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  • Writer's pictureM.B. Christiansen

Confessions of a Theological Mutt

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

Since this is my inaugural blog post, it feels logical to start at the very beginning. Theology can be intimidating, and people who talk about theology can sometimes come across as smug because of the terminology that is usually employed. There are words thrown around when people talk theology that, if you’ve never been to seminary, mean absolutely nothing and can sound scary. My heart is not for this site to be a place where only people who have a certain degree of education can come and understand my thoughts. When Jesus teaches in Matthew 18:2 that in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven one must have a childlike faith, he means just that. In order to rightly understand God, you don’t need a seminary degree. All you need to really know God is a good translation of the Bible and the guidance of the Holy Spirit (I’ll probably write about both of those in future posts). Good theology does not necessarily always look like big words and extensive bibliographies. The very name of my blog, “Theology Sketchbook”, is an intentional framing of the content, more like the scribblings of an artist’s sketchbook as they flesh out what will become a beautiful work of art. God is the definition of beauty, so the more clearly one understands God, the more beautiful one’s picture of him becomes. I will use theology terms, but will do my best to define them as I go so that the content is accessible while being up to par with the latest biblical scholarship. In fact, many of my posts will likely be to explain different theological topics or doctrines as I understand them.

When people ask me what my theological background is, I like to define myself as a “theological mutt”. I grew up in a Lutheran church, and on getting confirmed started going to an E-Free youth group. After high school I went to a Lutheran college, and while there I attended church on Sunday mornings first at a local E-Free church and then at an Evangelical Covenant Church. Upon graduating I moved to Sioux Falls, where my fiancé and I got plugged into a large Baptist church and volunteered for a few years there before God called me into youth ministry. In ministry, God called me first back to a Lutheran church and then to the Evangelical Covenant Church.

Needless to say, the churches I have been associated with through the years are all over the place both in terms of theology and worship style. Many people look at this and scoff because they assume that the diversity of churches indicates that I somehow don’t have a theological compass or that I just believe whatever the current pastor tells me to believe. On the contrary, the thing that has allowed me to be content in a diverse array of denominations is the principle that God’s Word (which is preserved in the Bible) is authoritative, inspired, and inerrant. When I was younger, I wouldn’t have known how to articulate that, but I understood that God’s Word, rather than whoever happened to be preaching, was the standard by which to measure truth. Sometimes I disagreed, but I did so with the humility that God’s Word is complex and that it is entirely possible that I was the wrong who did not understand.

A bewildering trend in the arena of theology is that there seems to be very little room for humility. Often, one assumes that their view is the only correct view and that anyone who sees things differently is simply less intelligent and therefore not worth interacting with. In response to this trend, I would point out that God’s Word is complex and that some aspects of theology is not nearly as straightforward as many denominations would make it seem. Keeping in mind that we, as fallen human beings, have mental faculties that are inhibited by sin, it seems to me that a good deal more of humility is necessary when we are interacting with God’s Word and seeking to understand the objective truth about who God is. I (obviously) have my own strong theological convictions and views, but I am willing to hear both sides of any given argument because I am painfully aware of my lack of knowledge.

That is not to say that there are not non-negotiables. Orthodox Christianity has a definition, and there are certain doctrinal pillars that constitute what it means to follow Christ. Whether one agrees or not, things like the human guilt for sin, the need for repentance, which is the precursor to the free gift of grace freely offered for the forgiveness of sins, and things like the many attributes of God are foundational to the gospel message. To compromise these is to put oneself outside of the clearly defined limits of what it means to be a Christian. Outside of the core doctrines of the faith (which I refer to as the non-negotiables), however, there are a great many doctrines that, while important, are not essential to living faithfully for Christ. With a healthy dose of humility, I believe it is possible to remain true to one’s own convictions while being able to agree to disagree on many differing views that fall within Christian orthodoxy.

