Thursday, May 23, 2013

Don't miss the forest for the trees

I listened to a couple of people talk about theology this weekend, and the thing I kept thinking was how frequently we miss the forest for the trees.

We love, love, love to debate theology, don’t we? We love to find nice little classification boxes for each other and rip verses out of context and debate whether they could mean this or that, to justify the boxes we’ve placed each other inside.

A prime example is Genesis 1. (This was the conversation I happened to be overhearing.) I listened to the debate about Genesis 1 and it touched all kinds of topics:  how do you translate yowm? is there a gap between verse 1 and 2? is the universe really old or really young? do the days prior to the creation of the sun count as “literal” days or are they by definition God-divided days? how does Psalm 90 fit in, with its claim that a day to God is a thousand years to us? were the creatures carnivores or herbivores? are dinosaurs included or not?

All of these trees they discussed…and in the entire conversation never once did they get to the forest, to the actual theological point of the passage. The three primary points of the passage—(1) that God is the creator rather than Egyptians; (2) that the things in nature are things, not other gods; and (3) that man is a special creation with a unique purpose—were completely ignored. Not once did they discuss it.

How often do we do this with our other theologies? How often do we focus so intently on the details that we miss the entire point?

I heard another group arguing about homosexuality lately, and they discussed the translation of texts in great detail and the philosophical underpinnings of modern society and the definition of marriage throughout the ages…and again, they miss the forest. The “big picture” here is that God made a ton of rules for the Jewish nation (see: Leviticus), and that for us as Gentiles we are explicitly told that idolatry and sexual ethics are the only things we need to honor (see: Acts 15). We can debate until the cows come home, but in the end the “forest” point here is that Scripture is clear regarding our role…so we’d best spend our time getting on with achieving it.

Another recent conversation involved Calvinism and Arminianism, with both sides doing quite a bit of name-calling in the process. Neither discussed the “forest” level picture, which is: God saves us and did the work on the cross, and somehow our faith plays into that as well. If we believe and follow, He saves us…and that’s all that really matters. So if we’ve done the believing, then let’s stop our arguing and get around to following.

Always be careful of getting so engaged in the “trees” debates that you fail to notice you’re in a forest.


  1. Interesting observation. Its certainly one thing to "go to ground" to let the scriptures say what they say and another to take the scripture as if it were an artistic painting... and what do people do with paintings, they look at it, slant their heads in every which way looking for the way they think it looks best. God is the painter, the scriptures are inspired by His Spirit; we suit ourselves to the scriptures, not the other way around. Like your analogy of "look at the forest, not the trees" we need to not be so focused on when the trees were planted, how they got there, what was used to get them there, how exactly they will be uprooted, which ones are destined to be burned or replanted.... We need to focus on our walk, how our chains were removed, the cost of that removal, and how to continue walking in the light.

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