It’s fifty years since I first ‘caught’ theology. In 1972 I failed some university exams, dropped out of my biology course and began the journey that would lead to ordained ministry and a lifetime as a student and teacher of theology. I can still remember the buzz from first reading John Macquarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology. I settled on systematic theology and Christian doctrine as my main areas of study and teaching. In other words, I’ve been interested in reflecting on the main affirmations of Christian faith, the ways we hand these on from generation to generation and the connections we can make between different affirmations and the world we live in.
This means that I see things rather differently from Andrew Pratt (The illogicality of faith, March 28th). He worries that an over-emphasis on creeds and faith-as-affirmation has blunted Christianity as a way of living out the lordship of Christ in the world. I think I see what he means, but from my perspective, creeds and doctrines do matter, not least because they have a profound effect on the way we understand the world and act within it. Bad theology is one element in the perversion of human behaviour, prompting and underpinning evil deeds with divine sanction. By contrast, good theology, sound Christian doctrine, helps to underwrite a way of life that models itself on Christ. Two contemporary examples illustrate this.
The first is very close to home. In an essay in The Guardian[i], to mark the recent Netflix documentary on Jimmy Savile, Mark Lawson wrote about Savile’s distorted theology of salvation and its part in his horrendous catalogue of sexual abuse. Savile, a life-long committed Roman Catholic, believed in a God who judges us according to the balance of our behavioural accounts. We are admitted to heaven if our tally of good deeds is longer than our list of sins. His frantic charity work, fund-raising, sponsored runs and cycle rides, were all part of a desperate attempt to compensate for the abusive actions that he knew were wrong. He really seemed to believe that he could earn his place in heaven by – as it were – bribing God to ignore the many sins he had committed. Repentance, mercy and grace do not seem to have been part of his theological vocabulary.
The second example is even more current. Several observers have noted that Vladimir Putin’s hostility towards Ukraine is at least partly driven by a theology and spirituality that legitimises aggression. According to the Religious Information Service of Ukraine[ii], this theology combines a belief in the divine inspiration and vocation of the Russian nation with a Manichaean mindset, setting a virtuous, godly Russia in opposition to the dark and evil West. While there may be an element of political expediency in Putin’s religiosity, it does seem that this mystical nationalism is a genuine conviction. Once again, bad theology is linked in with disastrously immoral and destructive action.
Now, I don’t want to argue that believing in the traditional creeds will guarantee a life of righteousness and responsibility – there are far too many counter-examples for me to do that. But they are part of the story of faith, which is always a combination of belief and action. Last Saturday – Easter Eve – I joined the congregation in my local parish church for the Easter vigil. As part of the service we re-affirmed our baptismal vows, confessing our faith in the words of the historic creeds, and at the same time we renounced evil and promised to follow Christ.
Let me briefly mention two authors who can help us see the relevance of doctrinal affirmations. The first is the American theologian, Ellen Charry. In By the Renewing of Your Minds [iii](one of my all-time favourite books on doctrine) she takes examples of doctrinal controversy and developments in each stage of Christian history, from the New Testament to the present. In each case (for example, the trinitarian theology of St Augustine) she shows how doctrine is presented in order to promote a vision of the Christian life, not simply as a form of abstract speculation.
My other example is a contemporary British Methodist theologian, David Clough. Clough (a fellow contributor to Theology Everywhere) has made the focus of his work the Christian approach to non-human creation, particularly animals. In On Animals[iv], he takes some of the central affirmations of Christian doctrine, creation, reconciliation and redemption, and helps us see how they can direct our attitudes and behaviour towards animals.
So, let’s not abandon the creeds, or water down the key affirmation of Christian faith. Instead, let’s make sure that we don’t separate doctrine from discipleship. They really do belong together.
[i] The Guardian, April 1st, 2022.
[ii] https://risu.ua/en/russian-world-20-and-putins-spirituality_n126473 , accessed 16-04-22.
[iii] Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds, The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine, New York, Oxford, 1997.
