Bad theology: When it’s not based on revelation.

The starting point of theology is revelation, the stuff God reveals to us.

Problem is, not everybody agrees. They think the starting point is us: We have questions about God, the universe, whether we can have a relationship with God (or at least get stuff out of him), death and the afterlife, good and evil and karma, and salvation. And people figure theology is when we seek answers to these questions, and get wise-sounding answers from the smartest gurus. Or even become a guru ourselves, ’cause guruing doesn’t look all that hard.

Yep, even Christians do it. Years ago, at another church, my pastors began to invite a lot of clever guest speakers to come preach to us. These guys would regularly tell us what they think they’ve figured out about God. Some ideas were based on actual personal experiences with God—which I’m not knocking, but I wanna remind you our God-experiences need to be confirmed long before we start developing ’em into theology. These guys were not so scrupulous. They felt these God-experiences were so profound, so emotional, they didn’t bother to ask the usual questions we oughta pose when such things happen. “God showed me,” they figured; they believed it, and that settles it.

Me, I know enough bible to seriously doubt God showed them a thing.

Problem is, most Christians don’t. And when they have their own God-experiences, they do the same thing as these preachers: They never have ’em properly confirmed. They’re so sure their personal insights are revelations; they certainly feel like revelations! And when someone else stands up, claims to have an insight, and present ’em with something which feels right to them… well, they had religion questions, here’s someone who purports to have answers, and the answers sound like stuff they oughta believe. Stuff they wanna believe. So they do.

But is this because the Holy Spirit tells ’em, “Yep, that came from me,” or because their flesh tells ’em, “Oh that sounds so much easier than holiness”? And should we really trust our inner impulses, urges, and desires when it comes to theological ideas? Most of us are pretty darned selfish, and that’s the deciding factor in our lives, not the Spirit. That’s what makes us feel these ideas are correct, not a lifestyle of actively following Jesus. We might imagine it’s the Spirit, but we still don’t know the difference between him, and the way the surprise ending of a clever mystery novel makes us feel.

So that’s how we practice bad theology: We’re not getting it from revelation, and therefore not getting it from God.

Not just bad ideas. Nor heresy.

Now yeah, some folks define bad theology as bad ideas: When we come to selfish and evil conclusions. Like sexists, who claim the bible is the entire basis for turning women into second-class Christians, not to mention second-class citizens. Like racists who do the same thing, or Mammonists. True, these are terrible ideas, evil practices, and bad theology. But they’re not bad theology because they produce bad fruit; we might have totally valid beliefs, properly deduced from bible, but in the hands of a fruitless person all their goodness can be nullified, 1Co 13.2 or even twisted into evil.

Nope, they’re bad theology ’cause the process by which we come to these conclusions was wrong from the get-go. Sexists didn’t begin with bible; they began as sexists already. They wanted to justify their sexism with bible verses, so they found some passages where ancient Hebrews were being sexist, and claim, “This proves it’s a biblical principle.” Or they found passages which mean one thing, distort ’em to mean what they wish, and teach that. Their starting point isn’t revelation. It’s their own evil, disguised as revelation.

And a lot of us start theology with our own biases. I confess: I do it too. “I think [harebrained idea] is so. Isn’t it taught in the bible?” So I’ll go a-looking. But I know better than to trust myself: I’m wrong. Jesus is right. So I’ll look for what Jesus, his prophets, or his apostles actually teach on the subject, and not just presume Jesus agrees with me. Often he doesn’t! But I follow him, not the other way round. So when I find we disagree, I gotta change my opinion to his. Not bend his opinion till it sounds like mine, then claim we think alike. Not project my beliefs upon him. That’s bad theology.

Loads of Christians also figure bad theology and heresy are the same thing. Nope. Bad theology can certainly result in heresy, but doesn’t always. Most of the time bad theology only produces bad ideas and false teachings, like the claims God doesn’t wanna save everybody, or everything happens for a reason. These aren’t harmless ideas; they can seriously mess with our understanding of God, and the ways we treat our fellow humans and Christians. But they’re not heresy.

