Preparing For Theology 4: Self-Assessment
“Seek humility” (Zephaniah 2:3).
In the year 1633, the religious scholars of the day were convinced that the sun revolves around the earth. They reached this conclusion from their reading of Scripture, believing it to be obvious, true, and not to be questioned. After all, Scripture says the sun rises and sets (Ecclesiastes 1:5), and must be commanded to “stand still” (Joshua 10:13), while the earth is firm, secure, and immovable. We now know that the earth revolves around the sun, and have no problem reading these passages from Scripture with an appreciation for poetic license.
But as the Papal Edict from 1633 clearly shows, the failure to assume I could be wrong can lead to dire results:
Whereas you, Galileo, son of the late Vaincenzo Galilei, Florentine, aged seventy years, were in the year 1615 denounced to this Holy Office for holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable and that the Earth moves…and for replying to the objections from the Holy Scriptures, which from time to time were urged against it, by glossing the said Scriptures according to your own meaning…This Holy Tribunal being therefore of intention to proceed against the disorder and mischief thence resulting, which went on increasing to the prejudice of the Holy Faith…the two propositions of the stability of the Sun and the motion of the Earth were by the theological Qualifiers qualified as follows:
The proposition that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from its place is absurd and false philosophically and formally heretical, .
The proposition that the Earth is not the center of the world and immovable but that it moves, and also with a diurnal motion, is equally absurd and false philosophically and theologically considered at least erroneous in faith…
[T]he doctrine of the motion of the Earth and the stability of the Sun and therefore cannot be defended or held…
Invoking, therefore, the most holy name of our Lord Jesus Christ…We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare that you, the said Galileo, by reason of the matters adduced in trial, and by you confessed as above, have rendered yourself in the judgment of this Holy Office vehemently suspected of heresy, namely, of having believed and held the doctrine—which is false and contrary to the sacred and divine Scriptures—that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world; and that an opinion may be held and defended as probably after it has been declared and defined to be contrary to the Holy Scripture…We condemn you to the formal prison[.]
In his 1521 trial before the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther was called to answer for (or else retract) his published works which challenged the prevailing ideas. Many of his ideas have become standard fare for Christians throughout the world (and, in truth, were more in line with early church tradition than his contemporaries acknowledged). His inquisitor suggested that allowing ourselves to question what we have always assumed to be true is both dangerous and heretical. Listen to his argument:
Martin…You have resuscitated dogmas which have been distinctly condemned by the council of Constance, and you demand to be convicted thereupon out of the Scriptures. But if every one were at liberty to bring back into discussion points which for ages have been settled by the church and by councils, nothing would be certain and fixed, doctrine or dogma, and there would be no belief which men must adhere to under pain of eternal damnation. You, for instance, who today reject the authority of the council of Constance, tomorrow may, in like manner, proscribe all councils together, and next the fathers, and the doctors; and there would remain no authority whatever, but that individual word which you call to witness, and which we also invoke.
Friedrich Nietzsche is not usually considered a friend to Christianity. He was an atheist who wrote vehemently against Christian beliefs. However, he once offered counsel to Christians that appears very wise to consider. In his book Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche wrote these words:
“It is not conflict of opinions that has made history so violent but conflict of belief in opinions, that is to say conflict of convictions. But if all those who have thought so highly of their convictions, brought to them sacrifices of every kind, and have not spared honour, body, or life in their service, had devoted only half their energy to investigating with what right they adhered to this or that conviction, by what path they had arrived at it, how peaceable a picture the history of mankind would present! How much more knowledge there would be! We should have been spared all the cruel scenes attending the persecution of heretics of every kind…because the inquisitors would have conducted their inquisition above all within themselves…”
Perhaps the most important words for healthy learners are these: “I don’t know” and “I could be wrong.” A heart that is focused on condemning that which we do not know is not open to learning. May these two stories remind us that just because we stand in a certain place does not mean we stand on solid ground. And simply regurgitating what we have always assumed true–with tenacity and force–can do more harm than good. May we be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19) as we seek a heart of humility.
Healthy theology attempts to provide an antidote to unhealthy and harmful thinking, so that the heart of Jesus and the heart of the Gospel drives the church for the future. In short, healthy theology is an attempt to lay a solid foundation, provide an environment for growth, and to nurture our souls in the best way possible. Healthy theology helps us “major in majors” rather than “majoring in minors” as we learn to think and act like Christ.
Learning new ideas can be a dangerous activity…yet well worth it, and befitting a disciple of Christ. Make sure you are open to learning, willing to hear new and challenging ideas, but always asking how a new view affects all the other areas of your thought and life. This way, you can grow in a balanced and productive way in service to Jesus Christ.
Before attempting to do theology, consider asking yourself some questions for serious reflection:
- Can people see Jesus in what we say, and how we say it?
- Can people tell what matters to us by examining the questions we ask and how we ask them?
- Can people sense our openness to learning by how much we seek to encourage and support those around us who wish to help challenge our thinking in hopes of better hearing the voice of God? (Hebrews 10:24)
- In terms of attitude, am I open to learning, driven by a desire to seek God?
- In terms of direction, am I progressing in my knowledge of God, growing in grace and in the Spirit?
- In terms of priority, does my belief system produce a healthy identity in which I know who I am because of the gospel, rather than because of my groups peculiar understandings?
Audio (Sermon): Monte Cox, Obeying The Truth
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Searcy, Arkansas, where he teaches in the College of Bible & Ministry at Harding University.