[iv] On Animals: Systematic Theology: Volume I: London, T&T Clark, 2012
32 thoughts on “Good and Bad Theology – and Why They Matter”
Alleluia and Amen!
This article has been a long time coming but the timing couldn’t be better for me, as I prepare to take part in an ecumenical Alpha Course in our town. I was an Alpha convert twelve years ago and it has been an amazing journey of exploration, enlightenment and deepening faith. It feels like I have come full circle, and I now feel ready to help others who are just starting out on their walk with God.
The assumptions you make in the examples you quote is that affirmation of doctrine and creeds is the essential prerequisite having the Christian faith and, presumably, our ethical behaviour (loving our neighbour as we love ourselves). I take the view that such affirmation is unnecessary. It is setting up conditions as to whether we are acceptable to God. This contradicts the fact that the love of God for all people and the love that Jesus showed is absolutely unconditional. Another assumption you make is that if we question the Christian dogma, creeds and doctrines or hold to another faith, we are inevitably engaged in bad theology.
Andrew Pratt’s article “The Illogicality of Faith” was like a breathe of fresh air in the world of competitive piety and righteousness engendered by your stress on doctrines and creeds.
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‘Don’t count on your warhorse to give you victory; for all its strength, it cannot save you.’
Too often people mistake what’s in the creeds for faith. I have faith in God, and happen to express it in the medium of Christianity; Christian creeds outline the major tenets of what Christianity is about – but they are not set in stone and are merely pointers to what the Church believes; across the Church there are many variations on the theme [many other factors will inform that, hopefully leading to making reasonably informed decisions] but that doesn’t mean we’re not part of the One Church. Certainly the church has a lot of work to make up in teaching its people – not teaching them that ‘this is The Truth that you must believe’ [ISIS did that] but teaching people how to look at and interpret e.g. the bible, experience, what the creeds are really saying [and not saying] etc. An informed Church will always have a variety of interpretation, but will hopefully avoid the obnoxious ideas you’ve mentioned.
A most welcome article, Richard.
Faith, as you say, must be a combination of belief and action.
There are many variations and interpretations of the gospel, the prosperity gospel, liberation theology, black theology, feminist theology etc. People tend to adopt the one that best suits their circumstances, politics or character. That’s no bad thing, so long as we don’t insist our preferred gospel message is the only one, or the right one. The Church, as a body, has a duty to unite and over-ride all the different variations and adhere to one simple, clear gospel message, the one which has endured for two thousand years, the gospel of repentance and grace. Regardless of circumstances, politics or character, sin is the great equaliser. We are all sinners. Jesus taught that even anger is a sin of the heart. Who can honestly say they have never felt anger towards another human being? Those who feel they have no need of God’s grace are gulty of pride and arrogance. It would be a good thing if all Christians confessed their faith, and their sins, every week, in every church.
“good theology, sound Christian doctrine.” Are these really the same thing? Surely, the study of the nature of God involves asking questions, trying to understand more clearly, and exploring where modern progress in knowledge in science and other fields has come into conflict with religious presuppositions. Simply repeating a form of words drawn up in response to a dispute in the fourth century is to assume that we have known for centuries everything that we can possibly know about God and our relationship with him, and there is nothing more to learn, because he has stopped talking to us. Such theology is starting with a conclusion that cannot be challenged in any way and then finding a route back to that answer regardless of the evidence or the context.
The bible is a living document, not an historical one, and our doctrines ought to reflect that. We should not trap ourselves within first century or medieval thinking, but allow God to speak to us through the bible and through nature in terms that make sense in a 21st century world of quantum uncertainty, with an immensely diverse humanity, set in a universe (parallel universes?) with a diameter of over 93 billion light years, and with rapidly advancing technological innovations and scientific discoveries.
Over the last two weeks a lot of hymns have been sung about triumph over death and evil that was achieved two thousand years ago. Those hymns given a good expression of sound Christian doctrine. Yet, we’ve sung them against the background of over 6 million deaths so far from Covid 19 and the horrors that are happening in Ukraine, as if what is happening in the world today is not a matter for questioning theology.
