What’s more dangerous to the human soul — money or theology?
Money is the easy answer. Paul warns us, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10). Treasure money, and what it can buy, more than God, and it will rob you of him and buy you terrifying, unending pain, apart from him.
Jesus himself says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24; see also Hebrews 13:5). The God of Christianity and the god of money are irreconcilably opposed. They cannot room together in the human heart. If you find yourself serving money — consuming yourself with earning, gathering, and spending — by definition you are not serving God.
But is money more spiritually dangerous than theology? The answer may be trickier than we think, especially within the numbing comfort of a proudly affluent and educated American church. Money is a tangible, countable, often visible god. Theology, on the other hand — if it is cut off from truly knowing and enjoying God himself — can be a soothing, subtle, superficially spiritual god. Both are deadly, but one lulls us into a proud, intellectual, and purely cosmetic confidence and rest before God. Theology will kill you if it does not kindle a deep and abiding love for the God of the Bible, and if it does not inspire a desire for his glory, and not ultimately our own.
Good Theology Is the Only Path to God
Now, I love theology, and you should, too. Paul’s one aim in life and ministry was to know Christ and him crucified (i.e. to know Christian theology), and he wanted to know God in Christ as truly and thoroughly as possible, with all of its implications for everything he thinks and says and does (1 Corinthians 2:2). You cannot read this man’s letters and not come to the conclusion that theology was his heartbeat. He lived to know as much about this unsearchable God as possible, and he was ready to die for those truths.
Psalm 119 is a passionate love letter written to the revelation of God in his word. What we know about God from the Bible is unbelievably, inexhaustibly profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness, and life (2 Timothy 3:16; John 6:68).
“Theology can be a soothing, subtle, superficially spiritual god.”
Without theology, you will not know God — literally and spiritually. So, this article is not meant to be a prohibition against theology — God forbid — but a caution and a warning about theology. Knowledge about God can replace an authentic knowing of him to our destruction, especially for the theologically refined and convinced. We all should want our theology to be not only true, but Spirit-filled and fruitful.
The Best Readers Can Be the Worst Listeners
The Pharisees fought Jesus at every turn. They doubted and even hated much of what he said and did, and tried again and again to trap him in a lie or inconsistency. They had read God’s word over and over again. They knew this book really well — or so it seemed — and yet they did not know the Word living, breathing, and speaking in front of them — the Word through whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made that was made (John 1:3), the Word who became flesh and walked the earth (John 1:14), the Word who is the perfect picture of God, and who upholds the universe with the words of his mouth (Hebrews 1:3).
Mark recounts one of these confrontations between Jesus and the so-called spiritual experts of his day. “The Pharisees and the scribes asked [Jesus], ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’” (Mark 7:5). We know this was not Pharisaical humility and genuine curiosity (Matthew 12:14; 22:15). This was defiance — an attempt to undermine and shame the Son of God.
They were so confident in their theology that they confronted the Christ himself. They tried to pin him down under the feather-weight and wading-pool-depth of their theology — the One who was the fulfillment and pinnacle of all the pages they had read. They challenged God’s own understanding of God. Their education and pride — their knowledge and confidence in their own system — had blinded them to the very image and voice of God. They knew so much about God, and yet knew him so little.
Even the Literate Need to Learn to Read
Jesus responds to their ignorant and murderous criticism with the very Scriptures they seem to know so well. “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me’” (Mark 7:6). Hypocrisy, according to Jesus, disconnects knowledge of God from true love for God. Hypocrisy is not just about disobedience to the Bible — the Pharisees would have been thought of as clearly “obedient” — but about disillusionment with the God of the Bible. You can know him and not know him. And that might be the most dangerous place in all the world — however comfortable, safe, and informed it may feel.
“We have often loved what we’ve learned about God more than God himself.”
Jesus goes on to say, “You leave the commandment of God” — an awful, terrifying condemnation — “and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8). You have traded the truth about God for images of the truth, manufactured by your own mind. You’ve loved what you’ve learned about God more than God himself. You’ve trusted your knowledge and obedience more than the mouth of God. “For the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God” (Matthew 15:6).
You Can Tithe Theology, Too
So, we should fear money when it leads our hearts and allegiances away from God. And we should fear our system of theology when it more subtly does the same. In our good disciplines of learning about God — reading, asking, listening, writing — we must take care to develop habits of treasuring and worshiping him, too. Be committed to having a right theology, but be as committed to having a warm theology — a growing, humble, and heartfelt intimacy with God. Do not simply search the Scriptures for soteriology, but search for salvation — the eternal life — that is only found in the flesh, blood, and person of Jesus Christ (John 5:39).
Tithe your theology. Just like all money is God’s, all good theology is God’s, too — it’s all about him, all from him, and all for him. Still, we give ten percent or more of our money to declare week after week our gratitude, faith, and joy in God, even to say that it is all his. Likewise, we need rhythms of responding to God in worship when we learn more about him. Look for every opportunity to offer what you’ve seen about God back to him in prayer and worship.
Stop, and pray God’s words about God back to him. Journal as a way of stimulating your heart over the things your mind is beginning to understand. Put the truths you’re learning on your lips for others to hear and love — share them with someone. The psalmist responded this way to knowing God and his love more deeply in Psalm 63: “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. . . . My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips” (Psalm 63:3, 5).
“We need our theology to be not only true, but Spirit-filled and fruitful.”
We will never be truly satisfied by knowing about God. We need to know him. If that dichotomy doesn’t make sense to you, beware. Facts about God without feelings for him and fellowship with him — without a sense that you are God’s chosen, redeemed, and known son or daughter — will give you a false sense of God’s love and security. But facts about God can also draw you closer to him.
You cannot serve both God and theology, but you can serve and love and treasure God with good theology.