How Do I Work Through My Embedded Theological Biases?

How Do I Work Through My Embedded Theological Biases?

A note to the reader: I recently memorized the Sermon on the Mount and have been challenged and convicted by the words of Jesus in a profound way since I slowly began working my way through Matthew 5-7. My writing here is very personal, as I have also been processing through my own unhelpful embedded theology, allowing the Spirit (within the context of Christian community) to shape and reshape my thinking and practice over the past year or so. I’ll be thoroughly honest with you: it has been at times both difficult and frustrating. I’ve had many conversations with God and others in my faith community, questioning the timing of this journey with him through deeper water where I seem to have more questions than answers. If you find yourself in similar circumstances today, this short post was written with you in mind. I want to encourage you that while this process can be difficult, it’s worth it. Like Job, you may not get answers to all of your questions, but ask them anyway. God is not afraid of your tough questions. He can take it, he is patient, and he loves you. I pray this short post offers hope and practical advice for a way forward as you grow in grace.

Of all the challenging words spoken by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, perhaps none were more difficult for his audience than the six “you have heard it said” statements (Matt. 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). Through authoritative, powerful teaching, Jesus provided a corrective to common misinterpretations of the First Testament prevalent in the religious teaching of the people. These shocking, strong statements, along with the rest of his sermon, left his listeners “astonished” (Matt. 7:28). In his explanations, Jesus contested what the people had accepted as truth passed to them from the religious establishment. Later in Matt. 23, Jesus would confront the religious leaders more directly just before his death with his seven pronouncements of “woe,” calling them, among other things, hypocrites and blind fools.

It strikes me that the people gathered on the hillside were familiar with First Testament teaching. They were the insiders, the First Covenant community of God that Paul tells us were given the Scriptures (Rom. 3:2). Despite having every advantage, they were deficient in their understanding of both sound belief (orthodoxy) and right practice (orthopraxy). Why?

In chapter one of their book How to Think Theologically, Howard Stone and James Duke introduce readers to the term embedded theology.[1] Embedded theology is simply the assumed components of Christian faith, concepts and ideas that are taken as truth without thought on the part of the hearer. In contrast, deliberative theology[2] engages theological ideas at a deeper level, carefully considering Christian belief and practice within the community of faith.[3]

To be clear, embedded theology is not inherently problematic. Catechizing children in sound Christian teaching before they can fully deliberate through weighty concepts is good practice. Jess and I quote the Apostle’s Creed with our kids at the end of family meals in our home. Does my five-year old understand why the ascension of Christ is included in core Christian creedal statements? Of course not. But we are embedding these truth statements into him, praying that later these essential doctrines will be deliberated through and become more fully embraced as his understanding deepens.

The problem with embedded theology is that sometimes ideas or concepts become part of accepted teaching and practice that aren’t rooted in the Scriptures or the history of the Church. Over time, like barnacles accumulating on the hull of a ship, mistaken, even damaging ideas and customs are accrued and simply accepted as truth without deliberation.

In other cases, an acceptable interpretation of Scripture on a non-essential issue becomes the interpretation, and the issue becomes elevated to the level of near creedal importance. It gets embedded, receiving inordinate amounts of public airtime and is passionately passed to succeeding generations to the neglect of core Christian teaching. The result is individuals and communities of faith that become unmoored from sound teaching both in terms of the Scriptures and Christian Tradition. Sadly, embedded theology is difficult to process because it’s entrenched in both our personal and corporate identities.

