Monday, January 23, 2012

Never Bring Your Ego to a Theological Gun Fight or How to Learn the Word of God (Part 1)

Doctrine of the Divine Decree

The internet has given opportunity for Christians to interact with each other and theological beliefs on a wider scale than in any time in history. To me this is an absolutely wonderful occasion for the body of Christ to test the prescriptive nature of their theological beliefs and make whatever adjustments necessary upon further enlightenment. Unfortunately, much of what occurs are theological gun fights where people bring their egos which, of course, results in them directing their efforts toward protecting their narcissistic investment and ultimately the truth is not what is at stake for them though they imagine it to be so. This is not a new phenomenon itself and before the internet such egotistically based theological debating (obviously along with non-theological topics but this is not the subject of the essay) was present, even with men of substantial notoriety.  

Now such people who bring their egos to the party often are completely unaware of what is going on in their defensive posture. They genuinely believe they are defending the truth and usually make arguments about their views of Scripture or some issue but in reality their arguments serve as a fa├žade for what is really occurring, namely the protection of their ego. This is brings us to the most basic rule of learning the Word of God: divest yourself of your ego or else you will end up latching on to bad ideas and refusing to let go all because of your egotistical investment.

The Mistake of Egotistical Investment in Your Theology

Theology is not personal but it is applied personally. That is, knowledge of God stems from God, not you. If it stemmed from you it would be personal but it is not, it stems from God, hence it is a property of God, not you. Now, God does mean for you to personally apply it and gain all of its benefits, personally, but it, itself, is not personal, it does not belong to you as personal property, it is a property of God which he gives to you from which you may benefit. And it does become part of your person, as well, but still, it is God’s property which he has given to you and your ego is never part of the formula. Get it? And that is the fundamental problem with many students of theology; they make it personal property. That is to say, their theological positions are part of their ego identification. The ego, your ego, is personal property and it belongs to each person but the moment one’s theology is attached to this personal property it, too, is treated as de facto personal property. This is a great mistake. How does this happen?

It happens, basically, because we are sinful which can often result in selfishness and immaturity in our learning process of God’s Word (especially at the initial stages but certainly, if not corrected, such misdirection becomes exacerbated over time and great arrogance takes over). As a result we tend not to audit our ego; rather we leave it alone thinking that its investment is part of the process. Wrong. Ultimately what occurs is that we will latch on to a system which appears righteous or pious as well as one that, at the time, seems rationally superior since we are still using, to a great degree, human instruments for our gauges and as a result, spiritually (often emotionally) immature saints find themselves making unwarranted theological allegiances far too early. This tragic decision is common in the life of believers but sometimes such a tragedy is a road from which many never fully recover and some go on to permanent error on many points of Scripture.

Learning From the Mistakes of R.C. Sproul  and John Piper 

R.C Sproul and John Piper are are two prominent Calvinists with Piper being far less classical and more Neo-Calvinist or New Calvinist. Over the last 25 years both men have had high profile ministries which have reached outside of Calvinist circles. Both men also share an interesting and very similar entrance in Calvinism as as Justin Taylor relates, The Legacy of R.C. Sproul and John Piper:
Both men became Calvinists during seminary, as their resistance was overcome by God using a professor who insisted on taking God at his word.

Both men discovered and were deeply impacted by Jonathan Edwards during their seminary days.
Why is this so significant? What is the take away? It is this. When both of these men entered seminary they did so at the beginning of their serious studies, not at the height. They were there to gain tools in order to spend a number of years making determinations via exegesis and so on so that at some point they could form their theological conclusions. But what happened to them both? It was not after gaining the essential tools and subsequent years of study that led them to becoming convinced Calvinists, rather it was while theological babes they came to the kind of conclusions which only seasoned and well vetted study can produce.

Both men found a system which required significant theological verification or validation through their own personal studies before they could be convinced of it yet, somehow, they were this soon. How is this possible? It is only possible if they made the very mistake being discussed which is to make an ego investment in order to allow themselves to be convinced of such significant and broad determinations because, as we can observe, they simply had not gained the necessary tools to come to these certainties. What impressed them, obviously, were the constructed arguments of other men which they never before imagined themselves and upon being exposed to these they concluded, prematurely, that this system of theology and its accompanied arguments were the embodiment of the highest theology. Such neglect of possessing all of the necessary skills, tools and time utilizing them in order to claim acceptance of a rather sophisticated and comprehensive theological system can point to only one primary cause, ego investment.

