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Workmen or Captives? Avoiding the Snare of Subjectivity

 

Pastor Harvey takes a serious look at how we interpret God’s Word and cautions us to avoid the trap of subjective impressions.

 

Meet Sarah, a widow and mother of two small children. Sarah’s life tends to ricochet between Frenzy and Loneliness, with frequent stops at a place called Exhaustion. Yet Sarah has a source of hope and courage which few outside her church can relate to. That source is her Bible.

Image: Matthew Wiebe.

In the aftermath of the accident that took her husband’s life, many sought to offer Sarah words of comfort. Most of the non-Christians mumbled something about freak events or made vague references to “being strong.” The responses of believers, however, were less predictable: perhaps Satan had been able to strike because the family defenses were down; others sympathized, saying that God did not desire this untimely death; some questioned God’s goodness for allowing the accident. Eventually there were even rumors that the accident had been divine judgment on what “must have been” a secret, scandalous life. Through it all, Sarah remained steadfast. She had read God’s Word.

For each of these people—Christian or non-Christian, wise or foolish, right or wrong—tragedy revealed theology. An unexpected death exposed deeply rooted beliefs about the character and nature of God. This echoes one of the inescapable facts of human existence: we all believe something about God. We are therefore all theologians of a sort, and our theology is reflected in our daily lives. Given the hope she holds and the health she displays, it appears as if Sarah, unlike her would-be comforters, is a very capable theologian.

 

A Good Workman

Theology literally means “the study of God.” And because the foundation of theology is the Bible, a good theologian is simply a Christian who takes Scripture seriously.

For each of these people—Christian or non-Christian, wise or foolish, right or wrong—tragedy revealed theology. An unexpected death exposed deeply rooted beliefs about the character and nature of God.

The last letter of Paul’s life—his second letter to Timothy—reinforces the centrality of good theology. Paul’s final words of instruction had one clear goal: Timothy must keep the pattern of sound teaching, and guard the good deposit of sound doctrine (2 Tim 1:13-14). Above all else, Paul stresses, Timothy must remain a good theologian.

To illustrate his point, Paul introduces the workman. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). The workman is a good theologian because he handles Scripture correctly. This passage presents believers with fundamental assumptions regarding the stewardship of God’s Word. Correctly handling the Word of truth:

  1. is our responsibility
  2. begins with “doing your best”
  3. involves hard work (becoming a “workman”)
  4. elicits approval rather than shame before God
  5. will make us good theologians

Christians are defined and guided by the truth of a specific Book. We are to be a people distinguished by our faithful handling of The Book. This is an awesome privilege. It is also a fearsome responsibility.

 

Reclaiming the Mind

Our secular, therapeutic culture teaches that feelings trump thought. Today, emotion is erroneously equated with insight, and impulse is deemed to be wisdom. Even within the church, some see the mind as a hindrance to truth, either quenching the Spirit through over-analysis, or creating modern-day Pharisees who mouth pious platitudes about God. But Paul’s final letter clarifies the centrality of the mind in the pursuit of truth: “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this” (2 Tim 2:7). Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul is teaching that correct handling of Scripture springs from correct thinking about Scripture. True insight is always preceded by mental reflection.

As people of The Book, the church is called to reclaim the mind. We must transition from owning our Bibles to handling our Bibles. Right handling of the Word of truth requires Spirit-led thinking.

Correct handling of Scripture springs from correct thinking about Scripture.

And what of emotions? Do they have a role in the life of the good Christian/theologian? Certainly. Rather than there being a false dichotomy between heart and mind, as if they were irreconcilable adversaries, Scripture presents a unified vision. We are called to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind (Mt 22:37), with the overall tenor of Scripture clearly putting the mind in the dominant role. John Owen describes the interaction:

The mind is the leading faculty of the soul. When the mind fixes upon an object or course of action, the will and the affections (heart) follow suit. They are incapable of any other consideration … The mind’s office is to guide, to direct, to choose, and to lead.1

Without the mind’s tutelage, the heart will never discover truth. But as the mind leads us into discovering God’s truth, the will chooses, and the heart rejoices in that choice. The road to good theology is one where neither mind, will, nor affections travel alone. Isolate and exalt any one of these and you have a dangerous imbalance.

To the gift-rich but theologically deficient Corinthians, Paul offered this advice, “Stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults” (1 Cor 14:20). When it comes to spiritual growth, adult thinking creates good theologians.

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Category: Living the Faith, Summer 2002

About the Author: David Harvey, D.Min. (Westminster Theological Seminary), serves as the Pastor of Preaching at Four Oaks Community Church (EFCA) in Tallahassee, FL and is the Founder of AmICalled.com. Before coming to serve in Florida in 2013, Dave pastored at Covenant Fellowship Church (Glen Mills, PA) for 27 years, serving as senior pastor from 1990 to 2008. He serves as the Chairman of the board of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, as well as the Chairman of the Board of the Sojourn Network. During his time with Sovereign Grace Ministries (1995-2012), Dave was responsible for church care, church planting, and international expansion. Dave’s books include Am I Called?: The Summons to Pastoral Ministry (Crossway, 2012), Rescuing Ambition (Crossway, 2010), When Sinners Say “I Do”: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage (Shepherd, 2007), and he contributed a chapter to Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World (Crossway, 2008). LinkedIn. Twitter: @RevDaveHarvey.

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