Yeah, there are Christians who insist every wrong idea is heresy. That’s because they think they get to define what heresy is. They don’t. Properly heresy is an idea contrary to historically orthodox Christian beliefs, as defined by ancient Christians in our creeds. They deal with core Christian beliefs about God and salvation, and the grave errors which cropped up almost immediately after Jesus was raptured. You get these beliefs wrong, and you’re clearly not listening to the Spirit’s corrections. In fact there’s a better than average chance you’re not following God at all, and your salvation’s in serious doubt. Heresy’s a big deal.

And heresy’s definitely the product of bad theology. Ancient heretics imagined Jesus isn’t properly God, and obviously this idea didn’t come from bible; it came from people who felt trinity sounds too much like polytheism for their comfort. Today’s heretics think the very same thing, and make the very same error. But trinity is how the scriptures describe God. It’s how he legitimately revealed himself to be. It’s valid, orthodox theology. If you don’t like it, or wanna redefine it, because it’s too weird or mysterious and you think you’ve come up with a better way to describe him, that’s your hangup, your bad theology, and eventually your heresy.

More often, bad theology simply produces bad ideas. Like looking for other proofs of Christianity than good fruit. Like legalism, sexism, racism, various forms of dark Christianity, and various cults which lost sight of the Spirit’s fruit long ago.

And those who practice bad theology, love coming up with bad ideas. Because they’re not so much looking for truth, for a better understanding of who God is, nor a closer relationship with Jesus. They’re looking to become gurus. They wanna be the wise dispenser of brilliant proverbs, and for people to listen to these sayings and say, “Amen, pastor.” They want followers. They covet worship.

The appeal of bad theology.

Humans tend to be a little paranoid: We think we have a right to truth and power, but other people are greedily hiding it or keeping it from us. And yeah, in many cases that’s true; politics is an obvious example. In Christianity it’s also true, ’cause our churches are run by humans, and some of us haven’t entirely got rid of our dysfunctional behavior when we were put in charge. (Hopefully we’re working on it!) But the all-too-common assumption is our churches are keeping the real truths of the bible from us. So, certain Christians go on a search for the “real truths”—and because they’ve not learned how to properly do theology, of course they dive right into the bad stuff.

Humans also like new things. Not old. (It’s why we regularly misinterpret Jesus’s teaching on new wine in old skins.) True, a number of people love antiques, but that’s only because these antiques are new to them—and while they might have a house full of antiques, they’re still mighty jazzed when they acquire a new find. Humans like novelty. So sometimes it’s simply not enough for Christians to describe ancient ideas in new ways: Some of us covet entirely new ideas, same as the rest of the world. (Even though many of these “new ideas” are likewise very, very old.)

Hence you’ll find bad theology everywhere in Christendom. Out of context scriptures, obviously. Connect-the-dots reasoning, instead of logic. Meditation on the people of the bible, including Jesus, which turns ’em into sock puppets. Tons of projection, as we imagine God shares our biases, and Jesus thinks exactly like we do. None of it comes from revelation. But it sounds good, so Christians spread it widely, like rats do plague.

How do we resist it? Good theology, obviously. Make sure our ideas originate with God. Confirm ’em. Be skeptical of anything new we hear: Does that really come from God?—can we think of scriptures which confirm it, or scriptures which counter it? Is it consistent with God’s character, or does it more resemble or justify our own fruitless behavior? What fruit is it likely to produce?

It’s become my habitual response to anything I hear. And yeah, self-anointed gurus get really annoyed with me about this: Why do I have to be so contrary? Why can’t I just swallow their eggs of wisdom whole, like all their other followers do? Well, because I wanna know whether their eggs are actually rotten, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on the metaphorical toilet. I’m trying to follow Jesus, not them. I would hope they want the same thing. Some of ’em actually do! But too many really, honestly, don’t.