How to Shipwreck Your Theology

A Mother’s Rebuke

A few years ago, English-speaking fans of Karl Barth were rattled by an essay which shed new light on the personal life of the 20th-century giant of theology. Many had already known about Barth’s love for a woman who was not his wife, but few had read his private letters, which painted a clearer and more disturbing picture. The basic facts of the situation are uncomfortable, to say the least. While unhappily married to Nelly, Barth invited another woman he loved, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, to share a home with him and his wife—an arrangement that lasted for almost 35 years. Even those who try to see Barth in the most charitable light admit that “Barth’s love for both Nelly and Charlotte . . . caused duress to all of them,” and that it was Nelly, Barth’s wife, who “experienced the most pain and endured the most trauma.”

In light of Barth’s behavior—which conflicted with his own theology of marriage—a question from his mother wields more punch than hundreds of pages of his own theological treatises: “What is the most brilliant theology good for,” she asked, “if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?” Besides delivering a scathing rebuke, Mrs. Barth’s question points to something essential about how we must approach theology: we grasp it not only with our minds but also with our hearts and actions. In other words, right knowledge about God should produce right actions for God. If we refuse to align our behavior with our theological beliefs, those beliefs can become worse than useless for us. Beliefs and behavior must be held together.

Theology: More Than Intellectual

Of course, this is far from saying that we should care little about studying theology if only we live good lives. To the contrary, we are called to exert mental energy as one of the many ways we fulfill the Greatest Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your . . . mind” (Matthew 22:37). After all, the Christian faith is based on God’s written revelation, requiring at the very least the mental effort of reading to comprehend it. The psalmist reminds us of the intellectual challenge of understanding God when he cries, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand” (Psalm 139:17). It is good and necessary for us to submit to the rigors of studying Scripture—to comprehend its historical context, apply sound hermeneutics, draw theological conclusions, and make practical applications.

Further, it is good for us to study the contributions of theologians throughout the centuries who—as God’s gifts to the church—have clarified and expounded the meaning of Scripture. Indeed, every Christian must exercise his or her best mental energy to know God—that is, to understand theology.

But theology is more than an intellectual exercise, for our mind, will, and emotions are deeply connected. We assimilate truth, not only with our minds, but also with our affections and, yes, even our actions. Wouldn’t you sense that something is skewed in a person who listens to, for example, “Gabriel’s Oboe,” without feeling at least a twinge of sentiment? Or who reads about the Jewish holocaust without feeling enraged toward the Nazis? Is there anything less disturbing about a theologian who affirms that God sustains his every heartbeat, but feels little sense of duty toward him? or a Christian who sings about “the old rugged cross,” but does not feel compelled on the deepest level of being to love and live for the Jesus who died there?

Voices from the Past

In his treatise On the Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards makes this point abundantly clear: “Nothing is more manifest in fact,” he insists, “than that the things of religion take hold of men’s souls no further than they affect them.” In other words, you will know what you believe by what moves your affections. And you will know what moves your affections only by what moves you to action. There is no truer test of what you believe than observing how you behave.

This symbiosis between belief and behavior shines clearly in Lewis Bayly’s The Practice of Piety (interestingly, the book that nudged John Bunyan toward his conversion). Bayly begins this book with a summary of Christian doctrine. But on the heels of heavy theological discussion, he exhorts his readers to align their behavior with these truths (I’ve updated his language a bit):

If you believe that God is almighty, why do you fear devils and enemies, and not confidently trust in God? If you believe that God is infinite, how dare you provoke him to anger? If you believe that God is the sovereign good, why is not your heart more settled upon him than on all worldly goods? If you believe that God is a righteous judge, how dare you live so securely in sin without repentance?

This link between belief and behavior is also aptly expressed by William Perkins’ definition of theology as “the science of living blessedly forever.” Sadly, this practical, hortatory tone is missing in many modern books on theology. Is it because their authors are afraid that readers will snub them as preachy or unintellectual? On the contrary, I think it is odd not to turn to exhortation, adoration, or exultation when confronted with truth about God.

The Danger We Face

But is there really a danger here? What do we risk losing when we separate belief from behavior? We easily think of many things: personal integrity, strength of character, our testimony. But there is one danger we tend to overlook: when we separate belief from behavior, we risk abandoning the beliefs themselves.

Here’s how it happens: when our behavior conflicts with our beliefs, the clash creates such cognitive dissonance that instead of living with the cacophony, we tend to abandon either the beliefs or the behavior. For example, a pastor will find it psychologically and spiritually agonizing to condemn the sin of adultery while he engages in illicit sexual liaisons. Tortured by such cognitive dissonance, he faces two options: either abandon his behavior (adultery), or revise his belief (that adultery is wrong, or that it is wrong in his particular case). Of course, he can try to live with the dissonance, but few can bear that strain for very long. It is often said that as beliefs go, so goes behavior. But it is true the other way around as well.

As behavior goes, so goes belief. We tend to justify our behavior by our beliefs. And when we continually embrace behavior that conflicts with what we believe, it is likely that we will adjust our beliefs to accommodate our behavior.

Thus, it is possible to abandon beliefs, not just by falling prey to intellectual snares and doctrinal aberrations, but by living in contradiction to our beliefs. This is what the Apostle Paul talks about in 1 Timothy 1:19, when he reports that Hymenaeus and Alexander “made shipwreck of their faith,” by rejecting a “good conscience.” Note the order: rejecting their conscience (right behavior) led to the shipwreck of their faith (right beliefs). This danger hounds us with every sermon we hear, with every Bible verse we read, and with every decision we make. Any of us could be a Hymenaeus or Alexander.

Hold Faith and a Good Conscience

With the stakes so high, with this peril lurking at every corner, our duty is urgent yet simple: Hold “faith and a good conscience” (1 Timothy 1:19). In one hand, tightly grip your faith; in the other, grip the behavior that this faith requires. Don’t let go of either. “Keep a close watch on yourself [your behavior] and on the teaching [your beliefs]. Persist in this” (1 Timothy 4:16).

Every time we sit down to read our Bibles, every time we get interested in an online theological debate, we would be wise to remember the words of Karl Barth’s mother: “What is the most brilliant theology good for if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?”

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