‘In this world you will have trouble and strife, but take heart, for I have overcome the world!’ (Jesus of Nazareth)
I have a photograph which shows people in a church after a Christian service. It is taken in front of a large banner which proclaims “Jesus Saves.” There are two unfamiliar features to the group in the photograph. Firstly, there are 13 ordained ministers present, an unusually large number. Secondly, all the lay people are wearing white hoods. To join the organisation that this group represents, one has to sign up to orthodox Christian beliefs. These people happily recite the creeds. So these people feel that they embrace “sound Christian doctrine.” They certainly will have no truck with any liberal Christian ideas. They fully expect to be welcomed into Heaven as “good Christians” in due course.
Religious doctrines are valuable, because people have benefitted from them over centuries. But they only remain valuable for as long as they speak to people’s personal experiences. Thereafter they present barriers to a developing faith and also to those who are seeking faith. This is particularly the case when faith is seen as intellectual assent to beliefs about God, rather than “following the way”. Attempts to rationalize Christianity to fit in with an age of science has too often led to literalization of scripture and an over-emphasis on doctrines. As a result, stories, metaphors, and images that sought to express a relationship with a God who is beyond description become treated as factual accounts and the supra-rational truths they contain lose much of their power. Added to this, the church, in seeking to maintain doctrines in their original form, has clung on to traditional language and concepts, like “Lamb on the throne”, much of which is beyond the comprehension of those not brought up in a church environment.
Are this article and the one by Andrew Pratt referred to in this article really as diametrically opposed as some of those posting here (who might simplistically be called supporters or detractors) seem to suggest? Don’t get me wrong they have very significant differences, at least of emphasis and probably of substance too, but does that mean one should reject one out of hand and defend the other?
The summary of that previous article given here seems very fair, “He worries that an over-emphasis on creeds and faith-as-affirmation has blunted Christianity as a way of living out the lordship of Christ in the world.” It seems significant too that Richard goes on to say, “I think I see what he means”.
Might Richard’s critique actually be of benefit to those who only hold to faith as an affirmation of creedal beliefs as well as to those who see such affirmations as unhelpful?
Isn’t it entirely reasonable to see reflection and engagement with doctrinal belief as helpful in relation to being Christ like? Just as it is entirely reasonable to see blind affirmation, particularly to a narrow doctrine of salvation, as a deterrent to the offer of life in all its fullness.
Robert and Pavel raise legitimate concerns about this article. I hope they are over stating those concerns. That is I hope Richard is not saying creedal belief is the prerequisite; nor I hope is he saying that the only way to engage with the traditional creeds is in some literal way that they have always been (rightly) interpreted. I do worry however, about the use of the terms ‘Good Theology’, ‘Bad Theology’ and ‘sound doctrine’, as they may suggest moving towards the idea of doctrine as something simplistically true and that the ‘correct’ version must be believed. They may of course just be shorthand to help show the positive place of doctrinal thinking in relation to discipleship. The phrase “water down the key affirmation of Christian faith” in the final paragraph seems more troubling. I choose (perhaps naively) to focus on the final sentences with the understanding that doctrine as used there is not narrow and exclusive: “Instead, let’s make sure that we don’t separate doctrine from discipleship. They really do belong together.”
Is there a place for the traditional liberal or do we just want our cake and eat it? Surely all theological language is metaphorical and critical thinking about it and getting it to engage with the contemporary without loosing the deeper truths from the past has always been present. Is it really necessary to choose between a narrow (outdated) literal understanding of doctrine and abandoning tradition entirely as not being compatible with the modern world.?
Of course it’s not necessary! Most Christians are a happy mixture of both. Some people just like an argument, that’s all. They should learn to live and let live.
