Monday, 22 October 2012

Beware the Heresy

I've kind of gotten the sense that people in Biblical studies tend to think their choice of major is  superior to theology. Well, probably superior to anything, but in particular, superior to theology. Theology is like the wayward cousin of Biblical studies - well-intentioned but misguided.

People in Biblical studies do, in fact, have an advantage over people in theology in certain circumstances. For example, suppose that two students are in a trivia game show:

Host: Please describe the process in the book of Numbers by which a woman suspected of adultery would be tried when there was no eyewitness evidence.

Theology student: Uh....

Biblical Studies student: Well, first they'd cart her off to the priest and give the priest some barley. Then the priest would put holy water in a jug, stick some dust in the water, and tell the woman to let her hair loose and the woman would hold on to the barley while the priest would have the woman swear that she didn't sleep with any guy but her husband and the priest would curse her so that her thighs would waste away and her abdomen swell up big-

Host: That's fi-

Biblical Studies student: -but he'd stick a disclaimer in there so that if she actually hadn't been sleeping around, then the curse wouldn't stick. And the woman would agree to it all, and the priest would write the curse on a scroll and then wash the ink into the dusty water and make her drink the water. And then he'd take the barley from the woman and burn some of it on the altar. Did I mention it had to be exactly one-tenth of an ephah of barley for the procedure?

Theology student: Did you memorize the book of Numbers?

Biblical Studies student: I was in quizzing as a kid.

Bible student, score one. Theology student, zip.

Knowing what the Bible says comes in pretty handy in a large variety of contexts.

But contrary to what a lot of people seem to believe, theology is actually the Siamese twin of Biblical studies and not the wayward cousin. If you try to have either theology or Biblical studies without the other, you'll end up with a shriveled, dead mess.

This needs some clarification. Technically, you can have theology without any Biblical basis, but it's going to end up whacked. It will be the product of your own head, your own culture, and your own dinner last night. Any divine inspiration guiding your theology will be entirely unverifiable.

The reverse is also true. You can study the Bible without considering any theology, but then you end up knowing lots of random facts without having any idea how to connect them. You can recite the book of Numbers, but you can't explain the Trinity because there isn't a verse that explicitly states it. As soon as you start looking at themes and how the verses relate to each other and what the Bible is trying to tell you about God, guess what - that's theology.

"Well, that may be so," the Bible students might say, "but our theology is based entirely on the Bible. It's straight from God. It's the purest, most true, and only worthwhile theology."

Funny you should say that. Actually, in the fourth century, there was a group of people known as the Homoians. They thought the same thing. They resisted using any kind of terminology or developing any ideas beyond what they saw was as being clearly demonstrated in Scripture.

They were also condemned and excommunicated as heretics for denying the deity of Christ.

What I'm trying to say is you really can't build a theology on nothing but the Bible. Your theology will still be coming from your own head and your own culture, except that you'll have replaced last night's dinner with the Word of God. You will feel more confident, but there's still plenty of room for things to go really wrong. It has certainly happened in the past.

That is why it is so important to have people studying theology beyond what is written in the pages of the Bible. When you study theology, you can see how other people from other cultures and other times have developed their ideas. You can see things about those theologies to which its creators were blind. You can see other points of view you would never have considered. You can follow the arguments back and forth to find out where the theories are weak and where they are strong. You can see what influenced their development, and fast-forward to discover its consequences. Best of all, it doesn't take you 2000 years to do. You simply reap the benefits of two millenniums of theological discourse in the span of one lifetime.

Studying the Bible allows for a lot of personal growth and is certainly a very important part of anyone's life. I don't intend to imply that Biblical studies are a waste of time. Study your Bible, and be excited about it!

But please don't turn up your nose at theology. That's just silly.

Uncle Ray: Are they teaching you any heresy at Bible school?
Me: Well, actually, I'm in a history of Christian theology class, so yeah... kind of a lot.

"Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period." C. S. Lewis


Anonymous said...

I have just finished my own class on Christian theology history(pre-reformation) as well.

What strikes me is how much the early Church relied on Greek philosophy. I wonder what our biases are that we are blind to.

Rather poetically humbling that we could be considered heretics by future Christians even though we may have the best of intentions.

- Chaos Poet

Art said...

Interesting. So the Homoians did not believe the Bible taught the deity of Christ? Where did the idea originate then?

I have read that Origen was an influential theologian that lived in 202 AD era but was eventually retroactively declared a heretic in 543. That is a long time later. I wonder if the pendulum will swing and one day he will be declared a saint.