The Dark Side of Theology

I have come to have a love-hate relationship with theology. I love it because it can deepen one’s faith, helping people to rejoice more because they understand and know God better (Jer. 9:24). There is nothing more exciting than the look on peoples’ faces when they are being theologically transformed. It is the “wow, this is really true” look. I live for that both in myself and in others.

However, there is a dark side to theology. I see it everyday. I pray that this does not infect my students, but inevitably, there are always one or two who take their theological knowledge and create a recipe of sin and shame. These are people I call “theologically dangerous.”

The theologically dangerous have no grace. They get some right answers and then become the judge, jury and executioner of people. What should have been the path toward humility turns into the path of arrogance. Their self-justification for their graceless belligerence is this: “I am not arrogant, I am discerning.” Correct theology becomes a virtue that swallows up virtues of tenderness, grace, respect, and kindness, offering only a black hole of hopelessness unless people conform. Those who come in contact with them are judged only by their statement of faith. Their fellowship circle is small and friends few. The distinction between essentials and non-essentials does not find a place in their diary. They hunt and hunt for bad theology until they find it. They correct others with pride. When they are not invited to the parties, they interpret this as a mark of persecution for a theology well-played.

These are the type of people who are on the dark side of theology. Unfortunately, those who are theologically dangerous are the most vocal (and possibly, the most numerous). Since they have yet to be theologically humiliated, they can’t stop talking. The fear of God, they have yet to learn. They set themselves up as the watchdogs of Christian orthodoxy. They are the first to comment and correct on the blogs. They are the first to raise their hand in Sunday School when you say, “Does anyone have any questions?” Yet after ten minutes of talking, you ask yourself “what part of the word ‘question’ do they not understand?” They question people’s salvation based on minor theological points of disagreement.

Fortunately, many eventually increase in their theological knowledge to a point where they become theologically transformed. This happens when one becomes theologically humiliated. It is like the transition from uninformed adolescence, to a know-it-all teenager, to a mature adult. The mature adult has wisdom and grace due to their coming of age theologically. All the things they thought they knew as a teenager goes through the trials of life. Doctrinal battle scars evidence a ripening of the fruit of belief. Their categories become more diverse. They realize that while there are some black and whites to our faith, there is also a lot of grey. In other words, they recognize that there is a lot we don’t know. They tighten their grip on the main things and losen it on others. They choose their battles very carefully. It is a transition from ignorance to arrogance back to some degree of informed ignorance.

At this point, fellowship can resume. The lynch mob is sent home. The invitations to parties trickle in. The lantern of the hope of the gospel is shinning bright. At this point, the dark side of theology is over.


125 Responses to “The Dark Side of Theology”

  1. There is a Russian word for “spiritual delusionment.” It is “prelest.”

  2. Great piece and word CMP! The Christian Faith is an eternal revelation of God to man or humanity, and is therefore necessarily in one sense incapable of change, but none the less in another sense it is continually changing, at least again as it is lived in a constant broken world, and certainly in each of us as God’s redeemed. It is here I think of 2 Cor. 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”

  3. I love Emanuel Swedenborg’s description in Arcana Coelestia; he chalks it up to having rational intelligence but not (yet) rational love: “The person whose rationality is of such a character that he is solely in truth – even though it be the truth of faith – and who is not at the same time in the good of charity, is altogether of such a character. He is a morose man, will bear nothing, is against all, regards everybody as being in falsity, is ready to rebuke, to chastise, and to punish; has no pity, and does not apply or adapt himself to others and study to bend their minds; for he looks at everything from truth, and at nothing from good.” And later on, describing someone who has truth tempered with love: “Rational good never fights, however it is assailed; because it is mild and gentle, patient and yielding; for its character is that of love and mercy. Yet although it does not fight, it conquers all, nor does it ever think about combat, or glory on account of victory; and this because it is Divine, and is safe of itself.” Unfortunately, I think the first phase is one that everyone has to go through to one extent or another has he learns theology; but hopefully, as you say, eventually he reaches the other side, where after being “theologically humiliated” (I love that phrase), he sees other people with empathy, and no longer as below himself.

  4. From reading this piece, you sound theologically dangerous. Seems you are the one able to classify those who disagree with you, but you don’t want them to classify you.

