Non-Cafeteria Theology

cafetray2We used to talk about “cafeteria theology” when I was in Bible school.  Cafeteria theology is where you walk along with a tray and select the bits you like, making a personal theology . . . do we have a free-will?  When will Christ return?  How accurate is the Bible?  Which attributes do I like?  Etc.  But the reason we used to talk about it is because we were starting to discover how a choice in one area brings with it some theological elements elsewhere.  It is like picking a starter and automatically receiving the dessert as a result.  This seems confusing to people still picking and choosing their theology.

So how deep does the connection run?  Is it that “systems” of theology have a certain consistency?  That is to say, that if you choose a Reformed theology then your options are restricted in various areas?  Same with an Arminian theology, or a Pentecostal one?  Perhaps.  But we need to recognize that the differences are deeper and more foundational than denominational streams or theological camps.

I have mentioned before the importance of the big handful of questions.  God? Man? Sin? Grace?  Let’s pull a strand and see some of the interconnections.

The other evening I was engaged in a theological debate by my children.  After a couple of minutes I challenged an assumption that came from one of them . . . that we are sinners because we sin.  The talk was about the “first sin” a person commits and hypothetical questions about “somebody who never sins.”  So I turned that around and suggested that we aren’t sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners.  Our choices don’t determine our sinfulness, rather our sinfulness manifests in sins.  This was a good point to ponder.

The conversation was soon brought around to divine judgment.  Does God send people to hell for sins?  “What if somebody only does one thing wrong?”  Recently I have used this illustration a few times . . . too often in our evangelistic presentations we build from Romans 3:23 — all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God — and talk about God’s “pass mark” as 50, so even if we get a 49, then we still fall short.  Hypothetically this is true.  But it is propagating a superficial “sins” view of the problem.  The human problem goes much deeper.  The truth is that every one of us is a solid, round, zero out of 50.

“Ah, but, what about good people who don’t know Jesus?”  Again, an assumption is in play here.  The assumption here is that sin is about external performance measured against laws.  But the Bible pushes us deeper than that.  What does it mean to be dead in sin?  Why does the Bible make so much of the state of the heart in relation to God?  Why does God find righteous deeds unimpressive when hearts are far from him?  Why was the “religious” older brother as lost as the rebellious younger brother in Luke 15 – that is, his performance may have ticked some expectation lists, but his heart was self-focused, and his father meant nothing more to him than a benefactor/employer and his desire was for benefits rather than relationship . . . he was lost.

Once we probe the one issue of sin, a couple of things become evident.  Firstly, our problem is far more profound than mere law-breaking.  It is a profoundly heart-level and relational issue.

Secondly, other parts of core theology have to be consistent with this biblical view of sin.  If the root problem is relational disaffection and despising of God and assertion of independence, etc.  Then what view of God goes with that?  He must be more than a judge and law-giver.  He must be profoundly relational, creating humanity for some sort of relational participation in His life.  And that is what we find if we are willing to look: the Bible will affirm a much more relational view of God than many have recognized.

What about humanity?  If God is defined relationally, perhaps we then need to ponder how human life is about relational participation, particularly with God, as well as with each other.  Our life does not consist in accumulation of capacities and qualities in and of ourselves.

What about grace?  What is a relational and loving God’s solution to a profoundly relational problem called sin?  Grace must go deeper than forensic forgiveness.  Salvation must be more than mere change in status and destination.  And God’s provision is more than a tweak in heavenly paperwork or graciousness in our direction – again, we discover biblically that God gives Himself to us in salvation, the role of the Spirit becomes massively important.

And grace is not just about getting saved, it also influences the ongoing growth of the Christian.  Is this about performance and independent effort?  Of course not, that hasn’t been the story so far, why go there now?  No, the Christian life is about ongoing participation in the life of God by faith, through the Spirit, in Christ, etc.

We poked away at the sin question, and sure enough, the other questions were influenced as a result.  Pick a question and probe it biblically . . . you won’t be able to stay just in that question for long!

3 Responses to Non-Cafeteria Theology

  1. David Gibbons July 3, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    Wonderful post. Peter.

    I have been involved recently in a discussion on another site on the difference between living under Grace and under law. One of the points I made is that God is, fundamentally, uninterested in sin. It is an obstruction to what He wants, which as you say is a relationship with us, and so it was vital that He deal with it, but that is the extent, I think, of His interest in it. I think we should have a similar attitude: Sin needs dealing with so that we can get on with the real “work” of being in relationship with God.

    I am also surprised at how many people believe they can pick and choose different doctrines without any thought to the way they interact. This is not just a Christian problem, of course, and I have known a lot of pagans who utilise just such a syncretic approach. We may have to hold our theology lightly because we know only in part, but that doesn’t mean that we can just collect interesting or appealing ideas.

  2. Caleb Suko July 4, 2013 at 7:47 am #

    I like how you put it, “our problem is far more profound than mere law-breaking. It is a profoundly heart-level and relational issue.” These are huge doctrinal issues and it shouldn’t be a surprise that they affect a lot of other doctrines. I think part of the problem is that often our theology is compartmentalized and we don’t see how it affects other theologies or even how it affects our life. Maybe if we were more active in trying to personally apply our theology it would help us analyze it and make sure it is cohesive.

  3. David White October 21, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

    Thank you for the article.
    I’ve been thinking about this too – but from the ‘other side’ of salvation. Considering that the sin problem is fundamentally relational and not just a matter of accumulating sins, then for believers, where relationship with God is restored, sinning, in God’s view, must also be a fundamentally different issue. And I wonder if the problem so many Christians have with how to look at their ongoing sinning is because they fail to see that when we are told that sin is not ‘reckoned to us’, this is what it is saying. We still keep counting sin in the old way.

    Does that sound right? Biblical, even?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.