Faith is much more than holding the “right” beliefs about God. It is a personal spiritual journey of discovery, a transforming relationship of love and trust, an active response to a vision of God’s kingdom. Beliefs are merely the way we attempt to describe a relationship that is far deeper than any words and how we seek to explain a God who is far beyond our understanding. Relationships are much more a matter of the heart rather than of the mind; and that applies equally to our relationship with God. The rock on which it’s built isn’t intellectual argument, an understanding of doctrine or even bible texts but the heartfelt commitment that comes from the knowledge of his love and creative power that we feel from the very centre of our being.
The 14th century writer of “The Cloud of Unknowing” expressed this as, “God can be loved but he cannot be thought. He can be grasped by love but never by concepts. So less thinking and more loving.” This should be reflected in the way we talk to people about faith. The formal aspects of religion, like lists of beliefs and rituals and worship styles – the things that tend to divide people – aren’t that important. They are merely the lid on the box, the surface level. The truth of a faith isn’t in the picture or design or the label on the lid – in how people describe their faith – but in the contents of the box. It’s how people love and live in relation to God and to others that really matters. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Gal 5:6) [cf also Matt 7:16 and 7:21.]
One of the most influential theologians of our time is Fr Richard Rohr. In his book, Falling Upward, he explains it thus: the tradition in which we are taught about Jesus, and in which we are nourished and nurtured as we mature in our faith is our ‘container.’ As we are affirmed and upheld in our containers, we gain the confidence to enquire, explore and express our different points of view. At this point, many will uproot themselves from their containers and never return; others will branch out and embrace a broader faith, gaining the confidence to worship with other denominations and even other faiths, and to serve people of all faiths and of no faith, yet still remain firmly rooted and grounded in their own tradition.
I see it like this: when our parents raise us to be independent adults, we might find our worldview and our politics greatly differ from theirs, but such is the bond of love between us that we want to maintain a loving relationship with them, visit with them, and share our joys and sorrows with them. We respect their outdated beliefs and customs, we wouldn’t want or expect them to let go of all they hold dear just to conform to our more up-to-date lifestyles. In a fully functioning faith community, the old and the new should be able to live in peace and harmony, but it takes patience, tolerance and respect from all parties.
There is an important point that James brought up. There are groups that call themselves Christian with beliefs and actions that are unacceptable: Presumably the Ku Klux Klan use references to “the Chosen People” in the Bible to vindicate their hatred of non-whites, in the same way there are those who use the doctrine of “sinners in need of repentance” to justify systematic abuse, mental cruelty and harm. It seems blatantly obvious that these perversions of the Gospel are unacceptable and that the criterion of acceptability is whether the beliefs and actions are ethical or not. So I suggest that beliefs, creeds, dogma, etc. should be subject to qualification through the basic universal human ethical spirituality, (the love), within which we all live and move and have our being – the unconditional love of God. This would imply that the role of the church is to make people aware of our ethical spirituality, becoming followers of Jesus, rather than agonising over sound doctrine, salvation and the “tradition”.
Not for the first time Robert, I find myself wishing you had not clicked send on a post; and I say that very much as one who agrees with you a lot of the time and who is always immensely sympathetic to your views. The reason I say that is not because of the upset that might have been caused, but because your view will not actually be heard or you will be accused of things that allow your view to be dismissed.
In this particular case James had already made the point very well. Although it is interesting that no one had bothered to reply to his reasonable (powerful) and inoffensive (in the sense of not offending individuals, as opposed to ineffectual) post; but people pile on to you without addressing the issue. (I’m sorry, it may not be fair but you may be partially to blame for that.)
I do wonder how one does get people to engage with the important points James and you (and others) are making? My tedious long winded approach of asking questions is equally, if not more, ineffectual. Perhaps Richard will reply himself. I think he may acknowledge the problem illustrated by James’ reference to the KKK and accept there is huge danger in an abstract ‘sound doctrine’ trumping everything else. Indeed part of his premise was the idea of ‘bad theology’. I’m not sure it is easily dismissed as only bad apples like Savile, Putin or the KKK. Isn’t there something fundamentally worrying about a requirement to adhere to any doctrine, no matter how sound it is considered, that makes us less, not more Christ like? The idea that all for whom adherence to ‘sound doctrine’ is of fundamental importance are somehow like the KK K is clearly absurd. I think Richard was saying ‘good theology’ can under pin ‘good discipleship’. It is certainly my experience that many of those whose conservative theology I find most troubling have been amongst the most loving and caring disciples I have known.
