Why Everyone Should “Own” Their Theology

I’ve been blogging through Justification: Five Views over at Unsettled Christianity and thinking about how much I love multiple view books. When I’m working through a particularly sticky theology question, one of the first things I do is get one of these books, sit down with a freshly-sharpened number two pencil, (I have this weird obsession with sharpened pencils. I think it stems from elementary school) and start making notes in the margins.

I know Christian Smith isn’t a fan of these types of books. In The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, Smith writes, “The inability of Bible-reading evangelicals to come to anything like a common mind on a host of topics is turned into published scholarly debates conducted under the guise of helpful theological orientation and education.” Harsh words from a great scholar.

I, on the other hand, am encouraged by what these books represent. Not only are Christian publishers honest enough to admit that there are multiple valid theological options out there on a wide variety of topics, but these books are tailor-made for people like me who refuse to fall in lock-step behind a single label (emergent, conservative, neo-Calvinist, etc.) and want to think through these issues for themselves.

I have a name for this desire to figure out things for myself without a celebrity pastor breathing down my neck. I call it “owning” my theology. I saw faint glimmers of it during the recent John Piper brouhaha when the outrage did not come only from egalitarians and Armenians, but also from people who generally admire Piper. These brave people were able to publically admit that they agreed with Piper about unconditional election, but didn’t buy the notion that “Christianity has a masculine feel.”

Even as the celebrity pastor conundrum seems to keep getting bigger (not unlike the Christmas Tree from “The Nutcracker” or Alice after she drinks from the little brown bottle) I continue to see more and more Christians who realize that not only do they not have to commit to a specific Christian leader, but they don’t even have to commit to a label.

I am not talking here about someone flippantly picking and choosing what they believe. I’m talking about thousands of thoughtful Christians who are no longer satisfied with shallow and maudlin (or even deep and heartless) answers to serious spiritual questions. Instead of either walking away from their faith (a perfectly reasonable response to stupidity as far as I’m concerned), they’re reading Zondervan’s Counterpoints series, or IVP’s Spectrum Multiview series and finding out that there are ways of following Jesus that do not require checking their brain, heart, or some other necessary appendage, at the door. They are asking the hard questions and coming up with informed answers that resonate with all their body parts. They “own” their theology.

The problem is that it often doesn’t fit into tidy, pre-packaged categories.

When Frank Viola began writing about what he calls “Beyond Evangelicalism” he got push-back from people who thought he was creating arbitrary categories for the purpose of simplifying the issue. While I don’t agree with everything in Viola’s thesis, I think his description of the group he labels “beyond evangelicals” is an accurate portrayal of an increasingly vocal, loosely organized group of believers who are no longer satisfied with classical evangelicalism. But unlike Viola, I don’t want to add one (or two or three or four) more names to the already over-crowded list of hyphenated monikers. My faith is still characterized by what Mark Noll and David Bebbington call the four historic markers of evangelicalism:

• that the Bible is the authoritative, inspired word of God
• that conversion is necessary for salvation
• that Jesus’ death and resurrection are the foundation of our relationship with God
• that we are required to live out our faith by actively serving those around us

I agree with Viola that how we understand and practice these markers is rapidly changing, but I prefer to stay under the single umbrella of “evangelicalism” precisely because, as Viola says, “it is so generalized that Jim Wallis and Al Mohler can both stand under it.”

And because keeping it wide allows people to “own” their theology.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example (It’s not all that hypothetical really. It happens a lot). Judy has attended a Young, Restless, and Reformed church for several years when she begins to question a few things. “How can God be considered good,” she wonders “if He chooses some people for eternal bliss and some for eternal suffering and there was absolutely nothing they could have done about it?” Judy asks her Calvinist friends, who give her all the earnestly thoughtful, standard answers. Still, she’s not convinced.

Finally, Judy picks up Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: Four Views (one of my personal favorites) and closely studies each essay. She prays about what to do. Finally she realizes (with an angelic choir singing in the background) that she can still be a Christian even if she’s not a Calvinist. Equally exciting to her is that she can still be an evangelical and not be a Calvinist. By the time she’s finished her research, she not only knows the scriptural basis for her new theology, she knows it so well that she can confidently defend her faith when well-meaning Calvinists sadly accuse her of ignoring what the Bible clearly teaches in Romans 9. Judy “owns” her theology.

