From “Pilgrim Theology:
Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples”
by Michael Horton, b. 1964
Although it is “the study of God,” theology has a reputation for being dry, abstract, and irrelevant for daily living. Many Christians assume that we can just experience God in a personal relationship apart from doctrine, but that’s impossible. You cannot experience God without knowing who he is, what he has done, and who you are in relation to him. Even our most basic Christian experiences and commitments are theological.
“I just love Jesus,” some say.
But who is Jesus? And why do you love him?
“I just try to live for the Lord.”
Is this Lord Yahweh, the Creator and Redeemer who reveals himself in Scripture, or an idol? What is this Lord like, what does he approve? What are his attributes? And is there any good news to report concerning this God’s actions in our history, or are you just trying to be a “good person”? What happens when you die? What’s the future of this world? These are not abstract questions, but questions that haunt our hearts and minds from childhood to old age. We can suppress these questions, but we cannot make them go away. Reality forces us to bump into them.
Today, especially in the West, most people tend to associate religion with the inner realm of the individual soul (mysticism) or with principles for individual or social behaviour (morality), or perhaps, though less often these days, with intellectual curiosity and speculation (philosophy). Mix elements of these three, mysticism, morality and philosophy, together and stir in a generous dose of pragmatism, and the result is an eclectic soup that is easy to swallow. The goal of life is often viewed as some form of personal or collective happiness. If a person can mix in a bit of wisdom from various other perspectives to spice things up, all the better!
The faith that springs from the Bible’s story of God is entirely different. We could even say that it has a different horizon. The triune God is the sun on this horizon, and we orient ourselves to this sun, not the other way around. Instead of starting with ourselves, our plans, purposes, dreams, and accomplishments, and seeking to learn how God can serve our goals and desires, we begin with God, who is life and who freely created, sustains, and directs history to his ends. In this strange new world of the Bible, religion is not something that I can use for my own fulfilment. I do not come to Christianity to find truths that confirm me and strengthen my resolve to live better, try harder, or make more of myself. Rather, when I encounter the God of the Bible I come to see that my very questions are skewed, badly ranked, and disordered even before I try to give my answers. In other words, the Bible is not primarily concerned with me and my quest for personal meaning and fulfilment. It’s a story about God, who is good enough to tell us about himself, about ourselves, and about this world, and to give us the true meaning of history. Yes, in the process of being swept away into this story, we do indeed find personal meaning and fulfilment for ourselves in ways that we could never have imagined, much less arranged. But we don’t get those things by starting with them. Instead, we need a compass to guide us.
A compass orients us. It helps us on our journey by helping us to grasp that the Bible is not chiefly about me and my personal experience or morality. Rather, it is the revelation of God and God’s history with us. Its relevance lies not in helping the pious individual to attain spiritual wellbeing, but in the way, it actually introduces us to reality. It is not a flight away from the world into the inner recesses of the soul, but a completely new existence within the world that God has made sustains, has redeemed, and will one day transform fully and forever into his everlasting home. The theology of the Bible leads us away from the high places of the religious, the moral and the spiritual specialists. It keeps our boots firmly on the ground. Instead of ascending to spiritual heights, we meet God in his gracious descent to us.