In high school I fell in love with studying theology and quickly began delving into exploring church history. And the more I studied church history the more I began to see that it was comprised of everyday men and women—regular folks the Lord used in powerful ways. But equally, I saw those who sought to harm the Church with doctrine that doesn’t come from God’s Word. What these unfortunate heretics wanted to do was, in fact, the exact opposite of standing fast on Scripture; they wanted to “outsmart” the Lord, the very Author who gave us sixty-six books to study in order that we might grow in our walk with Him.
Over the years, one of the topics that I’ve seen very little discussion on in either an academic level or (in particular) in level of the average Christian in the pew is the idea of what “a theology from above” and/or “a theology from below” means and why it matters. A theology from above sees special revelation in the sixty-six books of the Bible as coming from God. A theology from below considers the Bible and feelings side-by-side. Such an idea makes Scripture inert and subjective by stripping away its true objective and foundation.
In American evangelicalism today we have reverted from being a body of evangelicals rooted in Sola Scriptura, as espoused by leaders of the Reformation, to a people who think that Scripture and our feelings are on par with one another. Lest you think I’m against feelings—let me clarify, I’m not. But Scripture is to interpret our feelings, not the other way around. When I’m sad or discouraged, Scripture tells me to hope in God (Psalm 42-43). When I’m anxious, Scripture tells me the Lord knows me and invites me to come near to Him and cast my anxieties upon Him (Philippians 4:4-9). Scripture is to interpret our feelings; our feelings are not to be equal to or on par with Scripture.
The danger in one’s feelings being upheld as having the same authority/value as Scripture is because it declares that one’s feelings are basically of the same importance in one’s spiritual growth and understanding as God’s revelation. If one’s feelings are the determiner of truth, then he/she is going to follow whatever he/she thinks and do whatever he/she feels. The sad reality is that the heart is desperately wicked—rendering our feelings completely untrustworthy. But there’s an even greater reason we should avoid the theology from below—when we follow our feelings we will be deceived. We will not test all things and hold fast to what is good, noble, and true in the Word of God. Instead, we will be deceived and think that sound doctrine doesn’t matter and that our thoughts/feelings are on the same level as the Scripture.
One of my biggest concerns for Christians of my general age group (that is, people between 30-45 years old) is that we are falling for the trap of “New Age theology”. The main theme in New Age theology is the elevated role of our feelings—in this theological philosophy, feelings (rather than Scripture) have the greatest influence over what we think, say, and do. So, for example, we may think that yoga or the Enneagram (or other such non-biblical practices) are no big deal. But the thing is the Bible forbids us from mixing biblical truth with ungodly ideas and philosophies. In the case of yoga, adherents are taught poses of worship to the “sun god” (an idol of Hinduism), which is in direct conflict with the 10 commandments and completely outside of biblical orthodoxy. Why would a professing Christian engage in idol worship that dishonors God? But that is exactly what yoga does—even the greeting used (Namaste) means “the god in me recognizes the god in you”. And the same thing is true concerning the enneagram—its roots are found firmly planted in mysticism and cultic worship practices, saturated with the doctrine of demons. People today think the enneagram is just a “personality test”, but it’s so much more than that. On the surface it may seem harmless, but the truth is that it is a matter of worship and theology. It tells us to place our feelings at the center of our worship of God, where biblical truth should be—something that no Christian should do. A theology from below has become so prevalent in our day that we dare not miss it and we dare not believe it.
The Church has responded to the idea of a theology from below with a theology from above. Men like B.B. Warfield, who wrote his classic book on the doctrine of Scripture and many others, have called us to stand fast on the Word of God. Even in the 20th century men gathered together—men like James Boice and R.C. Sproul, among others—and wrote the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Today more than ever we need men and women unafraid to stand on the Word of God and call out error.
But we need to be cautious here. The men who stood fast for biblical truth contended for the faith without being contentious. They stood fast against false teaching and false teachers because their hearts were firmly grounded in the Word of God. That is what it means to believe in a theology from above. It means we take the Word extremely seriously, because it’s deadly serious, but we also don’t use our theology like a club to beat people over the head. Instead, we take what we believe and are convinced that sound doctrine matters, but equally that sound doctrine produces Christians who are transformed with the help of God’s grace and the conviction of the Holy Spirit.
A theology from above takes the Bible seriously and it takes people’s questions seriously. A theology from above helps people to have a firm faith rooted in the revelation of God’s Word, and a good understanding of church history. The men and women who have been powerfully used by the Lord throughout Church history have also had a good understanding of Scripture and what the Church has taught on various topics under attack. And this is vitally important because many people are under the delusion that Christians are anti-intellectual and that the Church has no good answers to the issues of the day. Instead of believing a theology from above, they have instead fallen prey to a theology from below.
Gresham Machen warned about a theology from below in his classic book, Christianity and Liberalism, in which he said that theological liberalism is another religion. It’s another religion because it denies biblical authority on a multitude of issues. When biblical authority is placed at the same level as our feelings you can no longer have biblical Christianity. Biblical Christianity is grounded in the revelation of God’s Word, not our feelings. It remains steadfastly rooted in the character of God, who is faithful and true. Titus 1:2 also tells us we have a God who will never lie. This means that since God is holy (and does not sin by lying), and because He has revealed Himself in His Word, what He has said must be true because He is holy.
And yet we see the people who believe a theology from below suggest that the Bible is full of errors, myths, and even fairytales. And yet, we must ask where is their proof? Where has God erred in His Word? And do they understand that when they suggest that the Bible has erred that they are, by extension, attacking the very God who gives them life and breathe in their lungs, the One who could—even at this moment—snuff them out? The answer is no, they cannot admit this. Why? Because admitting this would contradict the idea that we are in charge of ourselves (as our “feelings” dictate), and God is not (contrary to what Scripture teaches). It is as Calvin once remarked: our hearts are idol factories. Until someone can admit that they are not the sovereign of the universe, and the Lord is the true Sovereign of the universe, they are in rebellion against God and at war with the Lord.
Christians throughout Church history have responded to these accusations of “biblical error” with solid biblical teaching and satisfying responses. And they have done so to help show that Christians are not anti-intellectual, that we care about what people say and the questions they have, while attempting to help them understand what the Bible means and what the Church has taught. At the core of a theology from below is an overinflated view of self that makes oneself and feelings the center of “truth”. When that happens, you can say goodbye truth because truth is objective, not subjective to fleeting feelings. Feelings are a poor master and a poor substitute for truth—completely unable to reveal who God is and what He is like. Sadly, this is exactly what theological liberalism has done and what “progressive” Christianity has been teaching and continues to perversely promote.
And yet the true Church (the Bride of Christ) faithfully continues to stand on the Word because we believe in a theology from above. We believe that God’s Word is reliable, trustworthy, without error, and the possibility of error. Such understanding helps to inform how we not only preach and teach, but also how we minister to people, and live our daily lives. So, believing the right things about the Bible itself is critical, but so is understanding how those beliefs should lead to affecting our lives for God’s glory and the good of others.