A Hike Back to the Source

Do we need to obsess over getting theology right?  Yes, but not for the reasons we’d think.

The board game “Trivial Pursuit” first appeared in 1981, quizzing its players on geography, entertainment, history, arts and literature.   It tested our accumulation of random knowledge and tidbits of cultural flotsam.       

And by my observation, the church has its own version of the game.  No, I don’t mean “Bible Trivia” per se, but an attitude that seems to treat accurate teaching as an end in itself.  For some of us, doctrinal precision exists to gratify a neurotic need for correctness.  Nothing lies beyond the impulse to cross t’s and dot i’s except an impulse for theological perfection.      

Last week I posted about the need for well-defined doctrine to protect us from wading into runaway experiences.  

But good teaching not only functions to keep us from going wrong.  

After directing Timothy to charge certain Christians not to teach differently, Paul wrote,

“The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5).  

Teachings exercise an internal shaping function.  If they are shallow, they produce spiritually shallow disciples.  If they are false, they create falsity in their students.      

Most important of all, Christian teaching affects our love, the chief way in which we express God.     

Ignorant or polluted love is abundant among human beings.  Our movies and music model it as something entirely sentimental, indulgent, frequently bereft of righteousness, and at times, even of common sense.  When Paul speaks of love in this passage though, he tracks it backward as one would hike the hill country searching for where a stream had originated.1   

Going back a distance, he locates a lake called “a pure heart”—a heart that has been purged from mixed motives such as self-absorption, idolatries of various sorts, and concealed sins.    

But how did this heart become pure, the hiker wonders.  What has cleansed it so?  He then sets off to find the source that feeds it, eventually discovering farther back in the dense interior, that the crystalline pond is joined to a lake called “good conscience”—a conscience that is no longer troubled by sin, but is at peace with God and man.    

But what spring has made the water of conscience so good?  Again, pushing even farther back, he finds a serene mountain reservoir called “sincere faith”—that is, faith without pretense, the hidden recess of the heart where the truest interactions have taken place between the individual and God.  

But what triggered such profound faith?  What seemed to activate its power to begin with? Surely faith did not awaken by itself.    

And there, perched just beyond it, and above it, our hiker finds the secret of its invigoration–the healthy teaching of the gospel.  

For all those who love and embrace the truth, we must bear in mind that what flows out of us will not merely be pulpit teachings, nor seminary knowledge, workbook answers, nor motionless factoids.  Taking 1 Timothy 1:5, and once more reversing its direction, we’ll see that it is love that comes out to the church and to the world.  Love touched by the living Word of God, cleansed of sin, purified of contaminants.     

This is that love Paul wrote about.  

And this is why accurate biblical teaching is so important.  It affects our hidden places, causing a spillover from one nested location to another.  It is love educated to the highest standard both of law and then of grace.  When it finally emerges from us, it comes out touched by the blood of Jesus, and soaked in the reality of the Holy Spirit.  

Years ago I hopped on a rapid transit in downtown Cleveland and sat down next to a man who wanted to debate me on a particular religious doctrine.  After an awkward twenty minutes or so of trying to convince me, I said, “Okay, suppose I agree with you.  Then what?”  The man was stunned.  He had presumed we would continue arguing all the way home.  Judging from his response, he had no idea what came after a polemic back-and-forth.  The position he was championing seemed to have had no point other than debate–of vanquishing an opponent and then moving on to conquer the next guy.

I’ve also had my share of encounters where I attempted to correct someone for the sake of bragging rights.  Or to satisfy my personal sense of outrage that someone dared disagree with my position.  But mostly I covered it all with the reasoning that I was standing up to do my part in the cosmic battle between truth and falsehood.   

Besides, what twenty-something on fire for Jesus doesn’t want to be a hero for the faith?

In the face of such youthful intemperance, there’s an old, battle-wizened apostle who reminds us after a lifetime of being set for the defense and confirmation of the gospel, that it is not only about having the right answer, but having the right love.  


1  I adapted this illustration from Alexander Maclaren’s commentary on First Timothy.

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