I often hear Christians describe how Christianity is really all about our relationship with God. This simple fact is sometimes used to dismiss the study of theology, apologetics and other fields of academic inquiry. After all, if the relationship is essential then all that intellectual stuff may be interesting “for you” but it is hardly an imperative for everybody.
Is a relationship with a person more important than knowledge of that person?
It’s all about relationship
I will affirm that Christianity is fundamentally about our relationship with God. The Biblical theme is constantly presented that God is seeking us out, trying to woo us back to him. The imagery used in the Bible is of God as King, Father, Husband, Shepard, and many others; all very personal / relational images. Of course other images of a non-personal nature are also used (rock, fire, etc) but the primary theme seems to be of a personal Creator yearning for a relationship with his Creation.
I also agree that propositions about God (i.e. omnipotent, triune, holy, loving, etc) certainly seem to be less important than having a relationship with him. Consider this; anybody can know propositions about my wife, but only I have the “husband” relationship with her. I may know how my wife interacts with our kids, but I do not have the “mommy” relationship with her that they do. Other people can know how tall she is, how old she is, her hair color, her favorite food, what kind of music she likes, and many other facts about her; we could call these “data points” if we can make them sound any less relational. But a person could know all those facts, all those propositions, and still not have a relationship with her at all. Never mind even the husband relationship, or the child relationship a person might not even be her friend or acquaintance but they could still know all those facts.
And precisely the same situation exists with God. A person could know all the facts about God – they might know those facts even better than some Christians! – and still not have a relationship with God. James 2:19 comes to mind, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (ESV) I can completely agree that intellectual knowledge by itself is absolutely not what Christianity is about.
God wants a relationship with you. Plain and simple.
The necessity of propositions to relationships
But you will notice something about my last conclusion, “God wants a relationship with you.” That is a proposition. That is a fact. That is a “data point” about God. We might have said, “God wants ice cream,” or “God does not have any desires, even the desire to be in relationship with you.” These would be very different propositions about God, imagine if they were true. If God did not desire a relationship with us then good luck having a relationship with him. It turns out that propositional truths about a person become very important if we want to have a relationship with that person.
Not only are the propositions about a person important, our knowledge of those propositions is also important. Imagine if I tried to have a relationship with God without having knowledge of any propositions about him! When you told me that “God’ wants to have a relationship with me, imagine if I had no idea at all whether the word “God” was meant to describe a table, a bunny rabbit, the square root of seven, that color you get when you mix red and green paint together or the smell of a wet dog after a bath. The very word “God” was not associated with any propositions of any kind in my intellectual life. I had no data points, no facts, no knowledge about God whatsoever. What would it even mean to have a relationship with something that I had absolutely no knowledge of?
In order to have a relationship of any kind, I need to have at least one piece of propositional knowledge; who or what I am in relation to! After that I also need to have intellectual knowledge about the subject of my relationship if I am to have any idea at all of what the relationship is going to look like. My relationship with the government of Canada looks very different from my relationship with my employer, which looks very different from my relationship with my wife, my kids, my barber, my motorbike, my laptop, my parents, my pet fish (well, actually, it’s my son’s pet fish), my siblings, my in-laws, my bank account, my appetite and so many other things and people that I might have a relationship of sorts with. Human relationships look very different from institutional relationships. Employment relationships look very different from my relationship to numbers. Not surprisingly, our relationship with God looks very different from any other kind of relationship, a propositional fact we need to be keenly aware of as we enter into the relationship.
And yet we must continue to tumble further down the rabbit hole. Having a basic knowledge of the subject of our relationship will limit the depth of our relationship. A shallow knowledge of the subject of our relationship will lead to a shallow relationship. If all I know about God is that he is invisible then what distinguishes him from the wind? Or from my own thoughts? Ok, so God is invisible and he is a person. Oh, I saw that movie with Kevin Bacon… Hollow man, right? Ok, no, God is invisible, personal and all-powerful. Hollow man on steroids?
In order to have any kind of meaningful relationship with God we must have a working knowledge of a wide range of propositional truths about God. A relationship with God is certainly more than just theological knowledge, but it is also certainly no less than that.
