Why Theology Matters
So you’re looking at something that Jesus says that’s hard for you to accept, something like the recent parable where at the end of time the “tares” or “weeds” will be separated out from the “wheat” and burned up. And you decide (perhaps encouraged by something you learned in seminary about theories of the composition of the Bible, that there was a process of transmission and time passed before any of this was written down)—you decide not to believe that Jesus really said that. You’re going to question it precisely because it seems so wrong to decide that any person ever goes to hell. You’ll say, instead, that God’s love is so great that in the end he will not allow any person to be lost.
I understand this line of thought. We cannot read the Bible without thinking about the Bible, and thinking is always some sort of interpretation. But there is a move here that is both false and dangerous.
The false move is to allow your own judgment to preside over the biblical text. And the danger is, once we start articulating “what the Bible ought to say” or “what Jesus didn’t say even though it’s written in the Bible” then we, no matter how careful we are, will start coming up with a Bible and a Jesus that looks just like us.
Our posture towards the Bible should be one of humility before a text that we trust to be true. When we see something in the text that jars against our sense of morality, we need to interrogate the text further, boldly and humbly at once. We need to argue with the text without running away.
It is perfectly correct to say: “God, I don’t get this text. It seems the exact opposite to what I understand to be your character. Am I missing something?” It is okay to “push back.” But it is not okay to walk away from the Bible.
To the parable about burning the weeds at the end of time: Saint Paul tells us that Jesus is a fire, and he describes something that occurs at the end, a burning process which “tries” every person’s works. Some works will survive the fire, others will be burned away. Could it be that the wheat and the weeds in Jesus’ parable are both within each person? Then the burning up would be relief: at last, God will get rid of all the stuff in me that is bad!
Theology is, at its heart, a lifelong engagement with the biblical text, trying to make sense of it, trying to understand what it tells us about God and about human beings. Why does theology matter? Because it keeps us going back to the text; it won’t let us walk away.
This column is a bit of a confession. When I was newly appointed as Theologian-in-residence at Saint Thomas Church in New York City, I offered a number of classes on various theological topics. Some people asked me for a Bible study. I said: “I don’t do Bible; I’m a theologian!” I could hardly have been more wrong. I learned along the way that Thomas Aquinas, the great author of a monumental book called (roughly) “The Summation of all Theology,” the great Aquinas thought of himself as nothing more than a writer on the Bible.
We Christians, clergy and lay alike, need to keep reading the Bible, keep thinking about it, keep pondering it. We love it because it is “God’s Word written.” It is of course “only” a text: it is not a person, nor a Person. But it is a lovely text, a gift from the one who loves us for ever, the one whom we shall encounter at the end face to face.