One of the greatest technological conveniences of the past decade is water soluble technology. Like sliced bread it has brought a modern convenience to the home. At first glance, you might wonder, “What is water soluble technology?” It’s those pucks you love using with your dishwasher. You pop them in mess free, and they produce shiny clean dishes. How does it work? The combination of heat and water dissolve the plastic film to distribute all of the pelts. Without the heat and water the plastic holds everything together, but once the right forces press upon this plastic shell everything comes apart.
Water soluble technology is a modern convenience. Water soluble theology is a post-modern mess. What’s water soluble theology? It’s the kind of theology that does not hold up under the fire and water of God’s revelation.
Here’s what water soluble theology sounds like:
“Well, my pastor said this…”
“You know, I’ve always thought this…”
“You know, I love what [insert celebrity pastor here] says about this…”
“Well, you know so and so was my professor and he said…”
Now, don’t get me wrong. We all say this stuff. And these sources are not altogether unreliable. I love to quote others. I share quotes from others all the time through social media and in other writings. I also have a profound trust and respect for many of today’s authors, pastors, and scholarly researchers. So, don’t hear me say that we shouldn’t ever appeal to these sources, because you’ll be able to string me up as one of the first martyrs.
Many of these sources are great to go to in order to corroborate Scripture, but they are no substitute for Scripture. They aren’t authoritative in them self, regardless of how influential the person is. Paul never spoke on his authority, he spoke based on the authority of Christ, the Word of God. If he can’t do it, no one can.
No doubt, you agree, but do you really? Is that how you practically outwork your theology? When you make a statement is it based on what Scripture said? Is that your first appeal? Or is it built off someone else’s water soluble theology that you have just adopted for convenience and mess free living?
What I am saying is that we have to be careful not to let our theology be completely held together by these sources. Because if we do, we’ll discover that our theology is water soluble. It will dissolve and make a mess. Instead of cleaning dishes it’ll make a mess of people’s hearts. Why is that? Because the content of a water soluble theology is not only held together by thin filmy plastic, but the contents is usually muck rather than detergent. Muck that messes up not just minds but hearts too, because any poor theology fleshed out becomes foolish living.
Here are two tests for water soluble theology:
1. Does it measure up against Scripture?
On the doorway of one of my professor’s office in seminary was a plain typeset sign with two words on it: “Ad fontes.” This means “back to the sources.”
This professor meant for us to not just look at today’s commentaries, but to do text work. He wanted us to pick up the primary text and dig deep into exegesis, bringing out the original meaning of the Scripture.
This is exactly what we must do to test every doctrine for water solubility. Every bit of theology needs to stand up against the test of Scripture. What does the Scripture say about what so and so said? Do the Scriptures validate this proposition? If not, then it is water soluble, and there is a lot of that out there. It sounds good, but it has a filmy coat that melts away when we put it up against the heat of the Word of God.
This means that we’re not just isolating a passage from the rest of Scripture but that we are developing a robust canonical understanding of that doctrine. We are looking at that doctrine in the context of all Scripture, seeking solidarity.
As we do this we are, in the words of Jude, “contending for the faith” (Jude 3). We allow the Word of God to function as that two-edged sword from Hebrews 4:12. It discerns the thoughts and intentions of hearts. And that’s crucial!
People always use doctrine to justify some kind of living. People say what they say in order to live how they want to live. Here’s the question: Are we living in submission to the Word of God or to liberate our desires? This is why the Scripture must be the primary test. The Scripture functions as a source to equip us for complete Godliness and good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
2. What has the tradition of the Church said?
Before we even get going on this test, know that this test submits every time to the first test. Always test your doctrine against Scripture first. Then you may go to this test for confirmation and corroboration. But a theology built primarily on tradition is nothing more than another form of water soluble theology. Don’t be confused by what I’m saying here.
I am opening a can of worms, but it is a worthwhile can that can be used as good bait to catch and remove bad theology from the Church’s pond. Some of you will not like that because the Church has disagreed on much, particularly in the last half a Millennia. But we can still look at many doctrines and in a charitable spirit ask, what has the Church believed everywhere, always, and by all? This concept is nothing more than the Vincentian Canon presented by St. Vincent of Lerins in 434 A.D..
Vincent said in chapter two of the Commonitory:
Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.
This is a noble concept worthy of pursuing in a humble spirit. It’s also a lofty objective. Nonetheless, it is a worthwhile endeavor.
Minimally speaking, you have your tradition in which you doctrinally submit, if, indeed, you are in a denomination and are under submission to some form of creed and confession. If you are not, well, I suggest that you might just be at greater risk of water soluble theology than others.
Be weary of this. When your pastor or church leadership is autonomously in control of doctrine, you will always be more vulnerable to being blown by the winds of all sorts of dangerous doctrine. You run the risk of having a flimsy film over your doctrine that could melt away at any moment.
So be familiar with Church History; embrace creeds and confessions. Look to solidarity that submits to the primary and ultimate authority of Scripture, which the reformers called “norman normans non normata” or “the rule that rules and cannot be ruled.”
This post was first post at Joey’s blog and is posted here with his permission.
Joey Cochran (Th.M., Dallas Theological Seminary) follows Christ, is the husband of Kendall, and the father of Chloe, Asher, and Adalie. He is the pastor of middle school discipleship and communication at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois and a PhD student in Church History at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.