Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Deadliness of Undevotional Theology

Yesterday I covered the first half of a quote that was attributed to Bishop Moule that engaged the problem with having an untheological devotion to God. There are a lot of problems with not knowing the reasons why you believe–or even what you believe–when it comes to God. We open ourselves up to being deceived into following false teachers when we are not willing to do the hard work of theology for ourselves. The second half of the quote–which was actually uttered by W. H. Griffith Thomas–warns us that "we must also beware of 'undevotional theology.'"

If I had to make a guess based upon my own experience–and I realize that I am about to make some potentially unfair generalizations–that each person will usually fall into only one of the two categories. It has been my experience that more often it is the average lay person that falls into having an untheological devotion to God and it is the scholars and pastors that end up falling into having an undevotional theology. I don't mean that these categories are hard and fast with no movement between the two. There are going to be lay people with an undevotional theology and there are going to be the scholars and pastors that have an untheological devotion. On top of that I would argue the each individual person will have certain areas of untheological devotion while having undevotional theology in other areas.

I would tend to fall into the latter category–the undevotional theology category. W.H. Griffith Thomas defines undevotional theology as such:

"A hard, dry, intellectual study of theology will yield no spiritual fruit. Accuracy in knowledge of Greek, careful balancing of aspects of truth, large knowledge of the doctrinal verities of the New Testament, are all essential and valuable; but unless they are permeated by a spirit of devotion they will fail at the crucial point...a theology which does not spring from spiritual experience is doomed to decay, to deadness, and therefore to disaster."

It is something that can happen to those that engage in deep scholarly study. One of my classmates asked about this very thing during a preliminary visit to my seminary. It is one of those things where you can get into your studies so much that you do not allow your studies to get into you. You get into the Word but the Word doesn't get into you. On one level theology is just like all those other -ology classes that we have taken. There is a need to take a step back and to start looking at theology in a scientific way. This can lead to a gain in knowledge without an equal gain of actionable wisdom. What this means is that there is a great difference between knowing something about God and having that knowledge affect how we think or act. It is one thing to know that God is omniscient and omnipresent but it is a whole different thing to live your life knowing that God knows everything AND that his being always present means that he has and will see every action of every person. How different would you act at times if you could see God standing next to you all the time?

That thought really drives home the idea that it doesn't make a bit of difference to know these things if they don't affect how I live my life.

James tells us this very thing in James 2:14-26:

"What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

"But someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works.' Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness'–and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead."

James starts off by pointing out that our faith needs to actively shape how we live our lives. And this is where the problem of having an undevotional theology hits us all. Whenever we know that we should be clothing and feeding the poor and we do not do so we have an undevotional theology. Whenever we act hypocritical–and we all act hypocritical on a daily basis–our works; our deeds; our actions are not matching our faith and means that our faith is a dead faith.

James is blunt when he says that "faith is apart from works is dead." When we have an untheological devotion we run the risk of believing false teaching. But when we have an undevotional theology we run the risk of being spiritually dead.

Let that sink in for a moment.

An undevotional theology–according to the Bible and not just W. H. Griffith Thomas–is a spiritually dead theology.

Fortunately James also gives us the remedy for an undevotional theology in this passage. He says "I will show you my faith by my works." It is such a simple idea that can be so hard to follow. Yesterday I said that we have to do the hard work of theology to avoid being spiritually deceived. We also have to do the equally hard (or maybe even harder) work of making sure that our actions follow what we believe so that we can avoid being spiritually dead.

Bishop Moule warns us to beware untheological devotion and W. H. Griffith Thomas warns us to beware undevotional theology. We need both of these warnings to avoid being spiritually deceived and spiritually dead.


Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Mike,
    You've made some good points on this series of posts about the need to think about God intentionally, i.e. "do theology," and live that out in our daily lives, i.e. "live devotionally." The one thing I would add to this is that when we are doing both of these tasks rightly we are not doing them alone but through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. And if we are doing one task and become aware that we are weak in the other then the Spirit is the One we should turn to lead us adn teach us in the other. That said, here is a shameless plug for my recent blod post on the work of the Holy Spirit: http://brad-kautz.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-work-of-holy-spirit-part-2.html