I remember when I was young my family camped at the foot of Ben Nevis. When I awoke the mountain would sit towering majestically above us with its summit rising through a blanket of low mist. It was unimaginable to me that you could climb it. I couldn’t see a path or a route to the summit. Taking the car a few miles, however, would present you with an entirely different view. You had a path that you could follow and its gradient wasn’t too dramatic. The topography looked different and the ways of ascent seemed to be more straightforward.
Describing the mountain from any view point would have brought a completely different description. Both would have been true, but neither would have been the whole story; any description would have been deeply influenced by the viewer’s perspective. I think of this when I see arguments over the theology of Calvin and Arminius; I worry sometimes that we can get so hung up on dividing ourselves over details that we forget the fact that we should be united in Christ.
The oldest book in the bible is the book of Job and it tells of a man who really knew God well and was confident in God’s righteousness. There, in the pages of our earliest known writing on God, we find an eternal truth; God is bigger and greater than we can ever understand.
How great is God–beyond our understanding!
– Job 36:26
God is beyond our comprehension. The number of centuries we have spent thinking, studying and waiting on God does not mean that His nature has changed – He was beyond our comprehension then and He remains so now. Our best theologians offer some amazing thoughts but to think that either they, or we, fully grasp the greatness of God is absurd. They don’t, we don’t. We should definitely study Him, there is an awful lot that we do know and can learn, but perhaps we could learn not to be divided over the details?
Calvin and Arminius both presented very different views which have divided the post-reformation church on so many occasions. People have turned it into a black and white issue and gathered around their favourite theologians to beat their chests and show their doctrinal integrity. At the core of both theologies, however, is the central tenant that Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins and that through Him we are saved.
We are all looking at this central, mind blowing, amazing fact and trying our best to understand it. There are some things that we all agree on and then other things so beyond our comprehension that we can’t fully understand: How does atonement work, what are the mechanics of propitiation, etc. We all believe in atonement, we just understand it in different ways.
To rally around a theologian rather than the God they’re studying is to miss the point. To consider that our thinking is one hundred percent correct and everyone else is wrong? That’s really arrogant. Doesn’t the very nature of our redemption show us that our ways are not perfect? Do I have thoughts on the subject? Yes. Am I so convinced that I’m right that I will separate myself off and say that everyone else must be wrong? No.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
– Isaiah 55:8-9
When we dig deep into the study of free will, predestination, election, etc, we find a massive amount of scripture and yet putting it altogether doesn’t create something that immediately supports the position of either group. Some passages lend weight to one and some to the other. Is it not just possible that God’s thoughts and ways are still higher than ours? That both had some valid points but in the end both an incomplete portrait of an amazing God?
We’re trying to understand something that is scandalous, absurd, crazy, and incomprehensible. We’re trying to understand the mechanics of an all-powerful God sending His only begotten Son in the form of a man to suffer the cruellest of deaths at the hands of rebels, so that those very rebels who hung him there could then be saved? That is beyond my comprehension no matter how much I try to understand it.
We can’t afford to descend into complex arguments that become academic exercises while the people in our daily lives don’t even know Jesus at all. The bible doesn’t tell us we must believe in Calvin, Zwingli, Luther, Arminius or the Pope to be saved, it says we must believe in Jesus Christ. The important part isn’t whether we believe his atonement was limited or not, it’s that we believe he atoned!
Pastor Brian Houston talks about the towering importance of keeping Christ central to all we do: “Let’s keep the main thing, the main thing.” I’m fascinated by theology, and by looking at the thoughts of the great religious thinkers, but at the end of the day that is not the main thing.
Jesus did not give the sinner on the cross a lecture on the intellectual aspects of what was going on, He did not stop and check he fully understood doctrinal issues; He saved his soul. Jesus Christ came to seek and save the lost, not to provide an intellectual exercise for the found.
“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”
– 1 Corinthians 1:27
So let us be united around the great cause of Christ. Let us group ourselves around the main thing and the commission that He left us. If others have views that are a little different but still centre around the core doctrines of our faith, why can’t we accept that perhaps they’re looking at the same mountain, just viewing it from a different perspective? We are all on the same team and there is a hurting world waiting to be shown Jesus by a church united with each other and with the father.
A version of this post was originally published on Audacious, April 22nd 2013.