Why Theology Matters

Lately (by which I mean since the beginning of the world), our culture seems to have adopted some grand notions of entitlement. Everyone is up in arms

political pun
Sorry…not funny

  about their right to such and such or the fact that they’re owed this and that. I have had countless conversations with people concerning their worries on losing certain privileges, cuts to their holiday bonuses or how “we’d really make more money if we weren’t in such a high tax bracket” (the latter being the complaint I’m most sympathetic too, rest assured). My response to all these discussions can be summed up in one highly artistic and culturally affluent meme:


So here’s my case for why I should get paid more…or just paid in general for that matter.

“But Bryn,” say you, “all you do is go to school, work odd jobs and post memefied blogs about your theological musings…”


“Why should you get paid for that?”

“Ah-ha! I was hoping you’d ask that question! The reason I should get paid more is because what I do is important. Namely, I should get paid more because theology is important.”

“Theology? Important? C’mon. Be serious… isn’t theology just abstract nonsense that affects Sunday services and lines in the Christmas pageant?”


“Okay…well then surely you must admit that theology is really just nitty-gritty details that can complicate a gospel that’s actually really simple?”


“But isn’t Bryn a girl’s name?”

Even though he's retired you should still listen to him...
Even though he’s retired you should still listen to him…

To say, dear sir/ma’am/minion, that theology does not matter and is of no value (let alone highly valued) is a dangerous statement, indeed. Though I cannot fault anyone for it, as it is the preeminent line of thought in our culture today. What is not understood is that theology (good or bad) is the air breathed by culture. If it is pure and divine, so shall our culture be, if it is not then our days will be filled with hacking coughs of confusion and a cancer not of our physical selves but our souls. A runner can deny his need for oxygen till the cows come home

hay now but if you transplant said athlete from Death Valley to Denver, you will find that his denial cannot replace the air for which he so desperately now gasps. Of course, to say that our culture is unique, or this occurrence is taking place for the first time would be a dangerous and ignorant misstep as well. Our refusal for theology has happened before, it happened in the medieval ages.

Okay…be nice.

The medieval era is sometimes called the “Dark ages”, which as a child I believed simply meant light bulbs had yet to be invented. While this is not its root for the label, there were several light bulbs that were missing in the thinking of the time and our historical perceptions convey this. Furthermore, when examining certain trends of our past, we cannot believe that the same trends aren’t dancing about our smug heads today. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it and, though we may not ascribe the term “dark ages” to our present era, this is only because our modern globe is so ignited with Twitter” feeds, TV ads, stock tickers and cheap internet pornos, basically anything but the Superdome, that darkness may be forgotten, yes, but so is true light.

So to begin, we need to discuss the epistemology of the late medieval era in Europe. Epistemology is a) the biggest word I’ll use today b) wonderful to drop at cocktails in casual conversation (“My dear fellow, your epistemological roots for cheering on Baltimore in the Super Bowl seemed slightly skewed”) and c) is a term for the study of “how we know what we know”; essentially, it asks the question “what is our authority for knowledge?”

As the church embarked from Roman persecution and dove into post-Constantine Christendom, scripture had the seat of authority and was the foundation for theological thought; we knew what was and wasn’t true by lining it up with God’s word. But as the age progressed there arose a rival to scripture: tradition. The papacy grew increasingly powerful and an emphasis was placed on the authority of tradition. We can argue about the biblical basis for such authority till the cows come home

hay 2

But the important thing to note is that the Pope’s power increased on the basis of tradition, a tradition that was given increasing amounts of authority.

Unfortunately, there was limited ability to counteract this rise in power. The only available translation of scripture was known as Vulgate and had been translated by a guy called Jerome

Nope, wrong Jerome...
Nope, wrong Jerome…

Not only was it in Latin in an age when texts and books were incredibly expensive (thus severely limiting readership) but it was also filled with errors. Acts 2, for instance, featured a passage that, correctly translated, states “repent and be baptized” but in Jerome’s version stated “do penance and be baptized”.  Because the church controlled the means by which people could “do penance” such mistakes, rather than counteract the papacy’s power, actually fueled it. It was against such line of thought that the Protestant reformation flew under the banner of “sola scriptora” which maaaaaayyyyy have been a slight swing of the pendulum…but that’s a discussion for another time. The take-away here is that scripture was trumped by tradition and the epistemology of the time period gave authority to the hands of imperfect and often corrupt men.

