What does it mean for us, as Christians, when Paul instructs the Philippian church to be ‘like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind?’ (Philippians 2:2). When I was at uni I came to realise that other Christians do church and faith differently to me. Some people raise their hands during worship, some people think that we should use liturgy in our services, some people believe you need to speak tongues to be a Christian and others believe that you can’t take communion without a priest ordaining the bread and wine.
I was confused. I assumed that I’d been doing Church the ‘right’ way all my life and now other people were saying that I was ‘wrong’. This was the start of my journey with theology. I want to explore how Christians end up with different churches, different teachings and different styles of worship. Most of the time, it comes down to people finding different answers to the same questions that we’re all asking.
Is it really that hard to make Church doctrine?
From my four years of studying theology, this is my summary. When you study theology, you look at a bunch of different aspects of Christianity. Firstly, you have the two largest camps – ‘Theology’ and ‘Biblical Studies’. Theology gets broken into several other smaller areas, but it’s essentially looking at who God is and how he is involved in the world.I was taught that all theological decisions are based upon four areas of understanding: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience. These four categories form something called the Wesleyan Quadrant. And to create a theology of something, we ask four questions:
What does Scripture say?
What does Tradition say?
What does my Reason say?
What does my Experience of God say?
I hear you all asking me, ‘But Jem what order do we ask these questions in?’ That is the fundamental question underneath all of Church history and debate. I would put my degree on the line and say that all Church debate is because one person follows Tradition, Scripture, Reason, Experience and another person follows Scripture, Reason, Tradition, Experience, or merely another order of the four.
But hang on a second. Aren’t we putting Reason above everything by even creating a ‘how to’ format of making theology? But then how would we know where to start if we don’t have a format? I guess we should just using Scripture and Scripture alone, but who decided that Scripture is true? Well, the Early Church did. But even then, you have to interpret the Scriptures and you will appeal to Tradition to do this! So, you are using Tradition to start your doctrine… You see how theology can get confusing.
Breaking down the Bible
‘Biblical Studies’ has a similar breakdown. It focuses on the Bible and uses a bunch of different methods to look at the texts. Should we read it metaphorically or literally? Do we need to know how the original audience understood the metaphors, or are the metaphors supposed to transcend time and culture? Do we have to deny contradicting facts to the literal interpretation? If it’s both, how do we know which texts are metaphorical and which are literal?
This leads us to trying to understand how the original recipients of the Bible understood what we read, as well as merely trying to understand the book for ourselves. But if we have to figure out the original audience, aren’t we creating our understanding of what the original audience is like instead of knowing what the audience is really like? What I am trying to ask is, can we accurately create an understanding of how the text is received for its first audience?
We end up at a place in academia where there are so many questions, we might not know which path is the right one to go down while trying not to be a heretic – a dilemma I have found myself in countless times. A lot of people come to a conclusion that unless everyone looks like them, practices their faith like them, worships like them or even speaks about God like them, then that person is not a Christian. Often, we end up with the idea that to be in unity with one another, we must be in uniformity with one another. I hope I’ve shown how hard it is to read the Bible, let alone create doctrine.
What is our responsibility?
Paul says in Romans 14, ‘You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt?’ He is challenging the Christians in the Roman Church who are criticising people for practising their faith differently from others. Some people are taking sabbaths, some people aren’t. Some people are eating meat, others are fasting. What Paul calls for is that ‘each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.’ Know why you practice what you practice. Understand why you believe what you believe. Be assured because ‘each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.’ In essence, I think Paul is saying: study your beliefs, study theology, but most importantly love your brother and sister.
Four years in, I am coming to the end of my degree. Some people love their time at uni, some not so much. For me, these years have been deeply formational. University has been an emotional roller coaster, to say the least, and that isn’t even including the reason I am in Glasgow – my theology degree. I firmly believe that all Christians should study theology and widen their perspectives at some level. It will change the way you see God; the Church and it will strengthen your foundation of faith.
Ask your Church to do some extra in-depth teaching. Find a theological college offering part or full-time study. How about the Emerging Influencers course? Six weeks of teaching leading into a portion of time fundraising. I did it and loved it, you should do it too.