Pitfalls: The Marks of Bad Theology
The first pitfall that must be deliberately avoided is that of a “dead” orthodoxy. In the year 164 BC, the Jewish people celebrated the rededication of the temple after they had thrown off their Seleucid Syrian oppressors. Antiochus Epiphanies had not only looted the temple of its gold and silver, but had gone as far as to sacrifice a pig on the temple altar and set up a phallic symbol of Zeus in the Holy Place. This sparked the Maccabean revolt, let by Judah, Jonathan, and Simon Maccabees. After this victory, the Maccabeans assumed the role of kings, establishing what is referred to as the Hasmonean Dynasty. Remembering that the Maccabees were Levitical priests by decent, this joined the role of King and High Priest into one office, causing a great deal of resentment within the more orthodox Jewish community. The power of this combined position also led to corruption within the rulership. As a result, two groups emerged during this time: the Essines and the Pharisees.
The Essines were a separatist group that withdrew from their Jewish communities and established their own fortified communities, training in theology and warfare, and preparing themselves to be the army of the Messiah when said Messiah came. The Pharisees were a more moderate reform group, seeking to bring religious reform working within the Jewish society. They established rules for behavior and piety and they lived lives that were deliberately structured to promote obedience to the Law of God. When Jesus taught that the people’s righteousness had to exceed that of the Pharisees to enter the kingdom of heaven, this was not said tongue-in-cheek, but was a comment that would have shocked the people, as the Pharisees were perceived to be the holiest people that most Jews had ever encountered. The problem, though, within this sect, was that in their zeal for personal holiness, they had turned the law of God into a legalistic system of rules to check off. If you just did this and that and did these things in the prescribed way, the Pharisees taught, you are guaranteed heaven. They forgot the intent of the law, which is to demonstrate our total inability to be holy before God, and were expecting eternal life as a reward earned by the works of men. For this, Jesus would rebuke them in the strongest language.
Yet, this provides for us a good illustration of what can happen when one’s orthodoxy becomes dead and lifeless. The word orthodoxy itself means “right or sound doctrine,” coming from the Latin, “orthodoxos,” and begs the question—can “right thinking” about the things of God ever truly be without life? God is the source of all life, and thus, proper and right teaching about God must too be filled with the life of God. How sad it is when individuals and churches loose sight of the heart behind God’s word and fail to point to the life that comes from the God of light, whose very word is given as a light to our paths. As C.S. Lewis also warned, beware when the God of the “God talk” is lost or forgotten. Such happens when your orthodoxy becomes legalism.
The second mark of bad theology, and the exact opposite of “dead orthodoxy,” is an uncontrolled passion that burns like a wildfire, consuming all that it touches. This is not to deny the importance of passion in terms of faith—it is essential, but just as genuine orthodoxy builds up the believer, strengthening him with the truth of God’s word, so too does genuine passion. And just as there is a counterfeit orthodoxy that brings with it nothing but cold and stale death, so too there is a wildfire passion that might burn hot for a time, but which burns out the individual (and often those around them) and leaves nothing but a smoldering zone of death.
We must always remember that our passions are part of our divinely created makeup, and thus, as we grow in grace, our passions and our actions ought to better and better reflect the nature of God himself. Are God’s passions uncontrolled? Does God act out of a sense of emotionalism? Does God’s Spirit destroy those within whom he dwells? Certainly not! God’s Spirit brings life to the one in whom he dwells! So too, theology and religion, while it must address and move the passions, must not set them out of control, burning like a wildfire amongst dry timber.
The Hebrew term for vain is lb,h, (hevel) and is used to describe things that are empty and insubstantial like one’s breath or an idol. Sometimes our theology becomes so speculative that it looses its substance all together. Sometimes our theology becomes so influenced by ideas of men (rather than scripture) that it loses any solid foundation that it might have once had. We can ground theology in scripture because scripture itself is qeo/pneustoß (theopneustos), or “God-breathed,” but that which is the breath of men, that which is anqrwpneu/stoß (anthropneustos), is lb,h, (hevel). While good theology does at times enter into a degree of reasonable speculation, good theology is never founded upon speculation or wild ideas, but is consistently and perpetually grounded in the inerrant truth of God’s revealed word. One further note: in a post-modern era, we live in a culture that is ready and willing to affirm multiple, mutually-exclusive ideas as truth. As a result, many professing Christians have a theology that is a mixture of orthodox Christianity as well as non-Christian religions and ideas. Many professing Christians also have a proclivity to adapt their theology to fit new ideas that appeal to their minds rather than judging the new ideas through the lens shaped from a solidly scriptural theology. When theology becomes fickle, it becomes vain.
Our final category of bad theology is a man-centered theology. As theology and religion did not originate in the mind of man, as liberal and natural theologians would suggest, it is not the right of mankind to determine how God is to be understood or worshiped. Indeed, that right belongs solely to God himself. And, as God is the source of the “God-Talk,” it is to be rightly assumed that God should be the center of such talk. The only man that should ever be exalted by our theology is Jesus Christ himself, who, while fully man, is also fully God. A theology based upon the works and glory of men—even one designed to give man comfort where no comfort is warranted – is a bad form of theology, and is truly no “God Talk” at all, but “man-talk.” Man exists to glorify God, not the other way around.
Their father, Matthias, was an elder priest in the temple who fled Jerusalem with his family, rallied the people to himself, and began the revolt against the Seleucid governors. Matthias and his sons Eleazar and John would die early on in the fighting, leaving his remaining three sons to continue the battle and overthrow the oppressors. The Maccabees proved themselves to be tactical geniuses in guerilla warfare and are still studied today as a model for how a smaller force of soldiers can overcome a larger, more organized foe.