Reading theology can be one of most fruitful activities I do with my time. I am grateful for how the Word of God is put together by world-class theologians who are able to see the strands in the text I most likely could not see even after 40 years of reading the Bible. When these strands pop out at me I am led to worship God because it exposes a faith so tiny, a sight so short.
Such has been the case while reading Herman Ridderbos’ Paul: An Outline of His Theology. A few weeks ago I read of what actually occurs with salvation, how Christ’s Cross-work justifies us and reconciles us to God. The depth in which he explains these truths is amazing. What I found particularly beautiful was how he explains Paul’s theology in light of a redemptive-historical context. This is why Ridderbos is known as one of the great biblical theologians of the 20th century.
Yet even as I am edified by his words I also notice what I typed above. I notice that the average Christian has no idea what justification means with its forensic perspective or even reconciliation with its familial perspective. Nor would I really expect any of them to know about the term “redemptive-historical,” even though it is so vital for how we put our bibles together. Maybe we should be expecting more for the so-called “average” Christian…
But what I am troubled by more is that the non-Christian has absolutely no idea what I am talking about when I use those terms. Yes, justification and reconciliation are used in our language today, but this is not the case for the average person. Moreover, the terms theologians use carry unique biblical and theological weight, even creating more terms that are helpful to the scholar or pastor, but confusing to nearly everyone else.
I am never more aware of this than when I finish reading a text like Ridderbos and then move to do every day normal person stuff, like going to Panera or getting a haircut. I had just finished reading his section on reconciliation, deeply edified by his explanation of Jesus’ gracious work, when I went to the barber shop to chop off the locks. My barber was a woman by the name of Heather (yes, it was a barber shop and not a salon). On top of doing a wonderful job with the hair, Heather and I had a pretty solid conversation. I learned a little of her home life and she learned a little of my life in the city planting a church. There was something inside of me that truly wanted to share with her all God had taught me that morning through my reading of Ridderbos, but I kept wondering how I would actually communicate it. For me, it wasn’t merely the terms, but the themes, the Scripture passages, the overall theology of Paul, the storyline of the Bible—all of these were running through my head! I was able to fumble over a little of the theological foundation of our church’s vision, but I left most of what was going on through my head out.
Sadly, this is often the case when I have conversations with people who do not think in the same categories I do. This is both the blessing and the curse of seminary. On the one hand, I am learning new categories that provide such a robust view of Scripture. But on the other hand these categories create a specialized language that is kept between a very few. Yes, the lunch conversations at seminary can be insightful, but this is not the type of talk in a barber shop.
I believe the great task of any Christian—from early believer to seasoned theologian or pastor—is to take the unique language of Scripture and theology and make it accessible to those who have not been exposed to any of it without losing the essence of what God is communicating in His Word. I am constantly learning how difficult of a task it really is, especially because I also believe we must retain the clear language of the Bible. This lesson I am learning was reinforced that day. Walking home clean cut I realized that my conversation with Heather provided me a clear question that I will continue to ask myself for the rest of my life whenever I preach, teach or share Scripture at any time:
“How do you get from Herman to Heather?”
By His Grace.