  5. This post was awesome based in the two pictures alone of the Dark Side and “Cancel my calls…”! Great content too.

  6. In the first month of seminary we were required to read Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. We all need to read this.

  7. Great thoughts. I’m not sure the phenomenon is really a chronological, linear progression that parallels a growth in theological knowledge, but I hope you are right!

  8. Well put. I fight this all the time. (Love the phrase “informed ignorance.”)

    I love theology, and the study of God’s word, but every so often I find myself scooting toward that “dark side.” Ugh. Every so often I have to put the theology down and read something like The Hiding Place, or Through the Gates of Splendor, again.

  9. I agee whole heartedly having seen this occur often while taking my studies at Trinity. It was sickening to a degree.

  10. Theodore A. Jones December 22, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    The true disciple of Jesus’ is only certified as true by his compliance to what Jesus has commanded. Yes indeed they are exceedingly dangerous to every theolgian. Which is why the theologian instinctively fears them. Since they refuse to comply with religious social constraints a spade is a spade is a spade to them. And they know that telling the truth about a spade is not an offense against God. Since there is not any theologian who does not refuse to disobey God.

  11. J. Raymond Kelley December 22, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    Is it “theology” which has the dark side, or is it the ideologue wherein the dark side resides? I am one of those who appreciates a catchy title, so I am not commenting for the purpose of drawing a line in the sand, especially when the substance of the comment addresses the flaw as one in the person and not in the science/study. Unfortunately, my own experience with many people is that, despite the clarity contained in the substantive comment itself, too often the bumper sticker title will get the repetition and emphasis, furthering among the body an anti-intellectual bias that is already far more entrenched than it should be. Again, no criticism of substance or of title really intended. Simply an observation that even such a little thing as a title can be misused — in this case in the opposite extreme.

  12. Eric. Good point. You may be right!

  13. so the question is then – what do we do (as individuals, churches, etc) to get people to the transformed stage

  14. @eric


  15. William R. Ferguson December 22, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    I like the term “theologically humiliated.” I think it is an inevitable stage that every serious student of Christ must go through. I remember the time when I have been dangerous with learning and understanding new things. I had that feeling that I had “arrived.” It is sickening to think of how I would inwardly look down on others for not having the same “convictions.” I had to be “theologically humbled” before I could develop both an understanding and appreciation for someone else’s convictions. I have realized since then that like you said in your article, there are lot of “grays” where some think are “black and white”. I have also learned to have a little grace with those who do disagree with me on what I would consider non-negotiable issues. Thanks for your insights.

  16. Theology is the study of God. Is there a dark side to the study of God? Or is it the dark side of the one studying God? The heart is wicked and the one to blame for what you are describing. Your title is faulty and many assumptions were made. I guess your gonna call me “theologically dangerous” for sharing my thoughts. A sad case for a poor title to your thoughts.
    This article feeds the ignorant and starves the one needing theological inquiry. I say this with sincerity and love. You are not helping us to love the Lord our God with our minds. At least with this article.

  17. Hey Michael, thanks for this one. I needed to read it. I’ve been on the back-hand end of theologically dangerous people (and not just Calvinists) as you define them. In fact, I’m on the receiving end of one now.

    For my own self, I’ve been theologically humiliated repeatedly since I started blogging, and as such you adequately describe my journey in that part of your article as well.

    I look forward to the time when “the fellowship can resume”.

    Much appreciated again!

  18. CMP wrote:

    They tighten their grip on the main things and losen it on others. They choose their battles very carefully.

    I understand your point on attitude—which your whole post seems to be addressing—and I agree that there is an mutually implicating component that inheres between attitude and knowledge; but the rub, from my perspective, comes in at the very point I have highlighted (from you) above. That is, that the “main things”—like a doctrine of God, Christology, soteriology, etc.—can be the very points of departure that we argue over as brothers/sisters in Christ. In other words, the “main things” (and not the “grey” areas) are often the sources of the most heated debate. So given the interrelationship between attitude and knowledge, and the main things being the points where we very often disagree (as Christians in general); there seems to be a breaking point wherein we all could be labeled “theologically dangerous.” How would you get around this conundrum, Michael? Christian Smith has recently labeled this phenomenon, for Evangelical Christians, as; Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism.