One of the most exhausting things anyone can experience is the pressure to believe something when they really don’t, especially when they think there aren’t any other options. And it can happen at any point in our walk with Christ. Can I reject unconditional election and still follow Jesus? Can I trust the conclusions of science and still follow Jesus? Can I be an egalitarian and still follow Jesus? Can I think Open Theism makes a lot of sense and still follow Jesus?

If and when these people come to the point when they must either confront their questions or walk away exhausted—and if they manage to get their hands on a copy of any of the multiple view books—they shouldn’t have to give up their identity as evangelicals just because they don’t believe in unconditional election…or complementarianism…or a literal 6-day creation…or any number of non-essential doctrines.

My particular theology does not fit tidily into any one category, but I “own” it. I love Jesus. I believe the Bible is the authoritative and inspired word of God, but not an instruction manual. I am an egalitarian but I think the complementarians have better proof-texts. (For an explanation of that very strange statement, click here).I believe that the Bible teaches that there is a Hell, but I don’t know what it will look like. I think Rob Bell is a smart guy with appalling exegesis. I agree with Greg Boyd on Open Theism but not pacifism (and please don’t confuse Open Theism with Process Theology). I believe in penal substitution and Christus Victor because I think both are affirmed in the Bible. Oh, and did I mention I love Jesus? I am an evangelical who “owns” my theology.

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  1. James Pate says

    >Good post, Leslie. I should read more of those books. One that I really liked was about Christianity in a pluralistic world. For better or for worse, I tended to identify with the views of John Hick and Clark Pinnock—-probably more with Hick.

  2. LCK says


    I've never read that one. Do you know the exact name? I've only read two or three things by Pinnock and nothing by Hick, so I'd be interested to read it.

  3. Frank Viola says

    >Nice post and neat blog! Totally agree with you on the Noll/Bebbington quartet, but they are so general that they are virtually meaningless for many. I like your idea of "owning" one's theology.

    Part V of the series will be published this coming week.

    Christ is ALL,


    Psalm 115:1

  4. James Pate says

  5. Jessica says

    >Really loving your blog Leslie! I too like to "own" my theology and all the tensions within it. I am very happy to say "I don't know" to certain questions and challenges about the various things I believe, but it's taken a lot of research and thought to get here. I struggle very much with how people define themselves with strict definitions labels of what it means to be a Christian and apply those same labels to others as well, particularly the people that get these labels from celebrity pastors without ever exploring the alternate views.
    One of the fascinating things I find, is that many Christians go along for quite a while without labels on their faith and are just fine, and then start doing some reading of a popular book and think they must now have labels and hold tight to them or their faith is somehow going to be lesser.

  6. Jeff K. Clarke says

    >Very nicely done, Leslie. Owning one's theology is crucial in a context where relativity reigns. It's nice to find a 'home' so to speak. However, as Clark Pinnock and Roger Olson point out, and I agree, theology is also a pilgrimage. Where I am today may or may not be where I am tomorrow. I don't actually go looking for change, but have to be open to the distinct possibility that I may change my theological orientation. While this approach may be deemed dangerous by some, I find it helpful.

    Again, great post!

  7. LCK says

    >Thanks for reading. I think you're the first published author who's ever commented :)

    I am of two minds about the quartet (which isn't at all unusual for me). I like the fact that it is so general that a new believer can consider himself an "evangelical" without too much mental angst. And as I said in the post, I think it's important that a person be able to change their position on second-tier issues without having to change their self-identification.

    But I also think that growing in one's faith requires becoming more specific about one's theology, so I agree with you that for people who are farther along their Christian journey the quartet can be, as you said, "virtually meaningless."

    Fascinating subject. I'm looking forward to your next post.

  8. LCK says

    >Great insight about Christians who are fine until they read a book. I know people like that too. What I try to do is get them to read even more books-not necessarily to change their minds-but to get them to realize that there are committed Christians out there who hold a different point of view.

    It doesn't always work though :)

What do you think?