Thursday, December 2, 2010

No Pegs on Which to Hang Theology

I have the joy of preaching the Gospel from a Reformed perspective every Sunday.  I know however that most of the people to whom I preach have been taught a very non-reformed way of interpreting the Bible from the time they were young.  What I find though is that often the people to whom I preach do not recognize that I am preaching something different from what they have been taught most of their lives.  This means that they are either not paying close attention, or they are not very knowledgeable concerning what they have been taught. For them to recognize that there is a difference, I have to call attention to the differences by contrasting reformed teaching with what they have been taught.  This means that in order for them to recognize the difference, I have to clearly spell out their own prevailing viewpoint, explain how reformed teaching differs, and then clearly state that the former viewpoint was wrong.

I do not like to do this, because it tends to create problems. No one likes to be told that what they have been taught is wrong.  It riles people up.  I would rather preach the truth, and let it stick into their body of knowledge and become a part of what they believe without controversy.  But if one preaches the truth without calling attention to the differences, I find that most people nod their heads as if they had believed such things all along.  This means teaching reformed theology without using the buzzwords that they have been taught to look out for.  Unfortunately, I think that my teaching either does not stick, or they have developed an ability to just mush it all together under the category of "blessing for the day" without the ability to think critically concerning what they have heard.

How can I explain their inability to recognize the differences?  How is it that they can generally agree unless it is pointed out that what they are being taught is in contradiction with what they have been taught?  Either they do agree, and they are rejecting what they have been taught, or they do not know how to think critically concerning what they hear from me.  Considering the fact that when I do point out the obvious differences, I get negative responses from people, I have to think that the latter is more generally true.

I theorize that it has to do with pegs.  I imagine a pegboard hung upon a wall.  On that peg board ought to hang all the things that they have been taught, ready to be pulled down and used as they apply their Bible knowledge to their lives.  But what I find is that their peg boards are remarkably pegless. That is they have no pegs upon the board upon which they have hung their beliefs.  It is a flat board upon which the teaching of any given Sunday is slung.  It may stick temporarily, but eventually it slides off into oblivion.

In other words, they have not been taught well.  They have not been systematically taught how to understand, interpret, and apply the Bible in a comprehensive way.  They do not know how to do theology.  They have not been given the knowledge and the tools to make sense of the overall structure and themes of the Bible.  No pegs upon the board means that they do not have a structured body of knowledge that usefully allows them to evaluate the teaching that they hear.  The peg board, for many people, is a temporary place that holds the thought of the day, but having no pegs, it does not become a part of a larger body of knowledge.

They know how to read a verse and imagine a blessed thought from that verse, kind of like a weekly version of Our Daily Bread.  It is good for the moment, something to say amen to, and receive a spiritual blessing from.  But they are lacking in anything more complex than this.  I speak generally of course.  Their are exceptions.  But when I see a congregation that nods its head approvingly during a sermon about things that they do not know that they should not believe, considering what I know they have been taught in the past, I have to thing that there is something going on that keeps them from thinking critically concerning the preaching of God's Word.   I would feel better if a congregation actually knew that they were being challenged by the Word of God.  But they do not seem to recognize it.  The result is that they do not leave the sermon with questions in their minds.  They have come and gone, unchallenged.

This has nothing to do with intelligence.  This can happen to very smart people, and I know that my congregation is filled with many smart and savvy people.  It may though have something to do with education.  There are very few college-educated congregants in my church.  But uneducated people can do theology if they make solid Bible study a priority in their lives. So I am not necessarily criticizing a lack of education.  Lack of formal education need not be a stumbling block to a proper understanding of the Bible's theology.   However, lack of education can contribute to an inability to do theology.  But it can be overcome with diligence, as long as they are not prejudiced against diligent Bible study--Bible study that is admittedly more complex than what they might be used to.   Sometimes, cultures that have not been formally educated are prejudiced against complexity.  Somehow they have got it into their heads that everything contained within the Bible must be simple or it is not worth their time and attention.  They may even distrust an educated clergy.   They have gotten on fine without education throughout their lives.  "Educated people think they are better than the uneducated," and the uneducated know full well that they are not.  And indeed, I agree, they are not better.

In the end, I would have to chalk their peglessness up to decades of inadequate instruction, a failure to demonstrate the importance of solid Bible study that goes beyond blessings for the moment.  I know that previous preachers have made efforts to change this for at least the last 25 years, so the inadequate instruction, and the bias against deeper, diligent Bible study must be more culturally endemic, built into the earliest years of the church, and bearing faulty fruit over the decades that followed.  This means that those who have fought to change this have been beating their heads against a deeply cultural problem.  The challenge then is to put pegs on the board that allows people to think critically, come away from a sermon knowing when they have been challenged theologically, and after hanging new teaching on those pegs, allows them to build an understanding of the Bible's teachings that can evaluate future instruction.


  1. I’ve been reading a lot of angry posts by Reformed Theologists lately. In their discovery of Biblical doctrine, they choose to wield their understanding in a position of offense. I certainly ascribe to Reformed Theology, but I do understand that the purpose of our faith is to preach the Gospel of Jesus to the people and let Jesus open the eyes of those whom He will. We should never take an offensive stance in our teaching. We (Reformed Theologists) should come in humbly, teaching the Word of God, and let the Holy Spirit make the connections for those who hear.
    The issue at hand is “How does God operate”, not “How do we operate”. Therefore our conduct should reflect this. We will tell all men about the salvation of Jesus Christ, and He will work the rest out Himself. If we truly believe in God’s total sovereignty, then we don’t have to dispute so harshly those who oppose us in an open handed matter. When the issue arises, we should lovingly point out the erroneous views of Armenianism. But, we should never conduct a frontal assault on our brothers. The Bible is clear that the one who “hates” his brother is not a follower of Jesus.
    Don’t probe into someone’s theology then attack them, unless they are not accepting of salvation by faith alone in Jesus Christ. This is the issue at hand. God’s operation is mysterious. Great cases can be made for Armenianism through scripture as well. The enemy is not the person; it’s a lack of knowledge. Similarly, it is easy to turn theology (though it is appropriate to study) into religion. You almost sound like salvation comes from Faith + Reformed Theology. Aren’t you, then, contradicting the point of the Reformation in the first place?

  2. Good thoughts. Your comments about how to approach this are valuable. There is no sense in making enemies through the method and means of presenting Reformed Theology.

    But I am not angry at people, so I think you misunderstand my tone. Easy to do in writing. This website is devoted to thinking through cultural and religious reasons that Reformed theology struggles in Appalachia, among other things. That means asking questions that one cannot ask in other venues, and saying things that one cannot say in other venues, for the sake of thinking through something completely, comprehensively--understanding a phenomenon. Asking certain questions only results in difficult suggestions as answers. Sometimes the suggestions are not pretty, even though we would like them to be. My goal is to fix a problem, not paint over it. Also, discussing something here, might lead to a better way to present something after understanding the reasons why something is rejected. Your post is a valuable part of that. I hope you continue.