And if you wish to make a comparison to other subjects of learning, remember we are not talking about basics or fundamentals of which any subject has broad consensus, rather of a super-proprietary school of theology which requires rigorousness, exactness and time invested in order to produce claims of certain agreement, none of which Sproul or Piper could have accomplished at that time, though they concluded so very early in their studies. And the point is not whether such instructors were right or wrong but the problem of immediate and comprehensive theological persuasions which are exampled by Sproul and Piper.

This phenomenon is not uncommon for those involved in higher education. Students are exposed to ideas and sophisticated articulations of those ideas which they have not encountered or at least, to any significant degree. And the arguments come from masters of schools of thought and certainly such masters and their subordinate instructors happily accommodate the eager minds of their students by filling them with knowledge and information they never encountered before and giving them a certain false confidence about a topic because they (the students) now know something that, apparently, many others do not know, therefore it must be right.

Many kids go off to college and return convinced of evolution. They haven’t studied it themselves, so much (other than assigned reading which minimizes objections and elevates evolutionary positions), but have been indoctrinated or taught it by those who believe in it. It is a prejudicial education, which is not necessarily a fault, per se, but it still must be viewed as it is, prejudicial. And many students who became evolutionists in college, not really as a result of personal research but from an orchestrated indoctrination, become ardent evolutionists in their gathering of information in the remainder of their lives, either anecdotally or professionally and the analysis of any new or relevant information is simply submitted to a mental mechanization designed to validate what they already are convinced of instead of allowing the evidence to be interpreted minus their agenda. This is much like, in my view, Piper and Sproul in their early theological formation and subsequent theological articulations which are not to stray from Calvinism.

The Results of Ego Investment in Theology

The young mind is caught up in the aura of the event, the learning, the expertise and so on of things he rarely considered. Even worse, imagine if the young man who, without the proper tools to make such a significant determinations, does so anyway and then spends the rest of his life defending this one system as superior and all of his research, discoveries and arguments are invested in a way which seeks to validate what he has already determined to be supreme before he could even make such a determination? Theologically speaking, the answer is at best, a man who has a crippled theology in which he spends the rest of his life using the Word of God to defend a system instead of developing a system to defend the Word of God.  And that is precisely what both men (Sproul and Piper) have done in a large way and that system, is of course, Calvinism. They are devotees to Calvinism. But this can be true of any system.

Does this mean anyone going down such a road will not come to any right conclusions? Of course not. It is clear no one is perfect in all their theological views as we stand on earth, now. But this fact does not negate the essential processes of right theological development. So we do not excuse this.

I have read (as many have) plenty of theological works of men who are wrong on some things, some more than others. I can and do throw out the chaff. But for many there is a substantial chaff. Sadly, today, in the Protestant/Evangelical body there is a great deal of book publishing and sectarianism supported by men devoted to a "program and system" and who use the Word of God to protect and/or promote associations, systems and their personal positions. This is the route of ego investment

Yes, God’s Holy Spirit does not leave any believer and continues illuminating us all and may you benefit from what is true if you entertain the teaching of those who deliver volumes of chaff. And if you want to squelch God’s illumination then enlist early on in some theological system before you are able to validate it and you, too, will have an opportunity to blur your spiritual vision and produce self-invested and novel theologies and expressions which point to you, your group or your treasured system.

Vetting Your Theology and With Gregory Peck and 12 O’clock High

12 O’clock High, starring Gregory Peck, is a great film story. It is about a bomb squad’s deficient morale and failing leadership due to a lack of proper vetting of their skills, experiences and themselves. Gregory Peck is a General who steps in to command the squad and immediately demands deference to protocol and precision in all that is being done. He identifies slackers and lackeys as well as those fit for some leadership and so on. He becomes the ultimate vetting mechanism by being a source of rigorous and exacting evaluation of each man, his personal constitution and his skills and performance. 

What results is that egos are removed and objectivity takes its place. While morale changes it does not change because egos are catered to, rather the objective is catered to which forces the men to adjust themselves and their efforts toward it and not it toward themselves and their efforts. In the movie many wanted to quit, get rid of the hard Commander and a few did leave. But once they were forced to endure the maturation process and come to proper views based on proper vetting, they were not met with irreconcilable issues (in the realm of theology it is called theological tension which is a myth but a solution for those without answers because their theology is, frankly, inadequate) rather, they were properly prepared for what lay ahead and were able to correctly view their challenges, their strengths and weaknesses and succeed. They did not wish to have their bubble of illusion protected anymore because of sensitive and invested egos instead, they sought to be the protectors because they now knew why and how to meet the objective and it wasn’t through serving their egos.

