“They debated the best way to formulate the great truths of the Bible not merely with their opponents within the Roman Catholic church, but also with each other – allowing legitimate latitude for interpretation. But they were equally passionate for godly living: behaviour that was shaped by the truth of God’s word.”
The season of the Reformation ‘Solas’ has just ended and we have been reminded of the ‘aloneness’ of Scripture, grace, faith, Christ and the glory of God. But, hopefully, we will have also been reminded too that none of these are ‘alone’ in an absolute sense.
The Reformers never divorced Scripture totally from tradition, nor did they isolate grace from the God in whom and by whom we enjoy it. Faith alone is the means by which a sinner is justified, but faith that justifies is never alone. Christ as the incarnate Son of God can never be understood or experienced apart from the Father and the Spirit with whom he exists in the eternity of the godhead. And the glory that belongs exclusively to God cannot be divorced from the enjoyment of God that is bound up with his honour.
Yet how easily and with the best of intentions do we slip into oversimplifications of truths that really matter. We see this even in our zeal to safeguard truth from error. Whereas it is vital to be on our guard against any attempt to distort or deny the doctrines taught in Scripture, it would be a grave error to do so in a way that falls shorts of the Bible’s own expectations of how we are to do so. There is more to ‘contending for the faith once delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) than meets the eye.
There is a real danger that we become myopic in this area. Whereas we quite rightly aim for precision in our understanding and formulation of key Bible teachings; we can lose sight of the fact there is more to these teachings than formulaic accuracy.
In an earlier post entitled, ‘No Theology without Doxology’ I drew attention to the fact that, in Scripture, doctrine always leads to worship. It is impossible to truly grasp the wonder of God’s self-revelation in all its different dimensions without falling down before him in wonder, love and praise. Yet, sadly, all too often that is what happens and we end up with the theological equivalent of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s, ‘faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null: dead perfection.’
There is, however, another crucial dimension to understanding how theology should be done. Namely, to realise that it is not only doxological, but also ethical. If we have truly grasped the truth God has revealed, it will not only lead to praise, but also to obedience.
When Paul sent Titus to Crete ‘to straighten out what was left unfinished’ (Tit 1.5), it is clear that there were major gaps in the Cretans’ understanding of God’s truth that needed to be filled in. The apostle instructs his emissary on areas that needed particular attention. But we cannot help but be struck by the wording of Paul’s key directive:
You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.
Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no-one will malign the word of God. (Tit 2.1-5).