If It Makes You a Jerk, It’s Not Good Theology

It happened again.

Another story of Presbyterians going Presbyterian on one of their own.

The story is old. It goes something like this: Inerrantist, complementarian, Presbyterian, covenant theologian, willing to sign off on the 80+ pages of the Westminster Confession of Faith, has his ordination stymied by a theological debate.

Seriously.

I’ve pretty much come to the point where I’d think that if anyone is willing to sign off on your 80+ pages of theology that you should grab them and never let them go.

But that’s not how the conservative Presbyterian world works. That’s not the fruit of traditional Reformed Theology.

And what I say to them I say to all of us: If the fruit of our theology is that it makes people jerks, it is not good theology.

At some point, we have to step back and say that it’s not merely that people take the theology in a wrong direction, or that people with good theology nevertheless behave badly. There is something in the culture of the places that cling to Reformed or Neo-Reformed theology that makes them rabid about theology.

And these worlds aren’t alone. Lots of us move in or through ecclesiastical circles where there is a viciousness to the theological conversation, or a viciousness in the pursuit of holiness.

I am thankful for the Reformation. It opened up the doors for much-needed reform to come to the church. And that good reform did come both to the Roman Catholic church and through the newly birthed Protestant churches.

But one of its most unfortunate legacies was its providing us a theological justification for separating our theology and teaching from our ethics and behavior. Faith is one thing. Works is something else. The faith we profess is crucial. The works we perform will all need to be forgiven.

And with that, we surrendered our calling to judge by fruit. We are not to believe every prophet. We are not to believe every teacher. And while many of us have strong standards of judgment, ours are not the ones Jesus erected.

For us, the standard of judgment has to do with theological correctness, with correspondence to our system of doctrine. False teachers are run out of town when they say the wrong thing about the Bible or what God was thinking about before creation, or sex.

But Jesus tells us that the reason to run someone out of town is not their theological system but their fruit.

And what we too often, too willfully, forget, is that contentiousness and divisions are the very fruit of the flesh that demonstrate a person’s walking by the flesh and not by the Spirit.

In other words, if the fruit of your theology is that it creates a community of jerks, your teaching has gone awry.

Contentiousness should be a wake up call for us. When we find ourselves in worlds where fights recur, something has gone amiss–we should examine how we’re defining the gospel and thus ourselves as God’s people, and figure out what went wrong.

16 thoughts on “If It Makes You a Jerk, It’s Not Good Theology”

  1. thanks daniel.

    i wonder how much of this is also rooted in culture? “mac or PC?” “coke or pepsi?” “ford or chevy?” it seems competitive consumer culture creates an atmosphere where instead of seeing ourselves as “truck drivers” or “soft drink enjoyers” we have to defend and justify our choice of brand – to the extent we sneer down our noses at those whose choice is clearly less informed than ours – if not downright wrong. as long as a church understands itself to be in competition with other churches rather than in competition with other meaning-making, truth-claiming narratives, i fear this kind of behaviour will be around for a long time. “they will know we are christians by our…”

  2. I think it goes back to your distinction between those who are scribes and prophets. Many of the neo-Reformed types (I attend an Acts 29 church, so I know first hand) are definitely scribes and if we push the distinction further, I think a pre-theological issue is actually at least partially to blame. It seems as if neo-Reformed types (not all, but many) subscribe to naive realism in terms of epistemology, some more stringently than others. This leads to no allowance of deviation in interpretation of Scripture or even from their traditional norms as epistemology obviously spills over into hermeneutics. Further and related, the clarity of Scripture is ill defined functionally in neo-Reformed circles so it seems they believe Scripture is clear on even those doctrines that are generally disputed amongst the broader body. And I see the interconnection from here all the way down to their doctrine of inspiration; if Scripture must be unduly clear, inspiration must be sketched in a docetic manner with an underdeveloped notion of the humanity of the text.

    And what I really love is that these same thinkers denigrate “prophets” as overly related to postmodern thought while at the same time being anchored firmly in a modernistic framework and epistemology! I wish the broader evangelical Reformed movement and those such as John Franke, who has moved towards a more holistic epistemology, had a louder voice in the theological conversation, because the whole of the Reformed movement is seemingly lumped in with the neo-Reformed (who have the loudest voice at the moment) and we are all viewed with disdain in the broader evangelical world.

    1. Randy,

      I’m not entirely sure I’m following you on the prophets/scribes distinction. At least in my mind, a cause of the much benighted arrogance is people who so closely identify their own views with God’s–so that any disagreement must naturally be shrugged off as idolatrous dissidence. But this distinction may be something particular to Acts 29 churches.

      More generally, I agree with the post. I go to a Reformed seminary that’s pretty dogmatic about its Reformed position and there’s little doubt that such theological jerks exist. And it is probably true that there’s a higher concentration of these types of people coming out of the neo-Reformed/Reformed camp, but every time I consider the early church I can’t help but think that those involved in the various controversies were also perceived as jerks (I have in mind Cyril of Alexandria in particular, but many others come to mind; even Barth was considered to be overly dogmatic and therefore arrogant by most liberals). I’m not saying that such an attitude is therefore correct, but only that such an attitude seems to be characteristic of church history overall. That said, perhaps part of the problem (and I’m in no way denying that fault lies at the hands of the said jerks) lies in our extra-sensitivity to claims on any sort of truth that exceeds a given community’s boundaries.

      I don’t want to defend arrogant jerks or say that such arrogance is characteristic of defending the faith, but it is often hard to decipher when one is being arrogant and when one is simply being loyal (we all tend to think that we’re the ones who are loyal). Obviously, there are no easy answers and it’s certainly a thin line to walk between defending the truth of the gospel of love and living lovingly in light of that truth.

