Students often wish theology were simpler. And I suspect that sometimes they believe that it would be simple if their professor didn’t unnecessarily complicate it. So I thought I might give some attention to this question: is theology simple?
On some level, it is. Jesus welcomes little children. He says that to such as these, the little children, belongs the kingdom (Matt 19:13-14). And he encourages all people to have faith like little children (Matt 18:2-4). He praises the Father for revealing the things of the kingdom to little children, while hiding them from the wise and learned (Matt 11:25).
Undoubtedly then, the core or the essence of theology reaches little children. So we should affirm without hesitation that knowledge of God in the Son, with its saving power, is granted by God through the Spirit to children and to Christians young in the faith, even if their understanding is only very basic.
The alternative would be to say that some level of intelligence or training or theological sophistication is required for saving knowledge of God in Christ. This is a dangerous direction to take, since essentially we thereby place the grace of redemption in the hands of creaturely intelligence. The Bible pointedly denies that saving knowledge is an intellectual achievement. Jesus comes into repeated conflict with the religious leaders of his day; they are wise and learned, but Jesus finds them criminally ignorant. Paul explains this in 1 Cor 1:18 through the end of chapter 2.
Psalm 19:7 reads: “The law of the Lord is perfect, revising the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.” Proverbs 1:7 says that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”
Saving knowledge is a gift of God (Matt 16:16-17), by grace through faith, faith that is a gift of God worked in the sinner by the Spirit (Eph 2:8-9). It is a miracle, a miracle of Spiritual rebirth that does not depend upon human effort, intellectual or any other. Saving knowledge of God is not found in the answer to a riddle or at the end of a syllogism. It is given by grace through faith.
What about confession? When someone confesses Christ as his savior, we may count that person a Christian and welcome him into the flock of the good shepherd. That welcome, and a person’s remaining in the flock, depend upon faithful confession of a true biblical faith. Even if someone re-names him Jesus Christ, expressing faith in Batman does not bring someone into the church. If and only if a confession of faith matches the faith of the Bible, and is a faith placed in the Christ of the Scriptures, should a person be thereupon counted a member of the body of Christ.
All of this is essential to our ecclesiology; but we should note that confession is evidence of faith, but not faith itself. Confession is only a more or less reliable indication of faith, a visible sign of an invisible reality, but ultimately a fallible sign. So the sign can be specious. Someone might confess faith but not actually have it. So we know that confession on the one hand, and saving faith and actual regeneration on the other, are separable; they are not the same thing. And because they are not the same, we may have confidence that babies who are too small to explain their faith may still have saving faith; and people who have due to misfortune or ailment of some kind lost the ability to articulate what they believe, may still be guarded by the Spirit through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed (1 Pet 1:15).
So, true knowledge of God, along with its saving efficacy, is not beyond the reach of any person. Even children and infants can possess and enjoy this covenantal acquaintance with God.
But that is not to say that as a rule theology ought always to be distilled or reduced to childish simplifications. The apostle Paul places growth in knowledge of God in the Son at the center of church life and ministry (Eph 4:11-16). So when he says that the peace of God surpasses understanding (Phil 4:7), he does not mean to renounce the pursuit of deeper understanding. He means rather that we may perpetually enjoy the grace of growing in that knowledge, because the depth of his love is inexhaustible (Rom 11:33).
I recently came across this paragraph from J. I. Packer:
The KISS formula—“keep it simple, stupid!”—is current wisecracking wisdom. But the idea behind the formula, namely, that the notion that seems simplest will always be soundest, has been around in theology since at least the third century, when Sabellians and Arians “simplified” the truth of the Trinity in a way that actually denied it (the former turning God into a quick-change artist playing three roles, the latter turning the divine Son and Spirit into two high-class creatures). Many more theological mistakes have come from embracing naiveties that at the time felt comfortable to the mind.
Let me try to reword the main point here: if comfort of mind is the rule in theology, we will tend creatively to obscure the teaching of Scripture until we distort or even outright deny it, piece by piece. Theology, then, may be described as training the mind—“renewing,” Paul says—to come continually into greater conformity with Scripture. In theology, we should be at the end of the day in an active-receptive mode. A balance must be struck here: theology involves growing in understanding, even rigorous pursuit of greater knowledge; but the rule is faithfulness to Scripture rather than comprehension. If we seek cognitive satisfaction, then we will conform the teaching of Scripture to our own minds. Rather, we should subject and conform our minds to Scripture. The shape of my mind and my own understanding is not the rule; rather my mind must be reshaped, even remade, by the Spirit working in and with the Scriptures. John wrote that when we receive Him and believe in the name of Jesus we are given the right to become children of God (1:12). Even in its most sophisticated moments, theology should maintain the eagerness and the humble wonder of little children.
A question I hear often is this: how do I know I am saved? This is a question of confidence in Christ, or what we call assurance. Assurance is confidence in the indestructability of the salvation of Christ and in my belonging to God’s great work of redemption in His Son. I cannot think of anything more practical than that. And Paul links this assurance and peace of mind directly with growing in the knowledge of God: he prays that our hearts would be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:2-3).