I know enough theology
I have heard it said by some Christians that they don’t want to get hung up on Theology. It just ends up distracting people from their relationship with God if they get caught up in all kinds of useless facts. They feel as though they have enough head knowledge and they just want to focus on the heart issues from now on. Imagine if I used the same logic with my wife.
“Honey, I don’t think I need to learn anything more about you. I know enough stuff about you so I’m just going work on our relationship from now on.”
Frankly, if I said something like then I would have a lot more relationship problems to deal with than if I had kept my mouth shut. Would we tell any other human being that we “know enough” about them and don’t need to learn anything more about them? If that would be the pinnacle of incivility with respect to any other human how can that not be a slap in the face for God?
In fact, God often tells us the importance of knowledge about him. He tells us,
Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”
(Jer 9:23-24 ESV)
Notice how the source of our boasting is our understanding and knowledge of God. In fact, we are to know certain propositions about God, namely that he delights in love, justice and righteousness. Not only does he delight in them, he practices them in the earth; he is a God who acts in human history. These are all propositional truths that a lot of Christians know and take for granted, but many other world religions do not see God this way. We need to make sure our theology is correct. If my understanding of God is off then my relationship with him will be off just as my relationship with my wife will be strained if I have all kinds of incorrect beliefs about her.
The rest of the Old Testament is replete with examples of God’s priority on knowledge and understanding; in particular take some time to research how often both are praised and sought after in Psalms and Proverbs. Turning to the New Testament we find that the story has not changed. Indeed, when Jesus is being quizzed on a point of theology in Matthew 22:23-32 he does not tell them not to bother with these issues, nor does he tell them not to spend so much time trying to dissect minutia of theological insights from Scriptures, rather he claims that their problem is that they, “know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God…” In other words, their problem was not that they were spending too much time in theological investigation of the Scriptures, but that they had failed to understand that which they were studying. That failure led to their failure to understand the power of God. He never tells them to stop with all that studying at all. In fact, his answer would likely inspire them to investigate the Scriptures anew; to study even more!
John 5:39 perhaps paints the picture the clearest when Jesus says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” Notice that he does not say, “you won’t find eternal life in the Scriptures,” but rather that the Scriptures do lead a person to eternal life precisely because they lead people to Jesus. However, one will not be lead down that path without understanding what the Scriptures say. In other words, we need to understand the theology of Scriptures in order for the Scriptures to be able to lead us to Jesus.
Theology did not suddenly lose its importance after Jesus ascended, either. Rather, here are a somewhat random smattering of passages in the New Testament warning us to make sure we have our theology straight and to avoid being duped by false Christs.
Speaking of the Israelites, Paul says, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. (Rom 10:2 ESV)” Notice how zeal is not enough in the absence of knowledge.
In fact, Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, (Eph 1:17-18 ESV)”
Paul’s prayer for the Colossians is similar, “… asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Col 1:9-10 ESV)”
Paul warns against those who will fall away in later days. What will lead to their downfall? Among other things, “… the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, (1Ti 4:1 ESV)” In other words, they will embrace false doctrine.
Lest we believe it is only Paul who places such a high emphasis on getting our doctrine straight let us remember that John warns us that “… many deceivers have gone out into the world…” therefore, ” … Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. (2Jn 1:7-9 ESV)” Abiding in the teaching is vitally important, instead of falling for deceivers; those who spread false ideas, counterfeit “knowledge.”
Peter prays, “May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, (2Pe 1:2-3 ESV)” Notice that he prays for greater knowledge of God, and that “all things that pertain to life and godliness” are available through knowledge of God.
Peter also prays, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2Pe 3:18 ESV)” To those who think they know enough theology, this verse would suggest that is never the case.
Nothing in this article should be interpreted to mean that knowledge should displace any other aspect of our relationship with Jesus. Indeed, the last reference lumps knowledge and grace together. Other verses emphasize the importance of knowledge, but again lump it in with other virtues (i.e. 2 Peter 1:5-6). Like I said near the beginning I’ll paraphrase again, our relationship with Jesus should NEVER be reduced to mere knowledge, but we should also NEVER pretend that knowledge is not a vital, indeed foundational, aspect of a healthy relationship.