I’ve been thinking a bit about why good and bad theology is often so hard to distinguish, and often the best and the worst are the hardest to tell apart.
Bad theology often makes you feel like you’re dying (sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it’s really, really attractive, and that’s particularly scary, but maybe I’ll think about that some other time). Which makes sense, because when you start to accept it, Paul says it acts like gangrene (2 Tim 2:16-18). Now I’m in two minds about posting a picture of gangrene – I’m a medical student, so my appreciation of squeam-boundaries is pretty blunted. But gangrene is gross, even to me. And if you don’t cut it off it spreads. Eventually it gets into your bloodstream and kills you outright. So bad theology feels like death, because it is.
But good theology often feels like death, too, especially when we most need to hear it. This came home to me when I was ‘recovering’ from a year of academic theology. I’d become functionally liberal, in many ways, and so proud I was unwilling to listen to correction. Augustine captured it well when he said, “By my swelling pride I was separated from Thee, and my bloated cheeks blinded my eyes” (Confessions, Book 7, vol 7). The road back to some sort of humility – what J.I.Packer refers to as the process of ‘intellectual repentance’ – was really hard. I found that my spiritual instincts were completely screwed up. Living in arrogant autonomy had left me with a ‘seared conscience’ (1 Tim 4:2), and I could no longer trust myself. I’d read things about the inspiration of scripture and both love and hate it at the same time, my heart was a battlefield. And I didn’t accept what I knew to be true in a heart-leap that rejoiced as it recognised the goodness of the truth. Instead, as I chose, with an effort of will, to repent (metanoia, lit:’to change your mind’) and accept it, it felt like death. And that’s because itwas a death: it meant the death of my pride.
[Encouragingly, awesomely, Col 3:1-5 roots that ongoing need for death with the death we’ve already died once for all with Jesus:
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your[a] life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…”
How amazing to know that we do not first have to kill ourselves! That we havealready been put to death with the Lord, we are dead. Now begins the slow process of becoming what we are. Hallelujah!]
Now, sometime on from that initial phase of desperate repentance, my instincts are coming back slowly; by the grace of God my cheeks are (a little) less bloated. But there are still issues about which I know I’m badly bent. These are the ones where I find myself reading, and thinking “does this smell like death to me because it’s so wrong, or becauseI’m so wrong, and it’s so right?” I’m praying for the wisdom to tell the difference.