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“Professed” vs. “Practiced” Theology

Theology Undressed

It is a fascinating challenge to discover someone’s true theology.  I have always found it an interesting undertaking to get beneath the labels that individuals apply to their theological positions in order to find out what they truly believe. What questions do I use to draw them out?  How should I approach a topic without signposting what I am actually asking?  You see, I have found that there is often a discrepancy between what someone professes, and what they actually believe in practice.  The key to unearthing this disjunction lies in knowing how to ask the right questions.

Within the broader grace movement, the skill of knowing how to ask the right questions is of particular importance.  With a whole host of Evangelical denominations out there, one typically finds that the theology can be all over the map.  How do I bypass the professions that an individual makes in order to quickly and accurately arrive at what they truly believe?  How might I negotiate the nuances that disguise words like “believe” in order to get at the bedrock of their faith?  How may I skirt the lingo of Christianity in order to discover what is the substance on which they rest their eternal hope?

While I can blurt out what I believe on any given topic, posting my position like ninety-five theses upon a church door, I find that questions are so much more effective in this interaction.  For one thing, the last thing that I desire is for a discussion of this nature to become adversarial.  If I fire off a term like “lordship salvation,” not only do I confuse the issue, but I run the risk of polarizing it as well.  Moreover, questions are more fruitful in the long run, because they encourage cognitive humility on both sides.  They allow my friend to think more carefully about his position without his mind having been shut down by the label that I might have applied.  They also give him something provocative to take home and consider-a result that might not have occurred if I had bombarded him with my conclusions.

I am not a genius at this type of interaction, and questions don’t come easily to me.  Although my M.Div degree contained an emphasis in counseling, I too easily find myself formulating the next question when I should be carefully listening.  In the past, I haven’t trusted that the Holy Spirit would lead me in this interaction through humility and genuine inquisitiveness, because those characteristics feel an awful lot like weakness in a dialogue of this nature.   Without a doubt, it is the stance of a learner that I want to adopt, and that posture involves being ready and even eager to find areas in which I may simply be wrong.  However, I believe that the Spirit guides in preparation just as surely as He guides in spontaneity, and so I want to be ready with questions in these discussions.

A Dialogue

This was the course that I decided to take as I approached this interview, a meeting with a pastor and elder who were considering me for the position of worship pastor at their church.  I had glimpsed their theology by glancing at their favorite books.  However, I wanted to find what they actually believed-their practiced theology, if you will-without having them apply all the labels and Christian lingo.  I needed to arrive at the theology that governed their lives, not the polished piety that we occasionally put on parade when we want to put our best face forward.  Questions were the key.

After bantering back and forth over lunch about our various philosophies of ministry, they asked if I had any questions for them.  “Yes, I do, but not about worship,” I replied and launched into my easiest question:  “If I were to ask you, what must I do to be saved, what would you say to me?”  I thought this was an easy one.  I thought it was a big soft pitch that I was lobbing across the plate.  All they had to do was quote Scripture, and even with a possible difference of opinion about what it means to believe, that seemed the safest course.  Instead, it was a swing and a miss.  The elder stumbled in his response, and as the answer came, it amounted to looking at his life and determining if he was trusting Jesus in all his decisions and choices.

Hmm.  I had planned for a different follow-up question, but thought that I should probably retreat into easier territory.  “If you had to summarize the gospel in twenty-five words or less, what would you say?”  While I am not particularly a fan of this question, it can force someone to focus their thoughts.  With only twenty-five words, every one must count, and so I hoped that a majority of them would come from Scripture.  Wrong again.  When the pastor began by saying “life is relationships,” I realized how wrong I had been.  At that moment, I began to sympathize with the unbeliever who was being evangelized by him.  The “twenty-five words” that followed felt more like a vast maze with no obvious entrance or exit, no sign of a door.

