Some branches of the church have always placed great emphasis on practical, experiential Christianity. In recent decades groups such as Navigators and Campus Crusade for Christ rightly have stressed “discipleship” and the need for application in the day life of the believer. Since the early 1970s many mainline churches have joined this emphasis, teaching classes on such topics as “How to Have a Quiet Time,” “Scripture Memory,” “Marriage and the Family,” and “Sharing Christ in the Marketplace.” Too many of these groups, with non-mainline churches as well have dropped offering “Basic Christian doctrine” classes altogether. We want to know how Christianity affects our lives today and how it can help us make it through tomorrow.
In their devotional times, many Christians find themselves returning again and again to the “practical” sections of Scripture, like the book of James or those sections of Paul’s writings in which he deals with “real life” issues, such as marriage or money. This material can be applied readily to the nitty-gritty issues of living in contemporary culture. On the shelves of any Christian bookstore, one finds hundreds of Christian self-help books on a plethora of topics and only a handful dealing with theological issues.
At times we drift dangerously close to the backwater of our culture’s pragmatism, going so far as to judge sermons on the basis of whether we were offered anything practical or relevant. If the truth taught in a Bible study, devotional time, or sermon does not have immediate implications, we do not embrace it. With our society we glorify “doers” above “thinkers.” Thus, the rock star or the football hero who may be immature and shallow theologically is elevated as a star witness to Christianity.
Warm-hearted devotional, application-oriented Christianity should be encouraged. The Scriptures were written to change, mold and direct the lives of God’s people. Yet grave danger lies in focusing on the so-called “practical” teachings of Christianity to the neglect of the theological. Theology and practice are both vitally important aspects of following Christ. Notice that in his introduction to the book of Hebrews, the author of Hebrews in Hebrews 1:1-4 lays a foundation for his entire sermon with basic Christian doctrine. He uses dogmas as a precursor to praxis.
At the same time, the author hints of his practical concerns by reminding his audience that the Word of God is “to us,” a foreshadowing of his opening sections. He later follows with such exhortations as “encourage one another” (3:13; 10:25), “lay aside sin” (12:1-2) and get busy with relationships and right attitudes (13:1-6). Therefore, the introduction to Hebrews challenges us at the point of seeing the powerful life and ministry tool offered in sound theology. Right theology lays an important foundation for a Christian life robustly lived. A neglect of theology on the other hand, has detrimental effects on the church and individual Christian lives.
In the middle part of this century Dorothy Sayers wrote:
“Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—dull dogmas as people call it. The fact is the precisely the opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama… Christ, in His divine innocence, said the woman of Samaria, “Yet worship ye know not what”—being apparently under the impression that it might be desirable, on the other, to know what one was worshiping He thus shows himself sadly out of touch with the twentieth-century mind, for the cry today is: “Away with the tedious complexities of dogma—let us have the simple spirit of worship; just worship, no matter of what!” The only drawback to this demand for a generalizated and undirected worship is the practical difficulty of nothing in particular.”[i]
Those who neglect theology may live a shallow, insipid form of Christianity, that in the end, neither affects life nor endures the test of time.
Another pitfall accompanying the neglect of theology consists of a drift into the aberrations of orthodox Christianity. One can see this in the desire of many Christians who read books on near-death experiences. Others base their prayer lives and “spiritual warfare” on “principles” learned in the fiction of Frank Peretti rather than in the Word of God, or build material hopes around promises made by the vendors of the health-and-wealth gospel. These bear witness to Hebrews’ insistence on right thinking as essential for right living. Thus the task of theology is to keep us “on track” in the Christian life. The author of Hebrews presents theology as foundational to perseverance in that life.
The demand for right teaching and learning of theology cuts two ways. The author of Hebrews presents his opening thesis artistically. When members of our churches or students in our schools are intimidated by massive systematic theologies or are bored to tears over dry doctrinal lectures, we tend to write them as as “intellectually deficient” or “lacking theological depth.” Yet, some of the responsibility falls to those of us behind the pulpit, in front of the classroom, or writing on blogs, in books or magazines. We must ask whether we are helping matters by our manner of presentation. Perhaps we erect barriers to the content through poor patterns of communication. The author of Hebrews has shown great skill and care in packaging his doctrine to get the attention of his hearers.
A great deal of our theology, exclaimed C.S. Lewis, may be “sneaked in” via a good story, which he proved with the Chronicles of Narnia and other works. Some theologians may see these as trite or simplistic expressions of profound truths. Yet passages such as Hebrews 1:1-4 and Philippians 2:5-111 suggest the New Testament writers offered their readers basic theological truths, simply presented, but which presupposed a larger body of theology.
[i] Dorothy L. Sayers, The Whimsical Christian: Eighteen Essays by Dorthy L. Sayers (New York: Macmillan, 1978), 11, 23.