  19. CMP wrote:

    They tighten their grip on the main things and losen it on others. They choose their battles very carefully.

    I understand your point on attitude—which your whole post seems to be addressing—and I agree that there is an mutually implicating component that inheres between attitude and knowledge; but the rub, from my perspective, comes in at the very point I have highlighted (from you) above. That is, that the “main things”—like a doctrine of God, Christology, soteriology, etc.—can be the very points of departure that we argue over as brothers/sisters in Christ. In other words, the “main things” (and not the “grey” areas) are often the sources of the most heated debate.

  20. CMP, it is good that you recognize the point that Eric made. I have often wondered the same. At what point does humility come into play when we consider the gravity of what Christ commands us to do as His disciples, yet we struggle with justifications or rationale for the syndrome of “do as I say, not what I do” in the practice of this thing called life on this side of Heaven. Granted our orthodoxy does not often equate to good orthopraxy. Piety basically sucks as it leaves little room for grace, both from God, and what we give to others, especially those who hold views diametrically apposed to our own. Collectively our sin issues are ever before us, yet it is often ignored or glossed over in this post-modern day and age. Hence the dark side of theology, akin to the lust of the eye, lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. When do we simply give Glory to God for His goodness, and not trip so much on all the rest. If it were not for this thing called sin… enuf said.

  21. Theodore A. Jones December 22, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    @ david carlson,
    “What do we? do to get people to the transformed stage.” Who is it that has given himself the responsibility to transform a man?

  22. What is really sad, is when someome has been “theologically humiliated”, and they don’t really know it! As one can even “theologically” humiliate themselves with their own speech! The whole idea that “theology” and “theologians” are somehow negative, is again just complete ignorance! For theology is the study of God Himself!

  23. Yes, folks. It is, as the article says, a problem of our sin nature, not theology itself. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

  24. Fr. Robert you got that right. Anyone who ever asked the simple question, “Is there God?” is by definition a theologian. I think too much is given to the title. It is like lay people have no idea that they are theologians whenever they posed the simple question, “Who is God?”

  25. How to tell if we are theologically dangerous? The minute we stop letting the Word of God choose our interpretations, but rather our theology. We stop listening to the word of God because our theology says, “Well, it may seem like ABC, but actually…” And that is dangerous. No, not always wrong if it is the Scriptures that are causing us to have that divergent view… but, as you say, Michael, danger awaits when our theology trumps our growth in Christ.

    Ever wonder why Jesus, if our theology is so important, why Jesus didn’t just sit down the disciples and teach them the 5 points, or the 7 points , or… etc. :)

  26. What you appear describing would be the false teacher and prophet, or perhaps the as yet immature still using this worlds wisdom and knowledge. These with love from the mature in Christ will learn if gently shown where mistaken providing biblical truth, or of the rebel in revolt certainly needing rebuke in manner that they still may learn.

    Certainly you were not grouping all that disagree as rebel in revolt, remembering the prophet often are little appreciated, and sometimes giving needed warnings received with great displeasure, were actually stoned to death.

    The last days began with Christs ministry on earth, He gave adequate warning about the church and christians as these last days progressed, and very few prophet today are not warning of the corruption now found within the church.

    What is at stake is a spiritual war, neither tongues are denied, nor a Christian should they err in maturity, and the mature need be aware both of need and the signs of the times.

  27. It’s worth noting that this is only really a danger for people steeped in a particular kind of conservative theology. People learning more about liberal theology can certainly face dangers and even become dangerous, but the danger is of an entirely different kind.

  28. And again, we could say that without “theology” there is great danger, as we can note with much overt “fundamentalism”! In the end, we must needs “think” theologically, which hopefully ends in good dogmatics!

  29. Everyone who studies theology is dangerous! If anyone has taken to following Christ or even claims to be a Christian, whether they actually study the bible or even knows what it means to be one or not, they are dangerous! You are dangerous!! I am dangerous!! We are all dangerous, and each of us must decide what we will do with the knowledge God has blessed us with. What we do with our knowledge and blessings that come from the Lord may mean life or death for 1, 10, or even millions! We must all remember this!! Our enemies do, and they will use us, if they can, to destroy if we do not watch ourselves and keep our eyes on Jesus.

