On Theological Reflection

There has emerged the growing feeling that theological reflection is at best academic and at worst harmful to Christian community. What is needed is a return to the simple faith of children, we are told, devoid of intellectual pride and pedantry. Can’t we all simply love Jesus and leave it at that? That intellectual pursuits have inherent danger is clear enough—of the making of many books there is no end—but does this danger prohibit all such reflection? Surely not. After all, sex has danger enough attached to it, and few among us are clamoring for an absolute abstinence. Likewise rigorous theological reflection.


Indeed, even a cursory reading of Scripture would suggest that a certain intellectual rigor is required of us: are we not to love God with all our minds? And Peter’s point about Paul’s letters—difficult to understand, but surely worthy of close examination (2 Peter 3:16)—would seem to be true of much of the sacred writings. Who among us would count Ezekiel or Ecclesiastes as light, easy reading? But these, as all Scripture, are God-breathed and useful for edification (2 Timothy 3:16), and therefore must be studied with care and precision. To the rubbish heap we may quickly consign any approach to Scripture that minimizes the challenge of reading works culled from millennia and widely divergent cultures, or suggests that the attempt to do so somehow involves arrogance or incipient humanism.


Perhaps we see this most clearly in the letter to the Hebrews. Our anonymous author sets about his task of demonstrating the superiority of the new covenant to the old, in an effort to strengthen wavering believers to remain in the faith—and not return to Judaism—despite intense persecution. His third argument, beginning in chapter five, highlights the superiority of our High Priest to the priests of old. Jesus does not belong to the transient—and now obsolete—Aaronic priesthood, but rather to the eternal priesthood of Melchizedek (5:10).


And as quickly as he introduces the topic, our writer abandons it, knowing he will lose his intellectually lazy readers: “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand” (5:11, NIV). Though by this time his readers should be teachers—theologically astute, capable of handling the word of truth correctly—in fact they are still infants, in need of theological breast milk. Solid food, on the other hand, is for the mature, “who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (5:14). Paul makes a similar point to the Corinthian congregation: “I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3a). That we are called to maturity and not perpetual infancy, to be spiritual and not worldly, is axiomatic. So perhaps we should move beyond the mindset of these intellectual toddlers—childish, not childlike—and strengthen our digestive abilities by mature reflection on the Word of God.


Impressively, this is precisely what our writer offers his wayward flock. Rather than re-teaching the elementary truths of the faith—“repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (all easy themes we’ve long since mastered, I’m sure)—he presses on to his original topic. After challenging his congregants to examine themselves to see if they are even in Christ (6:4-8), he spends a considerable amount of time detailing the typological relationship between Christ and Melchizedek (7:1-28).


More than a few of us probably have little understanding of typology or Melchizedek—and are as lost as he feared his readers would be. And perhaps that is the point. What our writer—and God himself, who inspired him—considered indispensable to the faith, we have neglected to the point of ignorance. And here is just one example among hundreds in God’s Word. To our peril, have we cut ourselves off from teaching we desperately need to grow in Christ? Have we compounded our sin by ridiculing or dismissing those who seek to remedy this error? May it not be so: “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case” (6:9).

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