To help drive the point of the necessity of humility in theological conversation home, I want to share a deeply personal story which I think illustrates this truth. Much of my theological framework came not from hearing sermons or taking classes, but from personal study of God’s Word with a conscious reliance on the Holy Spirit. Over the course of a few years, based merely on serious study of Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I developed a solid working theology of the Christian faith. Scripture, and not flawed peoples’ opinions, were the basis for my faith and development. My experience is that when one honestly and openly comes to God’s Word with the intention of learning who God really is, the Holy Spirit is more than willing to meet one where they’re at. God is not hidden; he wants to be known.

Fast forward to few years into my call at the church where I currently serve (part of the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination). I was at a conference in Chicago with a multitude of colleagues serving in youth ministry in our denomination, and there was a relational event hosted on a Sunday night where we was bowling, food, and an opportunity to hang out and talk ministry. I was talking shop with a fellow youth pastor and I was sharing about a Bible study that I was doing with my high school students. The study was going well and was causing students to respond and grow in their faith. Scripture geek that I am, I was gushing about how I appreciated the depth of Scripture and its cohesiveness and beauty. The conversation turned to theology, and I was asked what my theological background was. I shared that I was a theological mutt (as described above), and my colleague began to press me about the specifics of theology. Having never taken any seminary classes I was unfamiliar with the terminology that academic biblical scholarship uses to articulate different doctrines and ideas. After asking me about my view of eschatology (the term in theology for things dealing with the end times and Jesus’ second coming) and finding that I had never heard of terms like pretribulation, midtribulation, postribulation, premillennialism, postmillennialism, amillennialism, or dispensationalism, she snorted and quipped dismissively “do you even know what you believe?”

Sitting there, in the midst of who I thought to be friends and likeminded servants of God’s Kingdom, being condescendingly told that I didn’t know what I believed was a very pivotal moment for me. I can think of only a handful of other times in my life when I felt as alone as I felt in that moment. I remember it vividly. I remember the loss for words. I remember the cold, quiet walk back to the hotel. And I remember thinking that I wanted to remember that moment for a long time. That moment gives me motivation to make sure that I never dismiss somebody’s contribution to theology simply because they don’t know some fancy terms.

A few years later, when I started taking seminary classes, my first class was Systematic Theology. I gained a great deal of knowledge, learned all the “theology terms”, but most importantly acquired a love of reading and theological discussion (which has let to the existence of this blog). Yet what was perhaps more eye-opening to me was that while I learned a great deal and was led to think more deeply and articulately about the foundational truths I knew to be true from Scripture, there were no fundamental shifts or corrections in how I had previously understood God. In my years of youth ministry, I had communicated the ideas with smaller, less intelligent sounding words, but the truth behind them was the same. I had no idea what Soteriology was, but I knew what Jesus had done for me on the cross. I had no idea that God should be properly called Transcendent and Imminent, but I knew that the Bible tells us that God is eternal, existing outside of and separate from our created universe while at the same time being near and actively engaged with creation on a regular basis.

This is largely what makes the Christian faith beautiful. God wants us to know him. He is not hidden or buried in volumes of dense books or behind obscure rituals. Certainly, theology is essential in gaining a deeper, more accurate understanding of God, but a cursory reading of any of the four Gospel accounts shows that humility and simplicity are central to the Christian faith. Part of the beauty of the gospel message is in its simplicity. Boiled down to it’s most basic, the truth of the gospel is that even though we are unable to do the work to earn God’s love, Jesus did it for us.

The core of the Christian faith is breathtakingly simple. A child sitting in a Sunday School class can be told, at a first-grade level, the gospel message and come to a saving faith which will spill over into eternity with God. Theological pursuits are not a prerequisite for salvation. Rather, once salvation is secured, theology offers the faithful a better, more accurately beautiful picture of who God is and what he’s actually like. The Christian is not required to rigorously study theology, but rather is afforded the blessing of getting a glimpse into the mind that created the universe and has called them by name. The child sitting in Sunday School gets a blurry outline of a loving and sovereign God, theology helps bring the picture into focus, illuminating and enhancing the beauty of our maker. This is why we do theology.

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