Widening our Doctrinal Definitions (Avoiding Superficial Spirituality Part 7) 


“Theological reflection is a pilgrimage in which change should be celebrated, not feared.” Clark Pinnock

We’ve been talking about deepening our walk with the Almighty, and certain attitudes we must cultivate if we want to explore “the deep things of God.” (See at the bottom of this post links to previous ones on the subject.) Here’s my next recommendation to that end:

To go deeper we have to be willing to expand our doctrinal definitions

I realize that considering making revisions about what they believe is frightening for some people. For many, their entire relationship with him is wrapped around their doctrinal statement, that list of irreducible minimum beliefs that identify them as “true Christians.”

Don’t get me wrong, there are non-negotiables in our faith, and I wouldn’t think of trying to wrest any of them out of your white-knuckle grip. I’m not recommending that you toss everything out and start over. What I propose is that if you haven’t ventured into deeper waters for quite a while, you might want to take a fresh look at the width, if not the length, of the things you believe. Is it possible that your list of givens is too short or too long or too narrow or too wide to take you to a more profound place in Jesus?

Could it be that what you believe is fundamentally correct in and of itself, yet you’re not flexible enough in your thinking to tweak it if the Spirit were to bring fresh revelation to light? If the very thought of adjusting your theology makes you hyperventilate, you probably suffer from a fixation, if not a mild addiction, to the strictures of your spiritual beliefs. If you wish to have a more profound experience with him, you might do well to ask yourself if you love your beliefs about God more than you love God!

For myself, the Spirit has been working with me in the last few years to consider some revisions to my previously held theological notions. The width of God’s redemptive parameters, for instance, and the prevalence of prevenient grace have been on my mind a lot lately. How I view providence and sovereignty, God’s love for the poor and vulnerable, the beauty of his image in every human, and the value of meditation are also things I’ve been giving more attention to lately. Some of these adjustments are minimal while others more substantial. Some come easily, while others are forged only after a good bit of heat and pressure.

I love the Bible and studying theology, but some people do theology as though it’s an end in itself. Rather than to increase their love and wonder at God’s beauty, they do it in a futile attempt to control him. They’re like lab assistants dissecting their rats and preserving the sliced up specimens in clearly labeled formaldehyde-filled jars. When we approach God with a scalpel, the mystery vanishes in the analysis.

We’re so concerned about being “right” in our analysis and proving those who disagree with us to be wrong that we bypass the actual goal of theology, which is to love and serve him. It’s pride that holds us back from seeing anything from a different vantage point than that to which we are accustomed. We’re afraid to change our views lest we have to admit we were wrong.

We know that God doesn’t change “like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17) Perfection doesn’t evolve, but our view of it does. We have stay on the move, so to speak, so we can, as far as one tiny lifetime allows us, circle his perimeter in order to take in as much of his glory as possible. But what we are able to observe will be woefully limited if we insist on standing still.

I do believe in the Scripture as the basis of my faith, but as Dan Kimball said, “Sometimes when someone says they believe in ‘Sola Scriptura’ (Scripture Alone), what they really mean is ‘Sola-the-way-I-interpret-the-Scriptura.’” And frankly my interpretation of it (and yours) is limited in so many ways and for so many reasons, not the least of which are my (and your) spiritual blind spots.

I know two things. One is that I have blind spots. And two, I don’t know what they are! This is why we check with God and his Word about what we believe and also have many mutually beneficial and respectful conversations with each other––especially with those who disagree with us. If not, our view of him will be doomed to the ceilings of our own intellect and prejudiced perspectives.

How else can we hope to “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that [we] may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19) We can’t discern the width and length and height and depth of God’s love apart from what an early teacher of theology of mine used to call “intellectual humility.” In order to gain a wider perspective we need to be humble enough to depend on the revelation of the Spirit and on the thoughts of those adjacent to us who see things we will never see unless they introduce them to us.

In his book, Benefit of the Doubt, Greg Boyd relates theology to the dictum, “The map is not the territory,” which means our interpretation of God is not God­­­­––it’s just a map. He says, “If we assume our map is the territory, then people who see things differently than we do are simply wrong.” And they assume that “our interpretation of a biblical verse is the meaning of the verse itself. So to disagree with our interpretation is to disagree with the verse itself.” This is why some people, who are unwilling to “modify their map,” have dubbed themselves God’s anointed theological police that jail anyone who disagree with them.

I confess that it’s been my tendency to hold clear-cut definitions for most spiritual realities and if something exceeds the boundaries of the definition, I am quick to suspect as renegade theology. Many of us have a hard time permitting ourselves to venture outside the box that we’ve built for God and us to live in. This sounds like fear to me.

We evangelicals tend to have a closed system, a settled mind where everything is pretty much defined. Our system is all sewn up and there’s simply no room for anything new. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good thing to know what we believe, or at least to know what we believe now. But if we hold too tightly onto what we already know we might miss opportunities to expand, if not outright alter, some of our ideas. This fear leads to a stubborn stranglehold to the familiar and relegates us to the safety of the shallow end of our faith. Our paltry expectations of deeper experiences in God are tethered to this fear of change and consign us to wade forever near shore.

Boyd writes, “If our security is in our map about God rather than in God himself, as revealed on the cross, we simply cannot leave the safety of our own shore to embrace the untamed beauty of a God for whom no map is ever fully adequate.” “Be attached to nothing,” counsels Jeanne Guyon, “no matter how good it is or appears to be.”

Many fear their faith will fail if they venture beyond the parameters of their “map.” If they give a little slack to what moors them to shore they’re afraid they might drift into dangerous water, which is always a possibility I suppose. I’m not recommending throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water. I am urging us to look in Scripture, delve into God’s heart, listen humbly to one another, and trust the Spirit to be our Guide into unknown waters.

Previous posts from this series:

5 Replies to “Widening our Doctrinal Definitions (Avoiding Superficial Spirituality Part 7) ”

  1. Everything I perceive in the Spirit is like endlessly patient with us, just so willing to be ignored and rejected and like still the Spirit just loves us. I wish I could stay in that mind. I feel tired of banging my head on a brick wall of religious-ness. So many words. Even in the most beautiful believers at my church, there’s a wall that is very frustrating. But Spirit never tires of them!
    I just keep singing and counting our blessings. Spirit is fully available to overflow and it’s amazing.
    Believers seem so protective, it seems opposite to the freedom Jesus went to great lengths to offer us. What are they protecting? It seems very small compared to what’s available and how bad the world needs it. I’m just going to keep singing and try to learn something good.
    I always appreciate your perspective.


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