I am sorry, but I do see if not actually hypocrisy, then certainly a tension in the views of some of those upset by your post. On the one hand there is talk of tolerance and a wide variety of views being accepted; but then there also seems to be the idea that there is a basic belief that must be held if one is to be considered really acceptable. To point out there are dangers and even harm in such a belief led system seems to be the ultimate taboo. Sadly, if those who challenge such belief can be treated as ‘deranged’ or sent off to found their own ‘church’ then there is no need to face the real issues.
I think you are taking your aversion to traditional Christianity to extremes, Robert, and I found that last comment very offensive. It’s the extremists on both sides who cause the problems; thankfully the majority of Christians are more moderate, tolerant and respectful; they certainly do not engage in ‘systematic abuse, mental cruelty and harm. No-one is forced to go to church! If you don’t want to belong to a creedal church, why not simply join a non-creedal church, or even start your own church without beliefs? It would be interesting to see how many you manage to convert.
Associating all Traditionalists with the KKK is akin to saying all Muslims are terrorists because of the actions of Al Qaeda. It is ridiculous and vitriolic. Robert, you are beginning to sound deranged.
Some people just like to cause a stir. The best response is no response, otherwise you are just giving him a platform.
I do wish people would actually read what I wrote rather than make assumptions.
Sorry Robert, I think I may have done you a disservice in the post above. Rereading your post I’m not sure that there is much that could be considered your fault in people taking offense. You are very clear, ‘there are those’ (i.e. only some) “who use the doctrine of “sinners in need of repentance” to justify systematic abuse, mental cruelty and harm.’ You are not saying ‘All traditionalist are akin to the KKK’. I suspect you would probably agree “the majority of Christians are more moderate, tolerant and respectful; they certainly do not engage in ‘systematic abuse, mental cruelty and harm.” You did not suggest that even all those who put a major emphasis on a doctrine of “sinners in need of repentance” are responsible for such harm.
I am struggling to see what is so offensive in your final comment, although perhaps it might be heard in a rather arrogant way and possibly seen to belittle people’s faith.
“The church aims to respond to those affected by abuse with respect and compassion.” (Methodist Church Safeguarding Policy)
This includes those who personally experience, or are affected by witnessing, spiritual abuse.
And rightly so, James.
Many people also physically abuse their own bodies by eating or drinking to extremes. We might show compassion and support, but we don’t ban everyone from eating and drinking moderately because of the excesses of the few. Denying someone the right to practice their religion, or ridiculing their beliefs, is also a form of abuse.
Watchman Nee (Ni To-sheng) was a great Chinese Christian leader. His success as an evangelist led to his arrest in 1952 on trumped up charges and he spent the final 20 years of his life in prison. In his book, “What Shall This Man Do?”, Nee points out that for the publican praying in the temple, for the woman who was bleeding and for the thief on the cross, all that was required was a reaching out towards God. He comments that Jesus didn’t remind the thief of his evil life or explain to him the plan of redemption, he simply said, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’
He suggests that we spend too much time worrying about doctrine – he uses the analogy that the light comes on when we press the switch, regardless of whether we understand the principles of electricity. He reinforces this by writing: “Quite often people preach the gospel by using a number of points, only to find that the next day someone will say, ‘I’ve forgotten the 3rd point. What was it?’ Salvation is not a matter of points! Salvation is not even a question of understanding or of will. It is a question of meeting God – of people coming into first-hand contact with Christ the Saviour.”
