Theology Was Made for Man, Not Man for Theology
Theology was made for man, not man for theology. Jesus said something along those lines at one point, taking aim at a group of conceited religious leaders whose gaze had drifted from the bright light of divine revelation to the dim and smoldering wicks of human thought. They thought that they were safeguarding the Law of God. In reality, they were keeping people from knowing the God of the Law through their doctrines of men.
We are conditioned to think of the Pharisees as bad guys. So when we hear that our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees we hear something along the lines of “Your righteousness must exceed that of Mao.” The Pharisees after all, killed Jesus. Mao did the same to Christians. Or maybe “Your righteousness must exceed that of Eminem.” After all, the Pharisees were blasphemers of the worst kind. Eminem probably gives them a run for their money.
But the Pharisees were not bad guys to the people of the day. They were us. They were the conservatives of their day, abominating the spiritual liberalism of the Sadducees who denied the resurrection from the dead and dismissed every Scripture after Moses as being uninspired. They hated the Herodians who loved favor and pomp above worshipping Yahweh, allying themselves with the perverted Herods for the sake of temporal gain. And they weren’t the Essenes, who responded to corruption with complete withdrawal from society in an attempt to create a pure society free of doctrinal corruption at the expense of any kind of care for the world.
So when Jesus speaks to the crowds “I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20), they gasp in horror, for they know that righteousness above that of the scribes and Pharisees was impossible. If the entrance exam for heaven required such precision that men who spent their entire lives copying, reading, and interpreting the Torah could not pass it, then all were to be damned.
But all was not well for the Pharisees. Under their care, the people of Israel were as sheep without a shepherd. Not that they were without men who claimed to be shepherds, but that the Pharisees were nothing more than the tattered clothes of a scarecrow flapping in the wind. Under their care, the people constantly heard their phrase uttered with great gravity and pomp: The burden of Torah is weighty. Under their care, the people were made doubly sons of hell, for they imagined themselves to be pleasing the Lord through enslaving ritual.
“I am the good Shepherd.”
“Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden. Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Few instances highlight the oppressive dogma of the Pharisees and the joy-filled liberation that Jesus brings than a showdown over the Sabbath. After hearing them condemning the disciples for their picking grain heads to ease their hunger on the Sabbath, Jesus turns to the Pharisees and poses a question to them. Did David sin when he ate the bread that only the priests were supposed to eat?
And then the line “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Pharisees did not understand that the ritualistic provisions of Torah were made for their own good and betterment. They were incensed when on the Sabbath Jesus restores the shriveled arm of a man long crippled. Because it was work. And good Jews don’t work on the Sabbath.
I don’t think the Pharisees and Jesus would have disagreed over which commandments could lay claim to being the greatest and second greatest. After all, it is a scribe who declares that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and that the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. But I do think that Jesus and the Pharisees would have disagreed about the definition of love. Jesus seems to define it by compassion, and the Pharisees seem to define it as minute theological precision.
For Jesus, to love God means to love God. For the Pharisees, to love God means to be as nuanced as possible in your theology about him. For Jesus, to love neighbor means to love neighbor. For the Pharisees, to love neighbor means to condemn them for failing to live up to the Pharisees’ own doctrinal systems. If man didn’t match up with their theology, then man was not to be loved.
And this is what I mean by “Theology was made for man, not man for theology.” The revelation of God as found in the Scriptures is so that we might know and love God. This is its purpose. Jesus Christ, the Word himself, came to reveal to us the Father through his life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Our theological systems exist as gasoline on the fire of love and devotion, not as the fire itself. They are the points on the scoreboard that make up the victory, but they are not the trophy hoisted amidst the shower of champaign. God does not bring us to himself to give us information, he gives us information to bring us to himself. That’s the nature of revelation–How will they believe (greater end) in him whom they have never heard (lesser end).
Our pursuit of doctrinal purity and precision is a good thing. The higher the octane, the hotter the fire. But doctrinal purity is not the goal. We were saved to do something, and that was to love. As hesitant as we are about the word, love is the only verb in both the first and second greatest commandment. Man was not made for theology, but rather it was made for us, that we might experience the joy that is loving God and those whom he has made.