I coined this term in my head several months ago and shared it with my friend Elliot, who saw its validity, especially among Christian leaders and Bible students. I think it’s pretty simple and common, so I’m stoked to share it here.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of rote memorization. We all know that 2×4 is 8. We don’t need to count out on our fingers how many 4’s there are and what they add up to. We all probably know the capital of our home state without giving it much thought. We know how to drive from work to our home without much thought. These things all fall into the category of rote knowledge. The formula or path or idea is cemented into our minds.
The opposite of this would be a new or dynamic idea that requires thought and figuring out. Writing a research paper, navigating to a new place, or painting a portrait are things that require active engagement and creative thinking in their approach.
A while ago, I realized that my approach to God began to look more rote than dynamic. I realized that if someone asked me a question, I had pre-selected answers loaded into my canon of theological wisdom, ready to dispense at a moment’s notice.
Hey Ethan, what’s the trinity?
Well, So-and-So, it’s this eternal and pre-existent relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one substance yet three persons. The Greek is homoousion, but we know them as co-equally God, yet different in work…….
I find myself doling out answers like this more often than I like. Rather than delighting (for instance) in the mystery and wonder of the Trinity, I have the answers condensed down into a few sentences. It’s as if I have squeezed the ocean down into a few drinkable drops.
I’ve noticed that in spiritual growth, I have developed a pattern of coming to a conclusion on a certain topic, nailing it down, and moving on. Okay, I now have figured out what I think about marriage and sexuality. Time to move on to eschatology.
I think this is an incredibly toxic way to do theology and spirituality. It is different from nearly every other area of study, in that there is nothing rote about it. Doctors can memorize different bacterial strains and know that fruit is good for you and sugar is bad. Plumbers know that gravity always pulls water down, and a hole in a pipe means water will escape.
Yet in theology, if we are honest, there are no airtight pipes. We have no more means of describing God and His kingdom than a baby in the womb has a way to describe the outside world. Someone could tell the fetal infant what it’s like to be cold, or to taste a strawberry, or what color is like but he has no way of fully knowing those things until the eschaton, aka, birth.
For that child to claim that he fully understands those things would be absurd. He can only describe sunshine while admitting that he is one who has not yet experienced it.
In the same way, when we talk about God, we should not claim to be ones who fully grasp Him or His awesomeness or glory. Our human languages are mere grasping at straws in comparison to the glorious reality which is Him and all things which we have not yet experienced.
For us to rotely claim that we have certain areas of theology figured out is to say that the god we believe in is incredibly small. He fits inside this little static box we’ve built for him.
Helmut Thielicke wrote of people like this, “I found in them no trace of life or truths learned by experience. I smelled only corpses of lifeless ideas.”
This is not to say that all theology and systems are flawed and awful. Rather, our approach to theology should be full of life and vibrant! We should approach God and His Word with the same attitude of David, who in Psalm 96 wrote, “Sing to the Lord a new song!” This command is actually repeated often throughout scripture. I think this is because God doesn’t want us to fall into a pattern of rote recital of His word and His wonders. He wants us to know Him afresh every day, speaking (or singing) about Him differently every day, as we discover new aspects of Him and who He is.
Is your theology dynamic or stale? Have you metaphorically been singing the same old song to Him, or are you constantly in awe of Him, unable to fully put your knowledge of Him into words?
I think that as we mature as theologians, our answers to questions more often will be “I don’t know, but this is some of what I’ve learned…” rather than assuming we have a complete grasp on our religion.
The more we learn about God, the more we realize how ridiculously huge He is, and therefore, how little of Him we actually know.
My final thought on all of this is, despite how big and mysterious our God is, He has made Himself known to us. He is the God who reveals Himself to us in a number of ways, including through the Holy Spirit, scripture, and most importantly, in the God-man Jesus Christ. He is a God who wants to be known because He is relational. He is both vastly unknowable, yet intimately close.
So may we be people who strive to know this incredible God. May our mouths constantly be filled with new songs to Him, as we come to know Him more and more. And may we rid ourselves of rote theology, as we serve a God who is anything but rote.