With two strikes, I opened up a little with perhaps my hardest question.  “How can I know that I am saved?  How can I have assurance?”  You see, I felt that I needed at this juncture to introduce a theological word in order to help them get back on track.  This time around, there were at least some allusions to biblical passages, but the answers were still underwhelming.  In reverse order, they were 3) the testimony of the Spirit in my life, 2) the fruit of the Spirit in my life, and…drum roll…1) by looking back over my life and seeing that I had enjoyed and experienced love for Jesus.

Wow.  I had arrived at their practical theology.  Did you catch it?  Everything they said had to do with what they had done in their lives, and none of it involved what Christ had already accomplished on their behalf on the cross.  Their faith was based on their own faithfulness and good works.  That was their theology in practice.  To be fair, I don’t necessarily disagree with their second and third answers, but I find the first answer (the number one reason for assurance) to be more than frightening, and extremely telling.   It makes clear that the foundation of their faith was essentially what they had done.  Even though these gentlemen had referred to themselves as “five-point Calvinists,” the focus of their assurance was completely on their activity.  The cross was merely a theological afterthought.  They had departed from the gospel, and had no idea.

Now it was my turn, because they had turned the tables on me.  “Well, how would you answer those questions?” they asked me.  Time to lay aside my pride.  Given that my theology probably is not absolutely consistent either, I decided to take the safest course:  turn to the Scriptures in the most simple and direct manner.

“‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.'”  I responded.  “Simple belief?” Wrinkles creased their foreheads.  “Yes, isn’t it wonderful?”  I replied.  “I cannot summarize the gospel any better than John 5:24.  ‘He who hears my word and believes on Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death unto life.'”  Once again, they frowned.  “But that is cognitive!”  I agreed.  “Yes.  How could hearing and believing be anything less than cognitive?  For the people sitting at Jesus’ feet that day, it was an immediate call to hear what He said and believe that He was who He said He was-the son of God.  And regarding the third question, I believe that we only find assurance in the cross of Christ.”

The End-game of Faith

In truth, we all profess theology that is slightly different than the faith we practice.  We put our confidence in things other than Christ and the cross, whether we might like to admit it or not, and perhaps it is simply easier to identify this in others.  Some of us place our faith in what we feel towards Jesus at a given moment.  Others of us place our faith in our innate capacity to know something and feel convinced about it.  I suppose the journey of faith is about coming to know the limitations of one’s belief, as the man who cried out to Jesus to help his unbelief.  Perhaps the wisest course of action is to follow his lead, honestly admitting that we don’t believe as completely as we would like.

Still, I believe that our faltering and imperfect steps of faith, woefully inadequate as they must always be, are still treasured by Christ, and that He grants us everlasting life on the basis of simple belief.  I don’t think that salvation is meted out on the basis of how cleanly I believe something, as if there is a spiritual index that measures how complete is my conviction at the moment of faith.  Moreover, I’ll give a dollar to anyone who hasn’t in some manner mixed up their own righteousness in the equation, trusting in themselves for at least a smidgeon of their salvation.  We are imperfect beings, and so both our faith and our theology are imperfect, the latter an idealized version of what we would like the former to be.  We frankly don’t believe as much as we think we do, or we would witness an awful lot of mountains being moved.  While the life of faith is initiated by belief in Christ, I do believe that faith comes into its fullest expression as we learn to trust Him.

How do we bring our professed theology into coherence with our practiced theology?  We start by admitting how much we don’t know, and how our faith itself is insufficient to support what we do know.  Recognizing the gap, we ask for mercy from a Father who has already given it to us in abundance.  The problem with knowing a little is that attitudinally it can be a short step to feeling and acting like we know everything.  We compose our theological systems in such a way as to close all the gaps, and remove all of the mystery.  My friends, I don’t know how the heart is transformed by the Spirit.  I don’t know how a cognitive profession of faith can become an all-encompassing, life-altering experience of grace and holiness.  But I know that we start out simple believers, and yet end up completed disciples.  I know this because I have seen it slowly happening in me, and also because Scripture confirms it.  But at the end of day, Scripture has the more authoritative word on the subject.

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