      I suppose self-criticism is always a good place to start; and I think Barth was good at this which is what separates him from jerks.

      My two cents,

      Josh

        1. Josh-

          It certainly isn’t an Acts 29 thing, but as Kirk mentions it goes back to his previous post that was an awesome way to frame the issue. For the most part Acts 29 folks are the neo-conservative, neo-Reformed types who dogmatically define their positions according to a less than full-orbed version of Reformed theology. I’m lucky that in my context, even though I definitely push the boundaries as wide as they’ll allow, that I’m loved and appreciated and my giftings are treasured. In many other A29 or neo-Reformed contexts this would not be the case.

  3. “contentiousness and divisions are the very fruit of the flesh that demonstrate a person’s walking by the flesh and not by the Spirit.”

    This seems true, however it seems that there is a very fine line being walked…

    It seems that poor (false) theology/doctrine, leads to deception and confusion about Jesus and how we are to imitate him. If good fruit only comes from properly imitating Christ, then logically, false theology/doctrine will lead (or perhaps, will often lead) to improperly imitating Christ (bad fruit).

    Surely there is a great deal of the “right thing being said in the wrong way” in the Church today. This, as you rightly point out, is contentious and divisive often for the sake of contention and division. However, it seems to remain vitally important to the health of the body to be active fruit inspectors. And this often means inspecting the soil of the tree to make sure its environment is even capable of producing good fruit.

    “Timely, bold, kind, and wisely-directed rebuke is often used by the God of all grace as the means of awakening souls from spiritual death; this is an all-sufficient reason for our being ready to deliver it when occasion demands it” -Spurgeon

  4. We have to be careful not to look at the fruit without looking at the roots of the tree that bore the fruit. Many a fruit-bearing tree was grown from roots based on false doctrine. Beware the fruit born of a false doctrine such as that based on “works.” For while the fruit looks good, it more than likely reproduces more of the same doctrine.
    So, yes, unfortunately there are jerks in every faith sector, but it is still important to examine and challenge the roots that support the trees that bear the fruit.

    1. Bill, I can’t say that a works theology actually makes people act less christian. in fact it is often those who have the least place for works who are nastiest. In fact, thinking that someone’s works have nothing to do with faith or salvation might be part of the problem. For Paul, the desired outcome is “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1) or “the work of faith” (1 Thess 1).

  5. Hi Daniel,

    Interesting post. While I agree with you that “the culture of the places that cling to Reformed or Neo-Reformed theology that makes them rabid about theology” influence decision making especially about ordination, I believe that those who sits on these ordination committees are often less concern about theology and more about powerplay and church politics. Hence I like the second part of your post about fruits. It is sad that in many ecclesiastical circles there are people who confess the right theology without practising it. There is a wide gap between what we know and who we are.

  6. I suppose this would all be true, if Calvin’s Institutes did not lay at the cornerstone of Reformed theology. Still, it rallies uninformed masses, so I suppose it serves its purpose.

  7. Hopefully we all agree that false belief and false behaviour (belief and behaviour opposed to the gospel) deserve censure. The question is where we draw lines.

    1. John-

      What you’ve said is especially pertinent to our conversation here. In relation to ‘false’ belief, everything hinges on what you define as orthodoxy and which interpretations you adhere to as you frame your theology. Personally, I lean towards the side of generosity because I am far from an infinite interpreter of an ancient document written to a different cultural milieu than my own!

      This results in my beliefs and definition of say evangelical orthodoxy (sense I am evangelical..sort of) being wider than many of my friends who happen to be either neo-Reformed or PCA church members. There is almost a ghettoization of theology with some of these latter groups, an us versus them mentality and this is what Daniel has pointed up for us above. Roger Olson has described this ghettoization effect by calling it the new fundamentalism. (He doesn’t name any groups, but simply sketches characteristics; it is easy enough to read between the lines.) I’ve been hesitant to use this term myself, but it is becoming more and more difficult for me not to use it as I see a vast divergence in types in the evangelical world that almost necessitates a descriptive analysis such as Olson’s being applied.

      1. Great post and discussion. I’ve recommended it to several people. I wonder if the thirst for doctrinal definition among the neo-Reformed leads to the pursuit of a false virtue: scapegoating deviants. Defining beliefs, as important as that may be, cannot be done in a moral vacuum. The way of all flesh is right there to take co-opt the enterprise. So, it becomes about something other than pursuing the goal of doctrine: training in righteousness, preparation for every good work, the imitation of Jesus Christ. This may be a centuries enduring DNA defect in the Reformed tradition, but it is not limited to Reformed nor characteristic of the tradition as a whole. The deeper issue in what may be a current massive excercise in missing the point is: why do people often reduce doctrine to a laundry list of definitions in an internally coherent and self-referential structure of beliefs? As an alternative we might think of doctrine as an education, or conversely, a curriculum in a discipline leading to the church toward goal of a life lived in community modeled on the image following Jesus Christ as exemplified in the Gospels. Too often the confessions of faith form the basis for doctrine, but the confessions and creeds are a severly limited foundation, a sort of dirty laundry list of points of contention with the more important parts simply assumed. Think “The Fundamentals.” So, the Apostle’s Creed, or most of the other creeds, can never be an adecuate basis for education in righteousness, because it leaves off everything between Jesus’ virginal conception and his death on the cross. The failure of much doctrine has been to assume that right belief in the particulars assigned importance in past rivalries is more important than the imitation of Christ. And worse, it is the assumption that Christ conforms to the beliefs of our “doctrine” and that a mean, bitter, exclusive, pedantic spirit exemplifies Christ.

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