20 August 2006

Two Kinds of Knowledge

The conviction fueling this site is that authentic Christianity is for every person and for the whole person. Some Christians are mainly interested in believing and defending right doctrine, but if this is all we care about we will become brittle and proud. Others of us are mainly interested in heartfelt affection and worship, but if this is all we care about we will become indifferent to biblical truth and blown about wherever our free-sailing emotions take us. My mission in life is to help people see not that these two—head and heart, theology and doxology—can coexist, but that they in fact feed off each other. They are mutually reinforcing. Right doctrine fuels—not competes with—Spirit-wrought, joy-filled, worship-igniting, obedience-producing experience.

So I'm thinking of a strawberry-rhubarb pie (my favorite). My guess is that few of us have ever baked a strawberry-rhubarb pie only to don a white lab coat, take out the microscope and Petri dishes, and proceed to deconstruct and examine the pie. No, the pie exists to be eaten—to nourish and to be enjoyed. This is what those of us who are preoccupied with doctrine must see. But that’s only half the point. Those of us preoccupied with felt experience must see that the pie will only come out right—will only be able to be enjoyed—if the recipe is correct. It must be baked at a certain temperature, for so long, with so much sugar, and so on.

The point is that we must neither stop short once attaining sound theology, nor skip such theology to get to experience. Rather, as Jonathan Edwards has taught me, the right recipe leads to nourishment and enjoyment. Right doctrine is frightfully important; without it, we may be experiencing something quite other than true, Spirit-led joy. But such doctrine, foundational though it be, is incomplete by itself: it exists to nourish and inflame. According to James 2:19, the devils possess more impeccable orthodoxy that we could ever hope to achieve. How then are Christians any different? Their orthodoxy fuels delight. Demons understand divine things with penetrating insight. Satan and his demonic host comprise a more orthodox group than the most doctrinally upright denomination in the world. Probably every denomination has at least some degree of error in some (however minor) point of doctrine. Not so the demons of hell. They are the best theologians in the universe. And if Satan be their pope, infallible he most certainly is. If Enlightenment thought is right in attributing preeminence to the cognitive over the affective, let’s sign up the demons to teach our next Evangelism Explosion seminar. Surely they understand the truth of the gospel better than anyone. But another way exists. For what makes demons fundamentally different from saints? Saints love God and demons hate him. Saints strive to promote holiness while demons strive to prevent it. Why? Because demons have not tasted the new inner relish for true beauty in holiness that the Holy Spirit has imparted to the regenerate. They have not heeded David’s summons to “taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Ps. 34:8). The theology of the devils is impeccably orthodox, but the absence of relish in God renders their right doctrine worthless and, indeed, all the more damnable. May we the Church not fall into the same trap, in kind if not in degree.

The flaw in my pie analogy, of course, is that too much pie is bad for you. Not so with devouring delectable doctrine. There is no gluttony in feasting on God.

Here's how Edwards puts it in a sermon called "The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth":

"There is a difference between having a right speculative notion of the doctrines contained in the Word of God, and having a due sense of them in the heart. In the former consists speculative or natural knowledge of the things of divinity; in the latter consists the spiritual or practical knowledge of them. Neither of these is intended . . . exclusively of the other: but it is intended that we should seek the former in order to the latter. The latter, even a spiritual and practical knowledge of divinity, is of the greatest importance; for a speculative knowledge of it, without a spiritual knowledge, is in vain and to no purpose, but to make our condemnation the greater."

Note that right doctrine is never an end in itself. It is a means. Doxology takes flight on the wings of theology. Knowledge is not the final goal, but an avenue to deeper depths of enjoyment of God. “We should seek the former in order to the latter.” Theology, like pie, is not meant for the Petry dish. It exists to be tasted and enjoyed—relished. Glorious truth about God that enters the human mind is never meant to stay there. Its appointed destination is the heart, where such truth, where God himself, is tasted and loved. Knowledge is for nourishment.

This is not to disparage theology, but rather to illumine its critical place in the life of the believer. Right doctrine is frightfully important, for if one does not have the right recipe, the pie will not be able to be enjoyed. Theology is utterly foundational. “We should seek the former in order to the latter,” says Edwards, not “we should skip the former to get to the latter.” Proper thinking about God, rooted in the Bible, is crucial. But correct doctrine it is not the goal of Christianity. Worship is the goal. Delighting in God is the goal. And in this delight—unlike that of strawberry-rhubarb pie—there is no sin of gluttony. Justification by faith, election, preservation of the saints, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness on your behalf—these doctrines are not meant for the Petry dish. Though in every generation they must be defended with the intellect, they are mainly meant to be enjoyed with the heart. Churchgoers whose faith is wholly defined by holding to right theological data without accompanying delight short-circuit this process, damming up doctrine in the head and creating incomplete Christians—if Christians at all. When God grants a new inner relish, however, the Spirit demolishes the dam and this “speculative knowledge” pours into the heart to be nourishing and savored. The light of the sun exists not only to brighten but to warm, and neither exists without the other. This goes for both one’s own growth in grace as well as one’s relationships with others. It is the mission of every Christian parent, small group leader, Sunday School teacher, seminary professor, pastor, and missionary to inflame by informing.

Informational inflammation—not of the joints but of the heart—this is the goal of the Christian life. Though other subsidiary topics will be discussed as is relevant, this blog exists to spread this foundational truth.

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