He continues: “So what, you ask me, is the minimum requirement in a person to make that contact possible? The basic condition of a sinner’s salvation is not belief or repentance, but just honesty of heart towards God. God requires nothing of us except that we come in that attitude. For it is the fact of the gospel, making possible the initial touch with Jesus Christ, that saves the sinner, and not the sinner’s understanding of it.”
Then they asked him “What must we do, to do the works God requires?
Jesus answered “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
Indeed. But note that it says “believe IN.” It doesn’t say “believe what the church tells you to believe ABOUT me.” It’s a matter of a trusting relationship not intellectual assent to Ideas about a God who is far beyond our understanding. One of the problems is that, in English, we don’t have a verb “to faith.” In Latin the word we translate as “I believe” is “Credo”. But ‘credo’ is much stronger than ‘I believe’. It has the sense of “I give my heart to.” So the opening statement of the Nicene creed is originally much more than intellectual agreement. “In my heart I place my trust in, and commit myself to, the one God, the creative force and the source of all life in the universe, whom I experience as a loving father.” Faith is so much more than accepting an idea; it involves a response, a commitment, a giving of oneself.
I would say the majority of Christians are committed, and do give of their money, time and skills in numerous ways, both in the church and in the world. Why do you think denying us our core beliefs will make us better Christians? And why would we believe what you tell us over the wisdom of the church fathers and all the appointed church leaders going back two millenia? Are you an ordained priest?
No-one is denying you your beliefs. I am just suggesting that faith is about much more than just signing up to a particular set of beliefs. Instead of telling people that they are not acceptable to God unless they share our beliefs, perhaps we should stress relationships, love and commitment as the essence of faith, as Jesus did, so that the church will be better placed to respond flexibly to individuals, expanding knowledge and fresh insights. After all, the quality of our faith is judged not by what we believe but by the kind of people we are, by our fruits (Matt 7:17-22).
Our priest manages to uphold our cherished beliefs and still delivers homilies which encourage universal Christian love, compassion for those in need, and service to church and community. How lucky am I? I don’t have to choose! In my experience most ordained ministers have this gift. That is why they are ordained. Lay people should not be encouraging Christians to go against the teaching of their ordained ministers.
In my experience many ordained ministers question some aspects of belief, dogma, doctrine or the creed. For me theology is about asking questions about God, not indoctrination into something called right belief.
I’m sure they do, and doesn’t that speak volumes as to why the Methodist Church is in such serious decline?
‘The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord drives you.’ Deuteronomy 4:27
The discussion on good and bad theology was very interesting in that it has convinced me that ethics is the measure of the difference. It endorsed the fact that in my inner life God only comes to mind in the context of my ethical concern for others.
I was also interested in Pavel’s statement that faith is, or ought to be, a verb; “Faith is so much more than accepting an idea; it involves a response, a commitment, a giving of oneself”. Wondered if we can consider the same about God in that we experience God as a verb – to God. God is the event that inspires, appeals, calls, insists, provokes and demands a response, a commitment, a giving of oneself in caring for each other. As I am sure you will realise there are implications to this view: It questions the idea of God as Being and Presence, it universalises “God” as the unconditional inclusive and non-judgmental love we find in human kindliness, and it suggests a religionless Christianity based on an ethical spirituality.
I would welcome any comment on the validity of this deconstructive theology and I am well aware that apart from suggestions from Paul in 1 Corinthians there is little biblical support.
‘….the fact that a person espouses the values of Christianity doesn’t necessarily make them a Christian. Love, peace, patience, long-suffering, altruism, goodness and kindness are very much universal human qualities. Diehard, completely convinced atheists often display outstanding qualities of virtue and goodness, as indeed do agnostics and people from other faiths. To be a Christian, then, isn’t associated purely and simply with morals, ethic, or how we live. To be a Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus. It is to believe with our hearts and confess with our tongues that Jesus is Lord.’
(Bible Alive 10.05.22)
While I agree with the main assertion of your post. I think too much weight has been put on the creeds. They have become dogmatic akin to scripture. They are treated as if the men of the second century and on were somehow more enlightened or more filled with the Spirit than we are now.