wrestled with what God appeared to be revealing, he eventually came to acknowledge the truth that God is not a prejudiced respecter-of-persons, and intends to call believers from all races. Peter’s own grasp of theology—thinking that God was focused on just saving the Jews—was confronted by the truth of God and had to be brought into submission to what the Lord revealed.
As a cautionary note here, there is a difference between the theological understanding of those early apostles, and their writing of theology that became accepted as Scripture. The first is a reference to what was developing and maturing personally in their minds, and the latter is a truth about what the Holy Spirit was specifically breathing through each of those writers as they were scribing the words being given to them. As Jesus taught, they were not to worry about what to say in defense of their faith when brought before authorities, “it will be given to you what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Holy Spirit speaking through you.”
Although the personality of each may well have been allowed to influence the style of writing, the truth itself that each word presents was specifically inspired by God for a purpose in establishing holy Scripture that was unique from all other inspiration in defining theology, “for all Scripture is God-breathed”. In other words, the theology presented in Scripture is not subject to the same cautions of likely error or incompleteness that all other forms of traditional theology are under.
For example, when Paul says that the two women who produced sons for Abraham “represent two covenants”, that theology cannot be found anywhere else in Scripture, and was an interpretation of theological meaning that could only be directly given by the Spirit of God as absolutely true and absent of all human opinion. This is why church doctrine must always submit to that originally taught doctrine and not be allowed to overshadow or replace the gospel that was “once for all given to the saints.” Theology that is directly recorded in Scripture is truth, and thus is generally spoken of as truth rather than by the label of theology; all other theology outside of Scripture (which is typically what is meant by statements-of-theology) can only reflect that truth, and must be received with the same humble caution in accepting how it is worded and what it suggests is meant by topical comparisons in Scripture.
It is the Lord Jesus Christ we are to worship, not our definitions, traditions, or history.
Next we will look at how the Bible presents the difference between receiving theology and attributing it specifically to a person or event. It is a set of stumbling stones that many who are casual with the word of God trip over.