Many years ago a man was taking a civil service examination for postman. One of the questions was, "How far is the sun from the earth?'* The man answered, with good sense, "It is so far away that it will not make any difference to my delivering the mail on Main Street."
That is true, about delivering the mail on Main Street. But, unfortunately, there are many people who feel the same way about theology—that it is so far off from their needs and interests that it doesn't make any difference.
That is wrong.
The truth is that Christian theology makes a tremendous difference to all that a person does on Main Street or any street. For Christian theology is the clear meaning of the things most surely believed in the Christian faith. Theology is, according to the dictionary, "the science which treats of God, His attributes and His relation to man and the universe." Christian theology takes us into the highest meanings of life.
Each one of us needs a theology, but we do not have to be theologians. To have a theology does not mean that we have to become scholars or spend our lives in a library reading long and difficult books. There are people who have thought profoundly about the mysteries of God and man. They have recorded their thoughts in books that are often difficult reading. The world is deep in their debt.
But great thoughts can be put in clear and simple form. Theology sets forth clearly the meaning of God's revelation of Himself. What could be more important to each of us?
Go back in your thought to the beginning of Christianity. We read in the New Testament of "the faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). Notice, it was not delivered to the theologians. That word, "saints," does not mean stained-glass window saints with a halo. In the New Testament the saints were the faithful Christian men and women, not perfect people, but separated and consecrated to the service of God. It was the laymen, the plain men and women, who carried the Christian Gospel to the world. They were peddlers, slaves, working men and women, housewives. They had a theology. They knew the meaning of the Gospel. Paul's letters are profound thinking. But the people to whom they were written understood.
There has been quite a widespread, thoughtless disparaging of theology. Dr. A. Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, once said a foolish thing: "Belief and faith are small matters beside character and behavior."
That delusion about the unimportance of a clearly stated faith has just as much sense as saying, "It doesn't matter what a farmer plants; it is what he harvests that counts."
Of course, what a farmer harvests depends on what he plants! So, what a man does depends on what he believes. We read in the New Testament: "We believe, and therefore we speak" (II Corinthians 4:13). Great life came from great belief. Great actions come from great faith. If we are to have great living there must be great faith.
Our Christian religion demands clear statement. It is not a journey into fog. We must bring our faith into clear meaning. Our theology must answer such great questions as: "What think ye of Christ?"
"What is salvation?"
"Is there a life after death?"
We need more than a fog bank. To many members of churches, Christianity already has lost its concrete, dogmatic affirmation. In that case, it becomes something like a placard at the entrance to an amphitheatre in Coldwater Canyon, Beverly Hills, California. The inscription reads: "Here amongst our eternal hills we build a shrine, without creed, without dogma, inspiring all mankind." That is just nonsense. The world cannot be inspired by an intellectual vacuum.
Theology saves us from such emptiness by its dogma that God sent His Son into the world to redeem the world, and that we are saved by faith in Christ.
Christian theology gives us a map of life for our journey through life. It gives us an understanding of God. It gives us a measure of life, the things that are most worth while.
We need to remember, also, that theology is not a dull book, not a catechism to be memorized by rote. "The Christian faith," as Dorothy Sayers says, "is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man." The drama is the act itself, the deed of God in Christ. So we should let the excitement grip our souls.
We need a theology—a clearly stated faith if we are to have a life of power. Without the core of theology—of the incarnation, of salvation, through God's act in Christ—we have only a "pretty" religion, which can do nothing for us that we cannot do for ourselves. A "pretty" religion cannot save the individual from the destructive forces of sin; it cannot save the world.
Let us look with some detail at things most surely believed by Christians—glowing affirmations of the faith, truths with saving powers in life.
The first great Christian doctrine is that of God. We believe that God is Love. That is a tremendous faith and affirmation. A woman said to her pastor, "I have no use for theology at all. I just have a simple belief in a God of Love." The pastor replied, "You have just uttered the most profound theological doctrine ever conceived, that God is Love." We believe in a Christ-like God. Our conception of God is this word of Christ, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father." But all too often in our day that idea has given way to a vague cloudy idea of "somebody." All that a number of people have as a God is the "Great God Somebody." We believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is something to sing about. So we do sing about it, "O Love, that wilt not let me go."
We believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Here is the theology of Christ—"God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself" (II Corinthians 5:19). That is profound enough for men to spend centuries thinking and writing about it. It is simple enough for every Christian to understand.