  30. Theodore A. Jones December 22, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    “Why didn’t Jesus’ sit down and teach them the 5 pts., or the 7 pts., or etc.? He did. But what he teaches contridicts those pts. etc.

  31. Sometimes I feel like the more that I know theologically, the dumber I become. Christ didn’t have to teach the 5 or 7 points. He IS the point. It is so simple, yet we tend to make Him stupid. Sometimes we simply need to take what He says at face value, and let grace reign in our lives. Over thinking His message is theologically dangerous. Keep it simple stupid… just sayin.

  32. My theological studies completely transformed me in a good way (I hope). I started out as an arrogant fundamental baptist and am now an Anglo-Lutheran evangelical Catholic. It was both humbling and a relief to know how much wisdom can be found by those who have gone before me, and to paraphrase Thomas Oden, I want to “make no new contributions to theology.” Augustine, John of Damascus, Anselm etc…have a way of cutting you down to size. I truly believe that God was working in a “mysterious way” when I was given an Eastern Orthodox roommate at an Evangelical college. What is amazing is that this change occurred in less than 3 years, which makes me wonder how much I actually knew before!

  33. Theodore A. Jones December 22, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    @Apolo & Occi
    Some jump from the pan into the fire, but think they are better off from the effort.

  34. I understand where you’re coming from, but the overall benefit of knowing more about God, and the Bible, the better off one is equipped to stand against the enemy! A similar argument was laid against interpreting the bible in the common language, although I’m not saying this is your stand. If we do this, they’ll make a mess of theology! I feel not knowing theology, at least the essentials of the Christian faith is the number one reason we see people in cults, like Mormons and JW’s also people falling into very bad theological churches, if one can call them churches. So, brother please keep equipping the saints, and do things like this, which brings these type bad reasoning out. Maybe someone will see it, and be turned around to be more irenic. This is what I see that disturbs me, many people who shun theology proper, think they’ve arrived at the perfect theology, when the fact is they’ve never studied deeply how doctrines connect with each other. If you really understand grace properly, you’ll tend to never be a legalist. If you understand God’s sovereignty, you’ll be humbled to you’re knees and give God the glory in all things. I could go on. Thanks Michael, I’ve taken many of your courses, and went on to go to seminary and get a degree. THANKS! for all you do, including bringing things like this to light.

  35. Theodore A. Jones December 22, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    @ Doc P
    It is better to take what He has said at face value all the time rather than at our pleasure of sometime.
    “If you love Me keep my commandments.” for if you don’t obey him it proves you don’t love Him.

  36. I wouldn’t blame theology no more than blaming a car running someone over. It’s always the person. Theology is just the vehicle to know more of God and it is one that Jesus has commanded us to do. I would have entitled the blog: “The dark side of the human heart”

  37. Don’t bother reading this if you are not Juancar Los.

    JuanCar los says: “Theology is the study of God.”

    Thank you for your thought provoking point. Well said, I’m sure no one here knew that.

    JC “Your title is faulty and many assumptions were made. I guess your gonna call me “theologically dangerous” for sharing my thoughts.”

    You accused him of making assumptions and then made one yourself immediately afterwards. I think most people here understand the background to the phrase ‘The Dark Side’ with a picture of Darth Vader beside it. Theology does have a dark side in terms that the knowledge gained can be misused, much like ‘the force’ in Star Wars (that the title of this post is alluding to) can be used for evil.

    I would be lying if I said ‘sorry to get on your case’, I’m not sorry because you haven’t contributed to this discussion at all. So instead I’ll just get on your case. You said he made many assumptions but you did not point any out. You just immediately made one yourself. Thats not helping anyone, CMP with his TTP has done more for my faith and countless other peoples than anyone else in 31 years which is why I’m bothering to write this. What have you done?

    JC “This article feeds the ignorant and starves the one needing theological inquiry.”

    No it doesn’t, it warns the new and immature of what to expect as they go along in their study. I found it a good warning since I am both.

    JC” I say this with sincerity and love. You are not helping us to love the Lord our God with our minds. At least with this article.”

