Textbooks about God

I heard recently that one of my former seminary students married a non-Christian.  Despite my grimace-of-heart it’s no great surprise: such mismatches (in biblical terms) seem to be on the rise among evangelicals.  And, in a separate moral commentary, premarital sexual activity by engaged believers is more and more common—and all but assumed in some settings.  Most of these people—speaking of the believers—then live without much vitality in their faith after marriage.  If they ignore God’s word in the deep realm of marriage then an ocean of smaller dismissals of God’s word is easy to navigate.

But this post in not about marriages, at least not as a direct concern.  Nor is it an effort to waggle my moral finger saying “naughty, naughty” to those who step over Bible boundaries: there’s no benefit in that.  But it also won’t do to act as if we should just ignore it.  The issues here need careful thought and some response.  We have a real problem.

So let me ask a more basic question: is our theology part of the problem?  Could it be that our conduct—in failing to live the life God offers us—is due to distortions of God’s love, his ways, and his Son?  It just might be.

Let’s start with love.  When we think of seminary students—those trained to offer spiritual and moral leadership to others—what is it that defines love for them?  Such basic questions of theology have an answer book: a thick textbook called a Systematic Theology.  It addresses the major questions about God and what he wants us to know about himself.  This text is the main tool for about twenty percent of all the courses the student will take in a typical Master of Divinity (pastoral) program.

But before we consider these textbooks let me sample the Bible on the subject of marriage where we started: what does God have in mind for marriage?  One concern is his call to procreation—to multiply and fill the earth.  So far, so good.  But God looks for more than numbers; he looks for those to embrace him, as he shares in Malachi 2:15 by calling for Spirit-bonded marriages that produce “Godly offspring.”  And even more stunning is the Ephesians 5:32 disclosure that God’s purpose for marriage is to point to the culminating and ultimate marriage of Christ and the Church.  And what is to be at the center of such human and divine marriages?  The sacrificial love that Christ has for the Church (verse 25).

Love, we discover in a quick overview, permeates the Bible as the singular motive force for faith and holiness—as in the call for “faith working through love” in Galatians 5:6.  Love, in fact, is the greatest calling for humanity—above even the pursuit of God’s glory (since proper glory is birthed in love—see John 17:24).  Jesus said as much when he was asked about the greatest commandment and he pointed to Deuteronomy 6:4—to love God with all we are and have.  And we find that the problem of sin is one of love gone awry as in 2 Timothy 3:1-5 where people are said to be lovers of almost everything in creation but are not lovers of God.

So now I turn to the textbook for a chapter on God’s love; looking, perhaps, for a discussion on how to live a life in love, as Paul promoted in 1 Corinthians 13; or a discussion of our love for Christ, in anticipation of our being part of the wedding supper of the Lamb.  But what do I find?  Nothing.  The word is used from time to time but it is not treated as the defining and coordinating motivation of the Bible.  We do not find a discussion of how “God is love” as John asserted twice in 1 John 4.  We do not even find a call for an ethos of affective devotion in the church.  Instead we find—let me be blunt here—a utilitarian discussion of how God can be harnessed by an effort to dissect his qualities and to discover his business plan for the ages.  He can be very useful to the degree that we find out how he operates and distributes his eternal benefits to us.

Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that my student friend turned away from a loving devotion to Christ in favor of a self-fulfilling marriage.  She learned it from me when I was a seminary teacher using our wholly disaffected textbook to talk about our holy and loving God.  So let me repent in public: I was wrong and so was she.  May God have mercy on both of us.

4 Responses to Textbooks about God

  1. Marcus Honeysett July 12, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    Good post. The question it begs is “does seminary train people to offer spiritual and moral leadership to others?” Is that, in fact, what it does? Or does it train exegetes and theologians, assuming that by doing so it does the former?

    I believe we need to take a long hard look at the seminary system to discern whether it is actually training, nurturing, discipling and equipping biblical spiritual leaders for growing and equipping missional disciples and communities of such, or whether the colleges are actually mistakenly doing something else.

  2. Rob Trenckmann July 12, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    Very potent Ron! Well said–thanks for sharing.

  3. Ron July 12, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    Marcus raises a good question about the proper purpose of seminary training (a question that needs much more reflection than I found taking place in my own academic career). My point in this blog was to allude to my former student’s training in (among others) spirituality and ethics: they failed to connect in her choice to marry outside the faith.

    So let me raise the question here for readers to answer if anyone likes: what should be the focus of seminary training? Is it, for instance, a place to learn how to justify and defend a creedal formulation? Or a skill-based program for exegetes and future Bible translators? Is it a place where the love of God is explored and applied in community? I can list more options, and some options certainly overlap others . . . but where is the proper ‘center of gravity’ or emphasis to be found?

  4. Steve Mitchell July 13, 2011 at 4:06 pm #


    I repent with you, not for teaching systematics as you describe, but for my own part in “harnessing god”. It is such a slippery sin because of its familiarity and embrace within the church. I wish we had the same disdain for it as we do the more obvious sins of the flesh. God have mercy on us all.

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