When Your Theological System Becomes an Idol

Co-Authored by Scott Foreman and Travis Jamieson 

You’ve heard the terms and you’ve undoubtedly heard the arguments.  There’s the Amillennialists.  There’s the Postmillennialists.  There’s the pre, mid, posttribulationists, and suddenly the “no-rapture” people.  You’ve got Calvinists, Armenians, Puritans and Liberationists.  And probably all sitting in the pews (or chairs) around you in church.  Everyone has their own unique theological bent – and there’s really no stopping that (and we’re not aiming for you to do so).

However…..

In the midst of what we claim to know as true, there can be a slight sense of arrogance – a “theological pride” that can creep up in even the noblest of believers.  We hold to our positions tightly without any possibility of error, misinterpretation, or misalignment with the Scriptures.  We pride ourselves on our ability to articulate and defend, and criticize anyone who holds a different position than we do.  We applaud our studies and believe we’ve put in a few more hours than the next person.  And maybe, without even recognizing it, you read more from Calvin than you do from your own Bible.  We spend more time discussing the latest podcast than the latest truth gleaned from Scripture.

In short…your theological position has become an idol.  We would define an idol as anything in life that replaces the sufficiency of Christ.  And yes, even a love for a “system” can easily replace our love for our Savior.

From the outset, here’s the deal on the two guys writing this post: one of the authors of this blog is committed to a Reformed understanding of theology and biblical interpretation who plans to serve as a minister in a Reformed denomination.  The other is a Pastor of a church that has been traditionally premillennial, and he would hold solidly to four of the five Calvinist soteriological arguments, and is a moderately progressive dispensationalist.

That being said, what would stop us from making the Reformed theological system or dispensationalism an idol? Or in other words, what will stop us from making my theological system the end rather than a means?  We think that’s a good question, and that’s why we’re writing this post.

Check out what Jesus said to the Pharisees in John 5:39-40:

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”

Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of believing more in their own understanding of Scripture, rather than in Him. In fact, the Pharisees would have known the Scriptures better than anyone around, but they made the mistake of making the Scriptures and end in and of themselves, rather than a means to the End. They loved to debate all the positions, they argued over who held to the correct theological position – but their hearts were far from God (Matthew 15:8).  They had a form of godliness but denied God in their life (2 Timothy 3:5). We may not go as far as they did, but we need to be so careful to recognize that the true end is found in Jesus Christ.  If our theological system or biblical interpretation does not bring us consistently to that end, then there is a good chance we have made our means an end in and of themselves.

How do we avoid this from happening?

Never think that the theological system that you hold to encompasses all that the Bible has to say about who God is and what He has done in the world. In Francis Turretin’s first volume of his Institutes of Elenctic Theology he writes:

“Hence if anyone desires more in these pages and calls this a crude and immature foetus, he will have me confessing the same.”

Turretin wrote a three-volume systematic theology that expands over 1600 pages and covers a massive number of theological topics. Yet, he admits that his writings are far from perfect.  In fact, he did not even want to publish them, but only did so because he was strongly encouraged to. This reminds us that to prevent us from making our theological systems an idol, we need to begin from a place of humility – by admitting our systems may cover a lot of different theological ground – but it will never encompass all that God wants us to know and learn about Him.

Does someone with a different theological perspective rub you the wrong way?  Do you think that because another Christian thinks differently than you, that they are the enemy?  Think carefully about this – it can be hard to answer this question objectively.  Never forget that your theological “opponents” are members of the same Christ as you. In the midst of many theological camps, it can be easy to pick fights with or completely cut off other camps.  However, this does not seem to align with what Paul writes in Ephesians 4:4-6,

“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Theological debate is important if it is used to sharpen and edify each other, but if it is done in a manner that pronounces eternal judgments on the opposition, then we have forgotten what Paul tells us here in Ephesians. We are members of the same Christ and even though we do not agree with each other theologically or even biblically on all things, we can at least agree that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father and the only salvation from the penalty of sin. When we are baptized, we are baptized into the one baptism of Jesus Christ. We are buried with him and raised with Him. So yes, you may disagree with the Reformed church in your town because they baptize infants, but it does not mean they don’t share in the same forgiveness of sins that you do at your Baptist church.

