Last night I taught at our Sunday Night Campus on the subject of Justification. It was a great opportunity to clearly present the theological distinctions between justification, sanctification, and glorification, and to explain why the New Testament talks about salvation in past, present, and future verb tenses. The joy, the confidence that comes from knowing that our justification is a one-time declaration from God...and that it's all God's work through Christ...is amazing. To believe that while our sanctification is on-going and involves our cooperation, setbacks in our sanctification process will not undo our justification. Thanks be to God!
But along the way, while immersing myself again in Erickson's "Christian Theology" and Grudem's "Systematic Theology", and re-reading Paul's words to the Romans, it occurred to me that our theological categories can be problematic. Paul is not as clear in delineating these three phases of our salvation. And to complicate things further, there are other New Testament-inspired theological words like regeneration, redemption, atonement, reconciliation, and more. Then, as a parishioner pointed out to me earlier in the week, there is Matthew 25, in which Jesus seems to indicate that there is a certain kind of behavior that demonstrates what we have done with Christ (The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats) that determines our reward or punishment. How do all these things fit together? And why is the Gospel's first and best theologian-- Paul-- not as systematic as we'd like?
I suggest, as many others have, it's because Jesus wants more for us than information and understanding; He wants participation and firsthand, relationship-based knowledge. (Paul's favorite word for the kind of "knowledge" we are to have of Christ is the kind of intimate knowledge that you could only gain through experiencing Him.)
In a way, then, theology is like an aquarium-- a large, massive Sea World sort of aquarium, if it's a good theology, anyway! An aquarium recreates the oceanic environment and helps us see things we wouldn't otherwise see. In a good aquarium, the salt water, the dynamic and diverse coral and "vegetation", and overall ambience help us imagine what the ocean depths are like. The living creatures are descendants of actual inhabitants of the deep seas. An aquarium gives us an accurate depiction of the ocean.
And yet, an aquarium is not the ocean. There is more to the ocean than what an aquarium can hold. In the same way, even our best theological categories and designations are like gigantic aquariums. They are helpful depictions of God in His creating and saving work. They are useful for study and understanding. But they are not the sum total of God and His work. God is more.
But this does not mean-- as some has suggested-- that the "more" that there is to God will be contradictory to what we know and understand of Him in sound, orthodox theology. The ocean is not fundamentally or in its essence different than what we find in the aquarium. It's not as if a deep sea diver might discover that ocean water is really as sustainable to human life as oxygen or that fish actually talk or that tiger sharks are really playful puppies. No, the ocean isn't fundamentally different. It is just larger, more massive, more difficult to absorb and comprehend. In that way, God is larger than our theological designations. I don't suspect that we'll come to the end and then say, "Oh my. I didn't realize that God is actually something totally different that the attributes I studied of Him in the Scriptures and in theology." To be clear, I am not suggesting that by saying God is larger than our theology we are saying that we might find that none of our theology matters and that all roads lead to God anyway. No. An emphatic NO. I am simply saying that our theological designations are helpful and necessary. And yet they are limited.
There is more to the ocean than what an aquarium can show; there is more to God than what theology can tell.
So, keep the books. Study them well. They will keep you from drowning and dispel your illusions of "ocean life".
But hold them loosely. The categories and compartments are made of fragile glass.
Most of all, go diving.
The ocean is for exploring; and God is for knowing.