Calling "Bull" On Theology

BY RJ GRUNEWALD

It’s time to call bull on a theology the dominates Christianity.

Brandon Bennett, in a post on Mockingbird, introduced me to a brilliant book by a philosopher Harry Frankfurt that helps us define and describe bull, what he refers to as “humbug.”

“Humbug is necessarily designed or intended to deceive, that its misrepresentation is not merely inadvertent. In other words, it is deliberate misrepresentation.” – Harry Frankfurt

He suggests that those “full of it” deliberately misrepresent the truth. He further suggests that humbug is not just about the things people say, but can be accompanied, “especially by pretentious word or deed.”

Frankfurt describes the bull sh** of a man running off at the mouth during a Fourth of July party. “What he cares about is what people think of him.” He doesn’t care whether or not what he says is true, he cares that what he says makes him look good. Does this not mimic what we find in the Church - behavior that is more about what others think than what God desires?

Tell me if this seems a bit pretentious:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ – Luke 18:9-12

Jesus calls out the Pharisees as being full of it. He’s caught them - they care more about what people think of them than the reality of their own heart.

I am eerily familiar with the attitude Jesus condemns. I spend my time deliberately misrepresenting reality to myself to convince myself that I’m not that bad, whatever “that bad” is. I’m full of it when I justify my own failures and look at others with condemnation because of their own sins. I’m a broken hypocrite who persists in a constant quest to convince myself and the people around me that I’m good enough, that I know enough, and that I’m much better than “those people.” I’m better than “those sinners.” I’m nothing like “those Christians.”

The Christian who understands the art of Law and Gospel has an honesty theology. It’s a theology that lays our cards out on the table - it’s honest about our failures, our sins and our inadequacy. And it’s a theology that doesn’t rely on convincing your peers that your good, but relies on trusting in Jesus as the one who was good on your behalf.

Grace calls B.S. on any theology that focuses more on what you do than what’s been done. Unfortunately, within Christianity there are far too many who live with a theology that’s full of it. I know that’s crude, but the facade people often create under the guise of Christianity is astonishingly unChristian, and sad.

Jesus’ calls the bluff of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:27-28 when he says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”  In other words, Jesus is calling bull.

They might be able to do all the right things. They might be able to vote for the right party, watch only the right movies, and read the right books, but inside they are not as good as they appear to be. What we read as Pharisees in Jesus’ day are what we might call legalists in our own. Legalists are those more concerned with their obedience than the work of Christ. Legalists are those who’d rather focus on “doing more” and “trying harder” instead of what’s been done for them. Legalism turns away from a message of grace and to a list of rules that determine who’s in and who’s out.

Legalism is one of the most dangerous confusions of Law and Gospel and the only way of dealing with this problem is calling it what it is.

B.S.

The Apostle Paul recognizes honest theology in Philippians when he writes these words:

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” - Philippians 3:8

 Paul understands that all our efforts and good intentions result in nothing more than a pile of crap. And Paul actually has stuff he can brag about; in the verses right before this he actually goes on and on just in case we don’t know how big a deal he is. If anybody had a track record of piety worth a medal, it was Paul. If anybody could have given the Pharisees a run for their money, it was Paul. If anybody could make the best of the legalists look bad, it was Paul.

And Paul makes sure we know all those things, but then says this about his own merits, “That’s all worth nothing.”

May God wreck us with his Word of Law and remind us that we’re not as good as we think we are. When the Law does its work, it will make us honest. The Law will cut through the images we’ve created for ourselves to reveal what’s inside. And when the Law truly does its work it makes our prayer the prayer of the tax collector:

“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ “ – Luke 18:13

{This post is an excerpt from The Art of Law and Gospel}

RJ Grunewald is a Vicar at Faith Lutheran Church in Troy, Michigan, serving in the student ministry and as a part of the preaching team.  He is also attending Concordia Seminary in St. Louis through their distance education program. RJ is a theology nerd who loves books and sermons by dead guys. But as a writer and a preacher, he passionately believes that theology isn’t just meant for the academics and dead guys but it is for everyday life. He has a free, grace-filled book on addiction that you can download today, Addiction: Leaving the Vomit Behind. RJ has been married to his wife Jessica since 2007 and they have 2 kids, Elijah and Emaline.

Follow @RJgrune