Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Put Down Those Matches!

Written by: on October 30, 2014

Put Down Those Matches!


Christian theology, at any level much any deeper than just below the surface, should not be attempted without also studying its developmental arc down through the history of the church.  To more fully embrace the theological thoughts and conversations found within the available corpus of theological work, it is important to understand the context into which that theological work was birthed.  Theology did not just appear one day, dreamed up in the minds of pointy-headed academics occupying their lofty seats in their lofty towers of intellectualism. Rather, there is an age-long developmental curve associated with theology, one filled with rich stories of daring, treachery, deception and sacrifice.  Before a person dives into the theological pool (to use Phil’s analogy), he should first have at least a basic understanding of how the water (or quicksand…) got there!

Alister Mcgrath, in his book Christian Theology, An Introduction effectively quotes Karl Barth and writes:

With regard to theology, we cannot be in the church without taking responsibility as much for the theology of the past as for the theology of our own present day.  Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher and all the others are not dead but living.  They still speak and demand a hearing as living voices, as surely as we know that they and we belong together in the church.1

The more we discover about the places, cultures, people, problems — the sitz im leben — into and to which wise men (or dreadful idiots) contributed their thoughts, the more helpful those thoughts may be to us.  Christian history and Christian theology must be studied together, side-by-side if we are to expect the most fruit to be born from either.

A couple of examples are in order I think.  Here within the comfort of our Evangelical world, we hold to the Doctrine of Trinity almost instinctively.  We casually wear it, use it in our teachings, include it in our sermons with little consideration for the fact that people died as a result of arguments sparked by this topic.  Disagreement over whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son (Filioque) caused an irreconcilable rift between Eastern and Western churches.  Really?  From where we are postured today, it may seem like a minor semantical quarrel but if this quarrel had not taken place, in real time and with real people, we would not have this now casually accepted doctrine to throw around.  These arguments were vital to the eventual development and acceptance of what we now accept as common.  Or is it common?

This brings up another example.  If it seemed that the church in the West had successfully divested itself of the pesky objections of those mystic Easterners, think again.  Along comes the likes of Michael Servetus and his ilk.  So, this single point of doctrine which we now so casually accept as “truth” was casually opposed by Servetus and he paid a high price.  For his willingness to enter into a difficult theological discussion, he died an agonizing death at the stake.  I guess Calvin, that pinnacle of godly virtues, didn’t feel much like having a dialog.  And at the end of the day, the winner writes the history (and the theology) books, right?  Oh, did I mention that Servetus was also opposed to infant baptism?  Maybe if he had been more vocal on that one, and left the whole trinity thing alone, he would have enjoyed watching his grandchildren grow up…  It seemed to be of a little bit lesser importance.2

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Why does it matter if the Father, the son and the Holy Spirit are co-equal and co-existent?  Does it matter at all in our current social construct?  I don’t know.  I do know that because it mattered back then, it doesn’t have to matter so much now.  They fought it out and wrote it down so we don’t have to consider it anymore.  It just is.  Never mind that the Bible doesn’t actually specifically delineate the Doctrine of Trinity…

Did I say that out loud?  Phil, put away those matches man!

1. Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: an Introduction, 5th ed. (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 3.

2. Author’s note.  Calvin finally lost that argument posthumously, at least in our circles.


About the Author

Jon Spellman

Jon is a husband, father, coach, author, missional-thinker, and most of all, a follower of Jesus.

10 responses to “Put Down Those Matches!”

  1. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Jon, Burn baby, burn! There is something about your post that makes me think our theological foundation is/was somewhat situational. Like you said depending on what people wanted to die for and depending on who had the gun, a whole lot of historical direction was determined. I wonder as we think about the great social issues of our day, if they are not informing our theology similarly only we are unaware of it in the presence. While the issues appear to be less “doctrinal” I am thinking at some point our moral and social direction will bring us back to a possible “life-stacking” or “life-torching” moment where we really become engaged in the development of our theology. Weather on a high dive or a burning stake . . . I do think the relevance of our theology will be realized. 🙂

  2. Nick Martineau says:

    Good thoughts Jon…I really enjoyed seeing you tie it all in with your Holy Spirit illustration. So many have gone before us and shaped our thinking and we don’t even think about it. I have a feeling Spellman is shaping thinking too. Just don’t let it come down to you and Phil…

  3. Brian Yost says:

    Jon, I always love to read your posts. I like your definitive statement, “Theology did not just appear one day, dreamed up in the minds of pointy-headed academics occupying their lofty seats in their lofty towers of intellectualism.” This simple fact is something that many Christians, let alone those outside of the church, simply do not always understand. More often than not, I encounter people who are of the opinion that the Church “made up” or “invented” doctrine to suit its own purpose. Within the Church, this was done nobly to protect the faith. Outside of the church, many believe that it was simply to maintain power. If we do not help people discover the historical truths of the development of theological methods and doctrine, how can we expect people to believe that they are true?

    • Jon Spellman says:

      Good question Brian. We need people to see the practicality of theology, that it has been developed in response to real crises in real time by real people. If they can;t see this, they have little motivation to believe.


  4. Travis Biglow says:

    Jon my brother,

    I am of the befief that we make too much out of explaning the Trinity when 1 Timothy 3:16 says, “Great is the mystery of godliness, God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached to the Gentiles and received up into glory! The mystery of the Godhead is great and it is like 1 Timothy says a mystery. We have to have a way of explaining it and people take too much time doing it and never able to fully do it becacuse it is a mystery!

    • Jon Spellman says:

      I think we need the trinity more than God does. I don’t think he sits on his heavenly throne, feet propped up on Everest, pondering his own nature as a triunity. He just is! Trinity allows us, in our finitude (is that the right word?) to move one step closer to comprehending the incomprehensible. Trinity is a concession to our human frailty…

  5. Dave Young says:


    The history of theological development is fascinating and brutal. But in spite of its brutality, that some got burned at the stake for heresy, let’s not let that brutality overshadow the beauty of the theology itself.

    Yes the trinity matters, deeply, significantly. It’s fundamental to our soteriology. It’s fundamental to our understanding of God as relational, as community as someone who created us so that he could expand the best thing about himself – a loving, other centered community. We’re not there yet, but we have a model in the trinity of what we’re becoming and one day what we will join – an eternal party. Ohh I could go on and on.

  6. Mary Pandiani says:

    In light of today being All Saints Day, I appreciate the reminder that we are in the midst of “a great cloud of witnesses,” including Servetus (I suspect). It makes me want to hold my tongue a bit, not only so that I won’t be burned at the stake, but also for the future generations saying “really?” But then I appreciate Brian’s comment that it takes the slow work of helping people understand that our history and theology is not as simple as a power struggle. It requires continual conversation that causes conflict. But as you reminded me awhile back, conflict actually has served the church well over time.

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