Believers are fond of saying that “Christianity is not about ‘religion,’ it’s about ‘relationship.'” Nowadays, however, that adage has been tweaked to read, “Christianity is not about ‘theology,’ it’s about ‘relationship.'”
But is a right relationship with God distinct from right theology? Even more so, can right theology be antithetical to a right relationship with God?
Apparently, some think so. Take for instance the popular author, Donald Miller. Recently, Miller addressed this issue in a post entitled Having Right Theology Does Not Mean You Know God.
Christian conversion is relational. It is not theological or intellectual any more than marriage is theological or intellectual. In other words, a child could become a Christian if they had a mysterious encounter with Jesus, and a simple thinker could become a Christian if they had a mysterious encounter with Christ, and even a person who was a Muslim or a Buddhist could become a Christian if they had a mysterious relational encounter with Christ. This is the only answer at which I could arrive that matched the reality in which we live, the complexity of scripture, and the mysterious invitation offered to us by Jesus.
I hear the masses saying, “But no! A person cannot believe in multiple Gods and be a Christian.” Let me counter with some questions:
Can a person have bad theology and be a Christian?
Has your theology ever been corrected, and were you really a Christian before?
Is your theology all worked out now so you have no more reason to study, and if not, are you a Christian?
If you believe a person’s theology has to be right to be qualified for Christian conversion, then you are saying a person comes to know God, in part, because he has right ideas, and I respectfully disagree. Do I think right theology is important? Absolutely, but I do not believe it has any agency to convert anymore than directions to the doctor’s office has the power to heal.
Miller makes some great points. Right theology doesn’t save people– Jesus does. And as important as having right theology is, none of us ever perfectly has it (at least, not in this life). We are constantly learning, growing, experiencing, and getting to know God better. Furthermore, we are warned in Scripture that having all our doctrinal ducks in a row can become an issue of pride, rather than life (see: Pharisees). So, yes, having right theology does not mean you’re in right relationship with God.
But several false assumptions are made by Miller along the way, assumptions that can be just as deadly as the religious arrogance he warns against. He writes,
You might be getting upset by this. You might think I am saying truth should be thrown out, that theology doesn’t matter. But this is not what I’m saying at all. What I’m intending to illustrate is our drive to define God with a mathematical theology has become a false God rather than an arrow that points to the real God. Theology can become an idol, but it is more useful as guardrails on a road to the true God. Theology is very important, but it is not God, and knowing facts about God is not the same as knowing God.
I find several things potentially problematic with Miller’s approach. One is the (subtle) portrayal of theology as being antithetical to a right relationship with God, as if the two cannot coexist. Yes, “theology can become an idol.” But so can anything God uses! Of course, “knowing facts about God is not the same as knowing God.” However, this does not mean that knowing facts about God cannot assist us in knowing God. The Bible teaches that God’s Word brings light and life, that Truth revives the soul. Sure, some doctrines and traditions have been codified to death. Nevertheless, it is not right theology that hinders a right relationship with God. It is a wrong approach to right theology that hinders a right relationship with God. That distinction is very important.
Secondly, how do we know what a “right relationship with God” is if not by “right theology”? Think of it this way: a right relationship with God looks a certain way. Well, how do we know what it should look like? For one thing, we need to know what kind of God we are having a relationship with. Theology tells us what God is like. Furthermore, people in a right relationship with God should act a certain way. And how do we determine the right conduct of those in relationship with God? Answer: Through specific doctrinal, theological parameters. If God is a bloodthirsty, amoral entity then a “right relationship” with him would probably involve human sacrifice and primitive behavior. But He’s not. How do we know this? Through right theology. My point: A “right relationship with God” is defined — even kindled! — by “right theology.”
Finally, by analogizing theology in terms of “guardrails” on the road to God, Miller potentially minimizes its importance, portraying theology less as Law and more as Guideline. Frankly, this is consistent with many post-evangelicals. By portraying theology as a set of “guidelines” we are free to adjust the parameters to suit our own liking. In fact, many postmoderns completely eliminate the guardrails altogether! Which is why some post-evangelicals and emergents inevitably become Universalists, believing everyone goes to heaven. On the contrary, Scripture draws clear theological lines regarding most issues, calls us to adhere to “sound doctrine,” and warns against those who recalibrate the Truth. Right theology has clear boundaries rather than nebulous or negotiable “guidelines”; it defines the road rather than just serving as existential “bumpers.”
Yes, we should emphasize relationship with God over denominational affiliations and creeds. Donald Miller is correct: head knowledge does not save. But in our attempt to get people into relationship with God, let’s be careful not to minimize “right theology.” In fact, it may not be possible to have a “right relationship with God” without it.