Then there’s the hermeneutics,

hermawhat? …. by which I mean mode of biblical translation, of the time. The era’s hermeneutics was based on a method put forward by Clement of Alexandria. In 215 A.D. Clement proposed that there was four interpretations available, the literal, allegorical, eschatological and moral ways of interpreting a text. The problem is that when one of these modes is favored (as was often the case), the result is inaccurate. Thus, in 492, Pope Gelasisus I (“you mean, someone had the idea of naming another poor chum Gelasisus?”), proposed that Luke 22:38 when Jesus told his disciples “two swords are enough” he meant that there were two spheres, earthly and spiritual, and the emperor and pope could rule them together.

No...it really just doesn't make sense.
No…it really just doesn’t make sense.

The problem is that such hermeneutic is absurd and has no roots in the text or concrete reality. Combine this with the epistemology of the era, we find that the Pope wielded an uncanny ability to dictate theology and control people. A loose hermeneutic and ungrounded epistemology formed a dangerous combination indeed.

Got it. Almost there.
Got it. Almost there.

You see, this brings us to the theology of the Middle Ages and how the previous two factors impact it. In the early church the prominent theory of atonement (ie how Christ’s sacrifice paid the price for our sins…the gist of the gospel message) was the Ransom Atonement Theory, which stated Christ died to pay a necessary “ransom” for our sin. The issue raised with this theory was that it gave to much power and authority to Satan.

Thus, in the medieval ages, two other prominent theories emerged: Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory and another theory by some guy called Abelard. Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory stated that Christ died to satisfy the justice of God and atone for our sins. Therefore, our life with Christ and serving Him ought to follow suit. Abelard, on the other hand, proposed that Christ died as an example of the greatest love, an example we ought to then follow by loving and worshipping Him. The issue with Abelard was that he based nothing on the objective reality of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

Sound familiar?
Sound familiar?

So eventually Anselm’s theory won out.

Do you see where this is going?

When Anselm’s theory of Atonement met the previously discussed epistemology and hermeneutic the result wasn’t good. A Pope with bad hermeneutics and too much authority had the ability to say what constituted “satisfying” as Christ did or “doing penance”. The church then developed a system of sacraments that (though not evil in and of itself) once abused on the basis of bad theology, had disastrous results. The sacraments, the church declared, were all required for salvation. With such a background as we’ve discussed… who dared to challenge? anselmAnd so the theology took shape and the effects were horrific. The church was able to assert an unwarranted and unbiblical authority; piety was demanded, worship dictated and a person’s salvation “owned” by a corrupt system. Just read any account of the Crusades, or trial of a heretic or even just the accounts of bloodshed that granted many popes their power and you’ll see what I’m saying; these all came about and were allowed to exist- nay- thrive, on the basis of bad theology.

So not only does theology matter, for it will exist in some form whether you acknowledge it or not, but good theology matters. The impacts of such are not confined to church walls and we cannot pretend that our worship and walk with Christ can sustain without seeking good and pure theology. The impacts and dangers of such mode of thought roared through the medieval ages, like fire at the base of a stake in the town square.

“But wait,” Say You. “Our modern world isn’t like the Middle Ages, we aren’t enslaved to the powers and whims of the church!” Agreed, this is a fact for which you may all wipe your brows with a “Whew! Thank tolerance for that!” But that doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. We may not be at the mercies of a global, misguided or corrupt religious figure today, but instead there’s something much much more frightening in charge…nothing.

Oh, excuse me…its called pluralism, post-modernity, tolerance, live and let live…etc.  Should we be tempted to believe that the theology behind this mode of thought is good, we simply must examine the fruits: thousands of voices call out from the graves, these are the victims of war, homicides, abortion, genocide and the bloodiest century our planet has ever seen. Slavery has not been abolished, rather it exists across the globe in the form of a sex trade that’s far more vast and impenetrable than any previous exploitation of humans our world has ever known.

Because nothing is more appealing than rainbow colored friends.
Because nothing is more appealing than rainbow colored friends.

Addictions are on the rise, pornography captures men, women and children with a first glance. Global politics tinker on the edge of a nuclear holocaust and (I’m jus gonna say it) Nikki Minaj is being hailed as an artist.

In short: don’t think that pluralism is the answer. Don’t think that our theology (or lack thereof) won’t permeate our daily lives. Don’t think that we won’t feel the effects and aren’t feeling the tremors of an aching world as we speak.

Theology, ladies and gentlemen, matters.

Also, I should get paid for this.





*It’s worth noting that my original title for this piece was “In Case You Were Wondering What I Wrote For My Church History Final Last Semester” but I figured the current title was more manageable. Also, now would be a good time to admit that I really just wanted to have a footnote here.

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