A few signs that you could be heading towards the making of a theological idol:

  1. You only read authors that agree with your theological position. Remedy: Pick up a book by someone from another Christian tradition than your own.
  2. You never think of theology in light of the history of the church. Throughout the last two thousand years of church history, there have been many different theological systems and views, but that doesn’t mean they were all wrong. Remedy: Pick up an accessible overview of church history and be reminded of the diverse theological perspectives that Christians have had throughout the years.
  3. You have never spent time with the people or pastors from the other churches in your town. Perhaps, there is a Presbyterian, Reformed, Baptist or Methodist church in your town and you don’t agree with their theology. Why don’t you give the pastor of that church a call and talk with him or her about what they believe and why they believe it. Don’t go looking for a fight, but rather go looking to build bridges and educate yourself.
  4. You’re typically talking about great books and podcast, and less about the actual Bible.  Nothing wrong with great books and podcasts (we read them and subscribe to them).  But nothing can replace the pure milk of the Word (1 Peter 2:2).  When all your favorite preachers are gone, and all their books forgotten, you will have your Bible. Master it. Master it.” – John Piper

Has your theological system become an idol (something that has become a sufficiency in your life apart from Christ)?  Here’s a proposed remedy:

Humble yourself.  Remember: no human has all the answers.  Recognize godly men and women who think differently than you may have something to offer.

Repent.  If love of a system has replaced your love of Christ, you’re in sin.  Agree with God that He needs to fill your heart, not a system.

Pause.  Don’t begin to preach the merits of your change of heart.  Pause and allow the Holy Spirit to work in you and further conform you to Christ.

Absorb.  Engage the Scriptures to feed your soul, not as an academic exercise to reaffirm all the positions that you hold.

 

Scott Foreman is the Executive Pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Mullica Hill, New Jersey.  He is currently a Seminary student at Liberty University’s School of Divinity.  He and his wife Rachel have four sons, and has previously served as a Missionary and Camp Director.

Travis Jamieson is currently a Seminary student at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI. He ministers at Beacon Hill Assisted Living as a Chaplain. He is married to Annie and they have one daughter, Cecilia. He has previously served as a High School Pastor and recently graduated from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School with a M.A in Systematic Theology. You can follow Travis’s blog at tjamiesonblog.wordpress.com.

8 Comments on “When Your Theological System Becomes an Idol”

  1. Pingback: When Your Theological System Becomes an Idol | Travis Jamieson

  2. Appreciate the article – may Christ and his word be supreme in our life. The danger I see with these articles is people swaying too far the other direction, not wanting labels, but just “believe the Bible.” Let’s not forget that these theological systems are about Christ and the gospel. To not have a system is to not know theology. While not everyone will label their belief a system, if someone has belief, they have a system.

    Over the years as I have studied more into the reformers and its doctrine, I have come to understand their “system” and how it is rooted in scripture. I cringe when I hear people say I am a 4 point Calvinist, or the like. As mentioned, it’s a system – if you agree with any of the points, consistency would argue you will believe them all. To say you partially believe it shows you do not follow its premises. Just my thoughts – hope you have an opportunity to read those not of your camp and come to an understanding of the atonement.

    Cheers

  3. Thanks so much for the post. I was a “System Follower” thirty years ago. It lead me right away from the very relationship that was my Life, Jesus. I’m basically a systems person though not in this arena. I work with leaders all too often who’s lives are in a mess because they became obsessed with a system. Doctrine and Theology are great to study and know but they are not your Life.

    Not a Theologian, just an Apprentice of Jesus…….

  4. You’re on to something though you are trying to walk a fine line having your own systems that you adhere to.

    Interesting that you use the Pharisee’s commitment to scripture as an illustration of this. From my experience, I see people making an idol of the Bible as much as a theological system. The scriptures become part of the Trinity: “I believe in the Father, and the Son, and Holy Scriptures.” That is just as dangerous but not talked about enough.

    Your remedies are good but fall short. You need to press people to spend time with Jesus Christ Himself for their communion with Him to be more deeply kindled. Keeping him in your head does little good and perpetuates the problem of knowing “about” Him but not actually knowing Him.

    Jesus calls you to be with Himself so that you might take His yoke and learn humility and gentleness from Him. He doesn’t say anything about coming to him so that you might learn correct theological ideas.

    I appreciate you mentioning looking at church history. There was a time (for over 1000 years) when there was one church, one faith, one baptism, one Lord. That is not true anymore. One of the unintended consequences to the reformation was an immediate fragmentation of the church into theological camps. Now that we have almost 40,000 “Christian” denominations, there is not recovery.

    So, we “come to Jesus” and agree to disagree? Not a good solution. But, keep trying.

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