This is what removing your ego and vetting your theological or biblical beliefs in a proper manner is like. You don’t take it personally; you take it and treat it objectively. You don’t matter in terms of truth. You must adjust yourself to the truth and not the truth being adjusted to serve your petty and narcissistic ego which steers your theological endeavors and expressions. But to do this means you have to be willing to writer “Leper Colony” (you will have to watch the movie to understand) on the nose of your bomber and admit from the start that you aren’t in the ranks of those who have endured the necessary rigors and you must accept the truth, instead, that you are at the beginning and need to be taught everything or that you skipped the beginning and pretended to be at the end, early on, and need to go back. That isn’t easy for the egotistical saint. He or she wants to quickly be the smartest one in the room.

Today’s Popular Protestant/Evangelical Vetting

Today, if many popular Protestant/Evangelicals had to vet their theology through the kinds of vetting mechanisms used in the military during war, but even today (especially in special ops training), they would be laughed off the process. They would be File 13’ed in during the initial stages.

In the military there are objectives. And any ideas and endeavors suggested to meet those objectives are vetted as to how they may serve reaching these objectives. There is a rigorous process in which the hands of many professionals handle and evaluate these things. They are sometimes trashed right away and sometimes come out much different but still retaining some essentials of an original effort. In other words, it gets properly vetted.

On the other hand many Protestant/Evangelicals are like a “Theological Mutual Admiration Society” who vet one another with self-interests in mind. They make sure feelings are treasured, personalities are groomed and the preposterous is justified in order to make some money selling a book, protecting investments whether real or psychological and preserving their ministry cause (not necessarily God’s mind you).

You don’t want to belong to any such club, whether you are just beginning or at the end of your walk with the Lord and theological discoveries. The question for you today is just how did you come to your convictions and conclusions? Did you latch on to something and insure it simply got validated, over and over again, by reading only those things which would do this? And then did you invest your ego as you went about arguing your allegedly new found knowledge or illumination before you took the time to genuinely vet all of this? I am sure for some the answer is not a positive one.

You cannot afford to be weak in your theology because it weakens you spiritually. You cannot afford to enlist in theological crusades and become a sycophant seeking pats on the backs by your Gurus or their junior representatives. As well, you cannot afford to succumb to group think or treasure the value of a theological system to the injury of sound exegesis and spiritual enlightenment. That is not what God calls you to. 

The Other Mistake Not to Make

Let's say you recognize this and wish to make a change. There is a warning I want to give you, a second mistake you can make which is possibly worse than the first and that is to exchange one system for another and not perform your due diligence.

For some years Independent Fundamentalist Baptists have reacted to some of the quasi-sect's past failures in leadership, practice and exegesis. And while some have taken the proper steps to evaluate their associations and make whatever remedies necessary for their personal spiritual health, I have also watched, over and over again, many believers jump from the frying pan into the fire. 

Now let me be clear, this is not about Independent Fundamentalist Baptists, they have a history like any other sect with the great, good, bad and ugly. And there remains within this diverse group many very good exegetes, leaders and practitioners of sound biblical Christianity. 

So here is what I mean about the frying pan into the fire. Many of these IFB believers latched on to certain elements within the IFB group, particularly extreme elements such as King James Bible Onlyism or some sort of crusading form of Christianity which de-emphasized good exegesis or principled leadership and practice and but excelled at  righteous appearances, deeds and attitudes.

Such people started out wrongly, though their being victims of poor leadership and teaching do play into this. But in reaction to learning that this is not the way, many have failed to correct the very thing which made them vulnerable in the first place and when encountering what they determined to be more considerate theological articulations, they simply repeated the same mistake as before and fully enlisted in a system, movement, practice and structure which they, again, fail to vet because they simply did not gain the tools in order to properly make the assessments and validations necessary.  They are still involving themselves spiritually/theologically at an ego investment level.

You cannot afford to trade one cruel master for another. Theological development and spiritual health is not about that.  So be careful that you do not bring your ego to your new gun fight or you will simply be shot down again, spiritually speaking, and suffer unneeded injuries again. Your eventual injuries may be different, they make take longer in coming, but they will come because a right thing (theological development) done in a wrong way (immature allegiance resulting in double-downed sycophantism through an arrogance complex) is wrong.

