Swimming in the Shallow End

Twentieth Century theologian, William H. Vanstone once said, “Religion is like a swimming pool—all the noise is at the shallow end.” I love a good, clever saying. While a lot of adages are indeed clever, very few of them are actually good. This one is excellent and right on.

We in the church are prone to new things. In part, this is a wholesome thing. We certainly don’t want to stagnate in our faith, and it would behoove us to remain relevant to our cultures, neighborhoods, and friends. While even theology can be honed, we need to be extra careful when arriving at sensational, new concepts when it comes to Biblical interpretation. Holy Writ was accumulated over hundreds of years by some forty authors inspired by One God. Changing the meaning can result in dire consequences. This is exactly what occurs, however, when we play around in the shallow end of the theological pool.

“A mile wide and an inch deep…”

There’s an old, descriptive axiom about such things as being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” It’s very tempting to come up with something innovative. This is true no matter what your field of endeavor. Innovative theology is fraught with peril, however. When someone comes up with some novel and exciting (yet heretical) theological idea, we often describe them as having “gone off the deep end.” The truth is, however, they’ve been playing in the shallow water all along.

Superficial theology occurs when we refuse to carry the weight of deeper thinking. In other words, we’re too lazy to do the work. Understanding the Bible means, in part, to understand the context of the words. To whom were they written? When were they penned? Why were they inscribed? What were the prevailing circumstances when they were composed? What was the cultural backdrop to the writings themselves?

Many preachers fail to ask these questions and treat Holy Scripture like it was written last week to twenty-first century Americans. That approach is nonsensical as well as indolent. Although these things can be gleaned without a formal education, this is one of the prime reasons why many denominations require a seminary degree of their preachers. They don’t want to ordain someone who is inclined to play around in the shallow end of the pool.

Noisy Preachers

I hate picking on the TV preachers, but many of them are prime examples of what I’m talking about. They make a lot of noise and often cause quite a stir. They whip up a following for some great, “new” teaching upon which they like to expound. Lo and behold, heresy is born.

The real theologians, the ones who do the hard work and think deeply about the meaning of Scripture, go unobtrusively about their work. They seldom get noticed, and often are ignored. Yet, they are the ones whose teaching accurately reflects the orthodoxy of God’s Word.

My humble advice to you is simple. Find someone who’s swimming in the deep end. They don’t create much racket, but their understanding is sound.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and currently resides in Aldie, VA.]

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