For many Christians who become awakened to their own unhelpful personal or corporate embedded theology, the way forward proves difficult. It is the evil one’s design to stir up discontentment and disillusionment that can lead to isolation from the body of Christ. In extreme cases, I believe that this is a factor in some of the deconversion stories we are seeing currently within the Church. If you are working through or struggling with embedded theology either personally or in your community, here are a few thoughts that will hopefully, by God’s grace, aid your journey:

1.      Don’t Overreact. It can be frustrating when plain, scriptural or historic teaching is ignored in favor of subcultural trivialities within the Body of Christ. Dealing with negative embedded theology often means dialogue with people—brothers and sisters in Christ who often have deeply held but misinformed beliefs. These conversations are difficult, and don’t tend to yield quick results. Worse yet, most of us are reticent to change our minds even when presented with good data, and so the pace of change can often feel slow (if it happens at all). In these tense moments, we all have a tendency to overreact. Unloving[4] language and rash rhetoric, however, do not reflect the character of Christ. Jesus never said fight fire with fire. I can yell orthodox theological dogma at misinformed people and still be wrong. It’s also bad psychology—I know very few people who are persuaded by someone speaking at them in a condescending or critical way at high volume. There is a real difference between healthy confrontation in the Spirit and a verbal sparring match done in the flesh. You may win, but the Body is not edified and the witness of the Church is damaged.

2.      Take your time. God has a history of being patient with his people. He is merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Rushing to fix yourself or others when awakened to deficient beliefs or practices is unwise. Yes, the Scriptures call us to walk in the light, but engaging in deliberative theology is an involved process. Rather than haphazard hermeneutics, God calls his New Covenant people to responsible reading and application of the Scriptures within the community of faith (past and present). This takes time, deliberate soaking in the truth with others committed to do the same. Especially with deeper or more nuanced concepts, allowing God the Spirit to form us or reshape ideas we have held is a long game. I remember a preacher once telling me, “I can’t preach this text yet David, I’m still too close to it.” He meant that while he understood the text at a basic level, he had not spent enough time deliberating through or applying it personally to speak about it authoritatively to the people he was called to serve. His perception was admirable, and I want to follow his example; he was slow to speak, and took his time soaking in the new ideas he was learning.

3.      Do the disciplined work of deliberative theology. It’s easy to do a quick google search and get a satisfactory theological soundbite on almost any topic. I would posit, however, that those experiences are rarely transformative, and are almost always done to confirm something already embedded within ourselves. To see beyond our own limited view, we need the communion of saints—believers from every age that shape how we understand and practice Christianity. The Scriptures are inerrant, but my interpretations of them are not. Deliberative theology takes effort both in terms of research and real engagement with the Body of Christ. Hebrews reminds our microwave culture that the path to Christian maturity is through deliberate practice (Heb. 5:14). There are simply no shortcuts.

4.      Be humble. Engaging in a learning process can engender pride. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (I Cor. 8:1). Possession of the facts minus love is hugely problematic. As you process through embedded theology, you will learn new concepts and ideas. That knowledge can quickly lead to pride, or cause you to disdain a brother or sister in Christ who does not understand the information you have acquired. Learning may make you quick to attempt correction of all the things you see wrong in others or in your community of faith (please learn from my mistakes and just skip this step!). In contrast, a humble person says God is supremely patient with me, so I should be patient with my New Covenant family. A humble person knows that despite all of their study, they still have blind spots, most likely larger than the ones they see in others. As you learn, remember knowledge is not king—without love, it is woefully insufficient. Be as quick to wash feet as you are to correct the theological missteps of others.

By the Spirit, Jesus is always in some way saying “you have heard it said…but I say to you…” to the Church. There are always opportunities for growth in grace both individually and collectively within the Body of Christ. When our embedded theology is challenged by the Lord himself, that is not a reason for despair. He loves us, and wants us to know him more intimately and manifest the good news more fully to the nations through our beliefs and practice. When he speaks, may we be empowered by the Spirit to listen well and follow him faithfully, humbly submitting ourselves to his good, wise leading in all things.

[1] Duke and Stone, How to Think Theologically, 15-17.

[2] Duke and Stone, How to Think Theologically, 18-21.

[3] Duke and Stone also define reflective theology in their writing, a process they consider to be best practice. Ideally deliberative theology moves one toward reflective theology. Since this post is not a book review (and because of space limitations in a blog post), I used only the first two terms found in their writing. However, I highly recommend their book as a good, practical introduction to thinking theologically.

[4]  Speaking the truth in love can be direct or even angry, but that is not what is being referenced here. Unrighteous anger is scripturally sub-Christian.