Two kinds of death

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.

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2 Responses to Two kinds of death

  1. Hin-Tai says:

    Possibly a helpful way to distinguish the two deaths is in what follows/precedes them.

    The death of the good sort, produced by good theology – i.e. the death we have truly died in Christ – is usually followed in Scripture by new life. We are never left for dead by such theology. It kills us _and then_ raises us to new life in Christ! We die to our self-pride _and_ instead start boasting in the Lord.

    (E.g. Gal 2:20 – we have been crucified with Christ – so that Christ lives in us; Gal 6:14 – we are dead to the world _but also_ the world is now dead to us; Col 2:12-13, 3:1-5, Eph 2, we have died, and we have been made alive in Christ…)

    Whereas, the death of the bad sort, produced by bad theology, _starts_ in an offer and tempting promise of ‘true life!’ – except this true life is inevitably without and outside of Christ, either explicitly or implicitly – e.g. the life of intellectual pride, the life of autonomy. Yet as with all of life outside of Christ, such ‘life’ will invariably lead to death, and inevitably we’ll feel it.

    So perhaps for discernment, ask – does this smell like death because it exalts Christ and carries me with Him, out of the sinful self I cling onto; or does it smell like death because it is rebellion against Christ?

    Either way, and in short, I guess the end goal is always to go through that death, into life in Christ. If theology doesn’t lead there, it doesn’t take us through death, it leads us into it.
    Just some thoughts! :)

    • kirstindykes says:

      Thanks Hin-Tai, I think the advice you give can often be really helpful. I guess where I’m coming from is trying to judge things prospectively. When I’m trying to decide whether or not to accept something it can be really difficult to distinguish bad theology’s false promise of life from good theology’s true one, until we’ve accepted whatever idea it is and start to live out the consequences.

      Also, I agree, asking ‘is this theology Christ-exalting or self-exalting?’ can be a useful test, but unfortunately isn’t always. I wrote this post because I’ve been thinking about John Piper and Desiring God. Not saying that JP is necessarily writing gangrenous theology (I don’t have the wisdom or the character to legitimate that sort of claim!) but if I’m honest I find bits of it smell of death to me. And I still haven’t come to a settled conclusion about why, but I don’t think it’s an obvious choice between ‘Christ-exalting’ and ‘self-exalting’ theology here. Hence praying for discernment. And I do think that God answers that prayer, though we may have to live with the uncertainty for a while until it becomes clear.

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