Called to Divest Yourself of Ego 

But what is wonderful is, when you let go of your ego and begin accepting instruction instead of seeking ideas to make you become “right”, you will slowly develop theological certainties and convictions which can take any hammering the world, Satan and humanity has to offer. You will be a stalwart for you brothers and sisters. You will stand firm and find others standing as well. You will recognize those who have genuinely vetted their views because you will understand who they are due to being this kind of believer, yourself,  and the fellowship you have with them will be based on truth, not dependent on allegiance to some theological system, theological Guru or “Theological Mutual Admiration Society”. 

So accept the truth about yourself and how you got to where you are. Look back and make an honest audit. Did you, indeed, latch on early? Have you been protecting your ego because of its investment somewhere along the way? The issue, by the way, is not to point anyone away from any one system if they have concluded through the proper mechanisms that it is, as a body of theology, true in essence. This isn’t an argument about schools of theology. Rather it is to keep you from holding to views you have not appropriately examined and tested which will only result in your spiritual injury as, at some point, you will find yourself in a desert of irreconcilable views or even worse, possessed by a heightened arrogance complex in your theology and practice (which is what long term ego investment looks like) that produces crusadership mentality where you are no longer preoccupied with God’s Word but with events, social causes and your own legacy and when you do make forays into Scripture, they are to serve your ego and its crusades or its novel theological inventions.

Sit, listen, weigh and measure. Search and be patient. Don’t feel the need to have an answer all the time; the Scriptures do not require this. But of all things, don’t bring your ego to a theological gunfight so that you may, indeed, learn the Word of God.

 *It should be noted that John Piper and R.C. Sproul are not viewed as either insincere or without merit in some measure so using them as examples are not with personal antagonism in mind or without a recognition that they have expressed faith in Christ as Savior or have engaged in spiritually beneficial works (though I believe they have also produced spiritually damaging works, as well). These are not what are being addressed and their examples are to illustrate prematurely being convinced of a system of theology and its subsequent negatives effects, hence they are used in this manner.

**Part 2 (What Weak/Invested Egos Look Like at a Theological Gunfight and What and Why Weak/Invested Egos Say about Others and Their Mistaken Views about Arrogance and Inability to Properly Define and Recognize It)


Jon Gleason said...

Hi, Alex, interesting thoughts. I wouldn't necessarily agree with everything in this article, but two things in particular stood out to me that I appreciated.

First, the ego divestment point is excellent. It is God's truth, not mine, so if someone disagrees with me, so what? That's true whether it is something I wrote or something I preached, or just something I thought. If they think I've misunderstood what God said, it's not a big deal, because it isn't me that matters.

Second, I really appreciated the emphasis on the dangers of novices becoming theological experts. Our schools teach kids systematic theology when those kids haven't even read the Scriptures through more than 2-3 times. In seminary, systematic theology is one of the first courses you take -- maybe it should be one of the last ones you take.

I can't tell you how many times I thought, "Wait a minute! What about THAT verse!" during my seminary classes. But then, I was in my 30s by then.

Alex Guggenheim said...


I understand that not all points will be agreed upon but some will and thanks for taking the time to consider them. The idea of systematic theology being last or at least later is practiced by some schools but for others it seems getting students enlisted in a system first and then teaching them a form if exegesis which supports that system their primary objective.

Thanks again and you certainly are invited to offer critques of those elements with which you object.

Jon Gleason said...

Alex, without going into great detail, I'm not sure we can safely conclude that any individual we don't know well has arrived at their theological position through ego investment.

I'll use myself as an example. When I started Bible college, I wasn't a Calvinist. After two years of Bible college, I was a five point Calvinist. A year later, I was a 4 pointer, then later a 3 3/4 pointer, and then a "depends on how you define the terms" pointer. :)

Was it "ego investment" to say I was a five-point Calvinist? Well, it could have been, but if so I don't think I had a particularly bad case of it, because I changed.

Rather, I would see that as describing my current understanding of the Scriptures at that point in time. Ego investment, to me, is when you think you've got the definitive answer and you lock yourself in to that.

Did these men that you've mentioned do that, or were there other factors in their theological development? I don't see how you or I could answer that question.

Ego investment is real, it is a very real problem about which we must always be careful, and it is profitable to warn young believers about it. But I'm not sure any of us are qualified to diagnose it from afar.

Alex Guggenheim said...

I agree that the distance may create questions about such a determination. I might be a bit more chatitable with RC but still, without the proper tools and time to vet such a comprehensive theological system and to align one's self so fully so early on speaks, to me on any subject matter, as a bad case of something. It is encouraging to know of your own development and foundation for your convictions. I appreciate your thoughts and will consider them.

Jon Gleason said...

"a bad case of something." :)

Nice wording.