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Theology can be overrated.  It can also be underrated.  If a person does not have clear, biblical convictions in alignment with the Doctrinal Statement of Immanuel Church, the elders here will not call that person to our ministry.  But theology can be overrated too.

The Bible shows us enough of God to assure us and draw us in.  This creates conviction.  It also shows us that there is more, a lot more, that we don’t know about God.  This creates humility.  John Calvin called the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, for example, “a secret so much excelling the insight of the human mind that I am not ashamed to confess ignorance.  Far be it from any of the faithful to be ashamed of ignorance of what the Lord withdraws into the glory of His inaccessible light” (Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, J. K. S. Reid, translator, page 124).  The Bible gives us backbone about what we can know and honesty about what we can’t know.  Theology has limitations.  It is meant to.

I am not saying that theology doesn’t matter.  It does.  But I am saying that there are other things that matter too.  And if those other things are underrated and theology is overrated, bad things start happening.  Churches with robust theology can be infested with strife and misery.  Obviously, we need more than theology.  Not less.  More.

The Beatitudes of our Lord do not say, “Blessed are the orthodox.”  What he did say, first and foremost, was, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3).  Among people of strong and rich theological conviction, the Lord looks first and foremost for weakness and poverty.  Personally, I resonate more with an Arminian whose heart beats with self-reproach and need than with a Calvinist whose heart beats with self-assurance and demand.  But it’s the Calvinist whose own principles should humble him the more.

The religious flesh relishes theology, because it requires no death of ego, no surrender of control, no apologies.  Theological disputation can feed a spirit of superiority.  But because it’s about truth and right, our smugness can go undiscerned.

When we all open our Bibles with hunger for more mercy from God, everything starts getting better.

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23 thoughts on “Theology can be overrated”

  1. John T. "Jack" Jeffery says:

    I appreciate not only the content posted above, but also the manner and tone of presentation. Well said!

  2. James Truong says:

    Brilliant! Thanks Ray. I’m a theological student at a well-known reformed college in Sydney Australia – and in addition to very much needing to hear this, also thoroughly enjoyed it! Thank you also for your post many weeks back recommending ‘words to winners of souls’. Thankful to God for this ministry!

  3. JohnM says:

    You know, this is one those cases where I can say “I suppose I knew that…but it’s good that I was reminded.” Thanks for the reminder.

  4. A pretty common motto I’ve been challenged by says that theology should become Doxology. I think that’s important, as you have said.
    I was recently at a missions conference (in Australia, where I live) where I was challenged that we [read: I] should stop waiting until I know more, but get better at actually serving. The theology (e.g of how justice fits with the gospel and evangelism) is important, but we cannot allow it to stall us in our response. Good post.

  5. j_meson says:

    I appreciate the sentiment of the post, however, I tend to find it terribly problematic, rather than helpful, when a Christian attempts to posit that ‘theology isn’t everything’ or in this case “we need more than theology.” The problem with these statements, is that, they are themselves theology and only confuse the matter. Rather than establishing a false dichotomy between theology and “blessed are the poor in spirit,” let’s affirm the theology, by the Spirit’s working in and through us in discussion and action, that “blessed are the poor in spirit.”

    1. Agreed, j_meson, about the false dichotomy. The argument also fails to dig just a little deeper to ask the very important questions of “WHO blesses the poor in spirit?”, “What does that MEAN?”, and “Through WHAT ‘intellectual’, ‘head knowledge’, ‘ivory tower’ discipline/field of study do we know these things?”
      Theology, in my experience, is 99.999% of the time UNDERrated, via this very false dichotomy. This leads to huge error and ecumenism. (Sorry for the redundancy.)

    2. Steve Boyd says:

      Although theology is the queen of the sciences, the article correctly points out substantial danger. Our pride loves to be right. And frankly to study the Bible (and theology) for long necessarily and mercifully will show us we were wrong about about some of our early assumptions. It’s helpful to me to remember God gave us not a theology text, but the Bible.

  6. j_meson says:

    Exactly right, James. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” is a declaration not a command. The Arminian who has the appearance of being poor in spirit, yet asserts or believes he has a will to make himself poor in spirit, would in fact be as far as a man can get from being poor in spirit. But a Calvinist who confidently and emphatically proclaims until he is blue in the face that it is the Lord who declares the blessed, may not have an appearance of being poor in spirit by our measure, but could be the poorest of us all in the eyes of the Lord.

  7. Mark says:

    I view scripture itself to be theological rather than theology being something people do in additon to scripture. Thus, when someone reads/studies scripture they are doing theology, even if it is a young child. When the preacher delivers a biblical sermon the message is theological. When someone says “We get too much theology in church. We need more practical instruction” they are doing theology, although poor theology. I think the problem is not so much that theology is under- or over-rated but in how people, use, misuse, or abuse scripture/theology. If theology is something people do with or in addition to scripture that would seem to make people autonomous. Do we try to understand the theology revealed in scripure or do we try to make sense out of scripture by theologizing?

    1. Quincy A. Jones says:

      Mark, to answer your question we try to understand the theology revealed Scripture by theologizing. That is the nature of theology – we are interpreting, reflecting, communicating what we read/see in the text. There is an obvious recognition that because we are fallen, our judgments are often flawed which means that to some degree or another our theology is thus flawed to. This is were it’s important to make distinction between theology and Scripture in the same way it is important to make distinction between religious tradition and pure religion. While tradition may encompass pure religion, not all tradition IS pure religion. Theology (i.e, the task of theology) is something wholly different from Scripture, while it may contain Scriptural truth and express scriptural truth it is NOT Scripture. You are right, Scripture is theological and we need to realize that we are always “doing theology” but it is imperative that we make distinction between what we “do” and what we read lest find ourselves unwittingly canonizing ourselves and then we are in need of a whole new reformation.

      Jude 2,


  8. I believe that pride and arrogance can raise their ugly heads among any group within the church. It surely is not limited to those who “study God.” Borrowing from the phrase Alex used, if Theology is done right it becomes Doxology. Start at theology proper and meditate on the attributes of God. That will bring you to your knees.

  9. Great though piece Ray! For quite some time, the evangelical church has strongly underestimated the importance of having solid theological convictions. This article wonderfully addressed the need to make a stand on those issues now more than ever. I very much respect your humble reminder for the body of Christ to rightly understand both the aim of theological examination and the spirit of humility that must accompany it. May our ultimate goal in our theological study endeavors always be to glorify God, worship His greatness, and articulate effectively and winsomely the gospel of Jesus Christ!

  10. It occurs to me that while I believe what I wrote in my previous comment, that comment should have been tempered somewhat. I think it may have come across as brash or a perfect example of Ray’s point. Theological knowledge can lead to pride; even the thought that one has some knowledge that another does not, can lead to pride. This is true even if that thought is fallacious. Human nature is like that. I think the church needs to promote both the study of theology and the practice of humility. If I sounded obnoxious in my first comment, I apologize.

    1. Ray Ortlund says:

      Thanks, E. A. So gracious of you.

  11. thanks Ray,
    I think it’s also “theology can be an idol” as well.
    When we worship our viewpoint of God, we’re listening to hear from someone else if they anunciate like we do the same aspects of faith we have elevated in our theologies, when they do, we hail them as having ‘correct theology’ and when they don’t we chastise them as ‘misguided’.

  12. I really appreciate this post. Thank you!

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Ray Ortlund

Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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