Who needs theological education? Doesn’t theology just lead to mind-numbing debates over insignificant matters? Only theological eggheads insist on parsing doctrines and dogmas until powerful, life-changing experiences with God get dissected and reassembled as stale and crusty formulas. Who cares about the minutia? Give me something simple and relevant!
That’s the cry from many in the church these days. We’re told that the next generation doesn’t have patience for rehashing theological quarrels from previous centuries. To reach millennials, we need to get back to the basic message of Jesus’s love. Stay simple. Stay practical. Whatever you do, don’t get mired in meaningless distinctions about ancient words or complicated concepts about the essence of God or the nature of salvation.
But what if the minutia matters? Like, really matters?
Draw to Theological Controversy
I realize that, as commonly understood, minutia often refers to trifling and insignificant matters that don’t deserve our attention. Perhaps you’ve been in a place where winning a battle for theological “orthodoxy” was all that mattered, even if the warriors betrayed few signs of the fruit of the Spirit. Or maybe you’ve seen a church torn apart by theological differences that followers of Jesus should be able to overlook. Or maybe you’ve been a theological nerd caught up in just one stream of Christianity and carried along to the point your attention was more focused on convincing other Christians of your perspective than leading people to Jesus.
Minutia can damage our theological studies, for sure. Over-intellectualizing the faith turns Christianity into a system of thought, often at the expense of pursuing life in the way of Jesus.
But take note: the people most drawn to theological controversy are often drawn to controversy in general, whether it’s theological or not. Quarrelsome spirits fly to theology like mosquitoes to an outside porch light in the summer. The answer to that problem, though, isn’t to turn off or disparage the light of theology. Instead, we should swat away the mosquitoes. And we need the light to see them.
When the Details Matter
In all of this, we need to realize that minutia doesn’t always refer to unimportant matters. It’s also a word that points us to details, usually the smallest of details. When it comes to theology, the smallest of details often lead to the biggest of consequences. For this reason, we do well to distinguish theological minutia that feeds a prideful spirit from theological minutia that matters for the life of the church.
In theology, the minutia involved in debate—the small, seemingly insignificant details—really matter. At one point in Christian history, the thread of orthodoxy hung on the presence of one vowel in a word describing God the Father and God the Son. Is it homoousious or homoiousious? Of one substance or of like substance? Minutia, you say? Well, it’s small, and it’s a tiny detail. But it mattered. It was the difference between Arius and Athanasius, between the Trinity and heresy, between a godlike Son or the Son as God. It still matters today.
Minutia matters. I know it’s popular these days to wave away theological study as inefficient, impractical, and unnecessarily complicated.
Let’s just get on with our mission, some say. But the mission is informed by theology.
Let’s just love God and love people and leave aside all that theological stuff. But theology is the discipline of knowing and understanding the God we are called to love. And theology helps us understand what love is, how you distinguish true love from merely sentimental feelings, and how you can adopt ways of life that aid rather than hinder you in your love for neighbor.
Let’s just be like Jesus to everyone! But who is this Jesus we are called to imitate? In what ways are we to imitate him? In what ways would emulation be impossible?
Theology matters. Because love is mindful, not just heartfelt.
The desire for a simplistic faith that disparages theological minutia is like expecting one’s spiritual health to improve apart from detailed diagnoses or accurate prescriptions. Imagine if we were to disparage doctors and nurses and pharmacists for paying close attention to the details of their profession. What’s with all these Latin words and medical jargon? Why this focus on precise measurements and getting every single ingredient right when it comes to your prescription meds? Can’t we just get on with living well and healthy?
We don’t expect doctors to ignore the details. The minutia matters. We don’t expect scientists to avoid technical language, or stop careful observations. The minutia matters. We don’t expect artists to craft novels or compose songs or make movies that don’t matter in the details. The minutia matters.
So let’s not expect church leaders and theologians to give their attention only to broad and sentimental concepts like “love” and “joy” and “justice” without seeking clarity in definition. The minutia matters.