How Not to Do Theology

About 50 years ago, Francis Schaeffer, in his little-known book, The Church before the Watching World, used two analogies that have stuck with me ever since. How a plateau between two cliffs, and mountains and foothills, illustrate the way believers—especially leaders (whether preachers, teachers, or writers)—should think about theology but sadly so often don’t. He was making these points because, even at that time, the distorted way too many Christian leaders were approaching theological issues was both dividing the Church and, more to his point, undermining the Church’s witness to a watching world. Would that this problem has changed for the better in the intervening 50 years… but that is not the case. If anything, the presence of an ever-increasing number of “hobby-horse ministries” (i.e., those who ride their narrow views as their favorite pastime, like a favorite horse in time gone by) tends to skew the balance that all believers need to have in their theological understanding.

Let’s first take a look at what Schaeffer was getting at when he used the illustration of a plateau between two cliffs. His idea was that evangelical (i.e., Bible-believing) Christianity, all the way across the “plateau” from the most passionately-held free will-oriented beliefs to the most dogmatic sovereignty of God-based theology, is still biblically “orthodox,” even though there are major areas of disagreement in regard to certain doctrines.  

However, on both sides of the plateau are beliefs that are “out of bounds” (i.e., off the cliff—to crash below—in regard to biblical truth). An example on the “free will” side of the plateau is “Openness of God” theology, which does not believe that God knows the future, thus denying that He is all-knowing (i.e., omniscient, to use the theological term). Because of their denial of God being all-knowing, which is clearly taught throughout Scripture, “Openness theology” is off the side of the cliff on the free will side.

On the “sovereignty of God” side of the plateau, an “out of bounds” viewpoint is Hyper-Calvinism. Now, what is being talked about here is not standard brand so-called “Five Point Calvinism.” As much as some of us may disagree with some tenets of such Calvinist theology, it is still on the edge of the Bible-believing “orthodox plateau.” However, Hyper-Calvinism goes well beyond those Five Points out into theological midair, with no clear scriptural support for their following radical views: 1) They do not present the gospel to just anyone, because such a person might not be one of the elect, and that would “throwing pearls before swine” (i.e., the non-elect); and 2) They believe that God is the direct author of evil, going well beyond the Bible’s teaching that God permits or allows evil, but does not actively cause it. 

The problem with many of us preachers, teachers, or writers—including me, on short-sighted occasions—is that we get caught up with disagreements we have with others on the orthodox “plateau” and, unnoticed to us with our focus elsewhere, viewpoints that are “off the cliff” on either side gain more and more adherents. In other words, we as leaders who are supposed to be on the lookout “for every wind of teaching” (Ephesians 4:14) that will keep those we are responsible to shepherd from maturing to Christlikeness (4:13) too often are involved in intramural spats with those we agree with 90-95 percent of the time. (It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what’s wrong with that picture!)

Schaeffer’s second illustration changes what is being spotlighted from a plateau to mountains and foothills around them. The significance here is similar to what is meant when someone says: “So-and-so is making a mountain out of a molehill.” However, flipping the wording of that saying is equally true: “Making a molehill out of a mountain” (which, though it takes place less often, does sometimes happen).

The key thing to understand here is that the major mountain peaks represent the most important theological truths Christians believe (e.g., the authority of the Bible, the Trinity, the unique Divine-human nature of Jesus, and salvation by grace through faith), while the foothills stand for the less important doctrinal truths (e.g., small details about the end times). The problems come about when leaders get the mountains and foothills reversed.

How does that happen? It’s usually due to not backing off and regaining proper perspective by looking carefully at the big picture of biblical teaching. If a preacher, teacher, or writer continues to be laser-focused on a certain theological area over time, that doctrine will subconsciously grow and grow in their estimation, until it seems like a huge theological area, even if it is not that important in an objective overall assessment. Similarly, if a particular area of theological teaching has been overlooked or ignored for a long time in a leader’s study or verbal or written ministry, it subconsciously shrinks in significance.

Both extremes are noticeable to others, whether the preacher, teacher, or writer recognizes it or not. You hear it when people say things like, “That’s all he/she ever talks or writes about” or “I can’t remember when he/she talked/wrote about that theological area.” 

Still, the sadder part is not the imbalance in the life of the one communicating God’s Word—though that’s bad enough. It’s the even more profound imbalance it tends to produce in the hearers/readers, many of whom are not mature enough spiritually to recover readily from the biblical imbalance and, if/when they do recover, may be harbor real anger toward the leader whose imbalanced views they so recently idolized or even be disillusioned with the faith.

Dr. Boyd Luter
Dr. Boyd Luter
Dr. Boyd Luter is the Director of Biblical and Theological Studies at The King's University.