How relevant are today’s theological debates?
When I completed my PhD back in 1992, my promoter came to speak to me after the graduation ceremony and said, amongst others: “Well, now you are also a theologian.” As I had done my PhD in Missiology, I responded by saying: “No, I’m a missiologist.” And he answered: “No, you’re a theologian.” Fine, so I’m a theologian and I love theology and I love discussing theological issues and perhaps, more than anything else, I love explaining difficult theological issues in such a way that people without theological knowledge can also understand the concepts. There’s few things that give me a greater “high” than to see the light go on in someone’s eyes when they have this “a-ha” experience of understanding something.
The church in South Africa (one of the mainline churches) that sent me to Swaziland in 1985, is presently going through a number of intense theological debates. Obviously I’m interested in the outcome. Or perhaps, more correctly, I should say, that I was interested. For the past number of years, one of the main issues being discussed concerns the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the one hand there’s a group of people, mainly theologians, who are claiming that we cannot say that Jesus really rose from the dead, because the accounts in the Bible of His resurrection are biased and the Apostles may have meant that He merely rose in a spiritual way. One of the arguments they are using is to say that the authors of the gospels had no understanding of physics, of atoms and electrons and therefore could not really understand what they are saying.
On the other hand, there are people who want to try and explain exactly how Jesus was resurrected (and how we as Christians will be resurrected) without realizing that there is a certain mystery about this that we do not understand. And this debate has been going on ad nauseum! Both sides are writing reports, newspaper articles, letters to the editor and books, each claiming that their argument carries more weight than the other. The church in Europe has been through these debates as has certain churches in the USA, so what we are experiencing in South Africa in the mainline churches is not unique.
I was travelling with one of the church leaders a few weeks ago, one who had been part of writing a report supporting the physical resurrection of Jesus, while admitting that there is a mystery involved in this and that it does seem, from Biblical accounts, that the resurrected body of Jesus had certain qualities (such as passing through locked doors – John 20:19) which it did not have before. Eventually I said to him: “I think the people in the marketplace, the people who are loyal church members, who want to serve God, are really not interested in the theological debates taking place. They want to hear one thing from their church leaders: We believe that Jesus was really resurrected from the dead and that we will also one day be really resurrected from the dead.” For the majority, I would think 95% or more of church members, these theological debates have no positive meaning at all.
When I think of the issues we re confronted with in Africa (and this is true for many other countries as well, such as Asia and Eastern Europe) where people are confronted with extreme poverty, lack of food and drinking water, diseases such as HIV and AIDS, TB and malaria, orphaned children, war, forced prostitution, persecution, etc, etc, then I wonder whether we can still afford the luxury of indulging in theological debates which does not lead to the spiritual growth of anybody.
I’m as serious as any theologian to understand the Bible correctly and I will go to great pains to discover the true message of a certain part of Scripture. But honestly, I think most of these debates are a waste of time.
Surely there’s more important issues that could (and should!) be discussed in the church.