    Again, I detect little love in your own post, just finger pointing (like I’m doing with you but happily ready to admit I am, though still doing it anyway). You post did not use much ‘mind’ since there was little in it that really contributed or took a lot of thought to put it together.

    My main gripe is this, if you are not going to contribute anything worth reading and just waste my time, then don’t say anything. I want to learn, but you are not debating, you are just heckling.
    ‘In love and sincerety’

  38. Based on your criteria of the “theologically dangerous” I suppose you would have to place John Owen, Richard Baxter, Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Beard, Hugh Peters and others involved in the English Civil War (who were equally as worried from signs of Anglian Arminianism as they were from their Romanism) in the theologically dangerous camp. Or what about Luther who crushed the Peasant’s Rebellion dominated by Anabaptists? The Protestant heritage is one of fighting for good theology in the Church of Christ.

    This article only impresses people who lack any introspection concerning the extent to which the Enlightenment and post-modernism has affected their worldview. It seems from your article that we should all be “little Erasmus” taking the moderate “moral high-ground” over disputes and error. Or we should all be Olivia Cromwell, not the Oliver sort. You’ve missed that there is a masculinity to Christianity not this silly feminine sensitivity.

    I’m sure that Charles Finney, Billy Sunday, CS Lewis and Dwight Moody would agree wholeheartedly with you. And wouldn’t you also have to label John MacArthur, James R. White, Van Til, Paul Washer, and many, many other as “theologically dangerous.” You really need to rethink this post. I’d like to see you name names of those you think are theologically dangerous.

  39. @ Ben. You spelled “sincerity” wrong :)

  40. Steven,

    I don’t have many names in mine. It is more of the Internet theologians who exibit such traits. Anyone who is ungracious, ungentle, and unrespectful in their dialogue. However, this has to be coupled with a know it all mentality and the inability to distinguish between essentials and non-essentials. Theological beligerance is another way to put it.

    I don’t really know if they guys you mentioned fit the mold as their culture and way of dialogue was much different than ours is today. However, if they were ungracous and disrespectful, there is not really any excuse.

    Having said that, this does not mean that God does not use those who are on the theological legalistic dark side. He uses all of us in spite of ourselves. If he did not, he would have to just use angels!

    Martin Burcer is a great example of humility that I have always respected. So is John Owen. Calvin had a very gracious spirit. Augustine was tremendous.

  41. How likely,(or unlikely) is it that individuals could go from “theologically ignorant” to “theologically transformed” without being “dangerous” at some point? I’m willing to deal with the danger to take the journey myself, and I’m also committed to tolorate the danger of others as they make the journey. Great Post! I think most of us see ourselves fitting into the “danger” zone at some point in our Christian growth.

  42. By the way, I hope it is obvious how much I love theology. After all, I have build the world’s only theological coffee shop. And, my has “I love dead theologians” on the side.

    I just pray that we are making efforts in our teaching to make sure that people bypass the dark side. Again, I think the more theologically astute someone is, the more humble they should be. Unfortunately, this is not always so. Hense, posts like this.

  43. @JuanCarlos
    lol. Yeah. kinda killed it didn’t it?

  44. I hear you though. I’ll try to be more gracious and more in depth next time. Thanks for the feed back. After a second look my tone could have used more love in it

  45. @CMP
    Will you consider opening a Credo House here in England (UK)?

  46. Theology’s real dark side is that it is not a two-edged sword, it is not living, it is not the power of God unto salvation. It is not ever these things; only the word of God is these things. Theology offers the quick and dirty, cheatsheet, Cliff’s Notes way to “know” God, yet it’s just man’s take on what God has said. Theology is too often the knowledge that puffs up, especially when it’s accompanied by unconfessed and unforsaken intellectual pride, like the Great Men it idolizes, and puffed up people usually lack a godly fear of harming others.

  47. If I were Satan in a world were people were either ignorant of theology or theologically astute and arrogant, I would be in heaven as both option accomplish much for the kingdom of darkness: ignorance or arrogance are both tools in the hand of the dark side.

  48. This post has “shut my mouth!” – but not until I say:
    “Heresy is ‘the dark side of heresy.'”

  49. I uhhh… definitely need this reminder… =) Hah!

    Great post!


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