A nuclear scientist, making a plea for scholarships to be given to students from other countries, made a far-reaching statement. He said, "The best way to send an idea is to wrap it up in a person." That is what God did in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. He took the idea of the love of God and wrapped it up in the person of Christ. The idea of Christ, the Son of God, is a theological idea.
A woman arranging a community sing around a Christmas tree asked a pastor if he could help her pick out some appropriate cards. She said sadly, "Most of the Christmas cards are so distressingly theological."
The pastor replied, "Well, Christmas was a theological affair, wasn't it?"
The coming of Christ was not man reaching up, but God reaching down into the needs and hopes of humanity. "God so loved the world that He gave His Son." That gift comes to everyone on earth who will receive it.
Christian theology includes our belief in the Holy Spirit. That means, in very simple words, God is here now. He is not only the God of the great yesterday, not only the God of the great tomorrow of the eternal world and eternal life. He is the God of the great today. The Holy Spirit of God brings the life of God in the soul of man. Someone has well said, "The Holy Spirit is the present tense of God."
There are many definitions of the Holy Spirit. One of the best is one of the simplest, found in the hymnal:
Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew. That I may love what Thou dost love
And do what Thou dost do.
The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, which fills us with life anew, and directs our hearts and minds into the doing of what God loves and does.
Christian theology includes a belief in salvation. In its simplest form, it is found in the statement of Paul to the Philippian jailor—"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved." We are saved from the destructive forces of the world by the grace of God in Christ.
When a great faith in Christ as the Son and revelation of God takes hold of a person's life, he is a new creature. He is saved from the forces that make for death to the power that makes for life. We are redeemed from slavery to sin, self-will, moral and spiritual weakness. The grace of God is the unearned love of God. God forgives sin. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
To find salvation we must repent. That means literally, "Get a new mind." It means, make a right-about face in your way of living and turn to God and His ways. New power for living comes into the saved life, "It is no longer I that live, but Christ that liveth in me" (Galatians 2:20).
The sacrificial death of Christ on the cross is the supreme revelation of God's love. He came to give His life as a ransom for many. His self-giving brings us salvation, when we receive that gift on the cross.
We believe also in the Kingdom of God, Faith, in its simplest form, is the rule of God in one life and in the world.
There is an old Oriental fairy tale of a tent made of material so delicate that it could be folded up and easily contained in the palm of a man's hand; yet, when it was unrolled and set up it would shelter an army. In somewhat the same manner, the idea of the Kingdom of God expands and contracts as Jesus uses it. It is the possession of one man, and also of millions of men. It is both a personal good in individual life and an order of life under the rule of God. In all its different manifestations, it is an order of life in this present world which corresponds to the teaching and character of Jesus. It is in the future. But whenever a human life is brought into harmony with God's purpose, the Kingdom of God is there.
Our Christian theology includes the church as a divine institution. The church is called in the New Testament "the body of Christ." That means both that Christ is living in the church, and that the church is His instrument in bringing the Gospel of Christ to the world. One new thing at Pentecost, when the spirit of God came on the disciples, was this fellowship in Christ which was the church. This is our task in the church—so to act in the love and spirit of Christ that the redemption of the world by Christ is brought nearer.
A sharp clear picture of the work of the church of God in the world was given once by a man looking at Niagara Falls. He watched a little steamer push its way up to the falls against the terrific current. The man's imagination took fire, and he said in admiration, "Thank God for things that move up."
We can say that about the church. We can look in the New Testament and see that little ship, the Christian Church, in the Roman world where so many pulls were down, pushing up against the current. So we can say the same thing of the church of God in our day. By divine power it moves up.
The church is not just another society to which to belong. It is a fellowship in the power of God. It must hear the command, "Go ye into all the world."
The Christian church holds to the faith in an eternal life. Christ, we read in the New Testament, brought life and immortality to light. The Christian faith in eternal life does not mean only the duration of an endless life. Eternal life means a new quality of life here and now.
We believe in life after death because we believe in a Christ-like God. Faith in eternal life rests on faith in a God of love. Our faith also rests on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. "He could not be holden." The first heralds of the cross went out to the world with the message of Jesus and the resurrection.
That is the high faith of the Christian world. Easter is an ultimate fact about the universe. That faith lifted men to their feet and sent them out into life with a new sense of value in God's sight and a new power.
No, you cannot escape theology!
* Taken from the Christian Herald, July, 1960. Used by permission.