Do you believe in infant baptism or believers baptism? Are you Reformed? Concerning the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, are you a continuationist or a cessationist? The answers to these questions sum up some of your theological convictions. You may know what you believe. But do you know how you got there?
This is a question I’ve been pondering for the past couple of years. How in the world can we match two people with equal intelligence and get a totally different interpretation from a Bible passage? The more I reflect on why so many smart men and women are divided on so many secondary theological issues, the more I think that there’s a number of influences that determine what you believe.
How We Arrive At Our Theological Convictions
1. Your Family Upbringing
“Now, the reason I am a Baptist is, first, very simply, because I grew up in a Baptist home,” says John Piper. Not because of a book he read by Charles Spurgeon, but because of the influence of his parents. Your family has influenced you more than you know. This is especially true if you grew up in a Christian home. While you may divert from some of the things your parents believe in your twenties and beyond, no one can doubt the influence that parents have on their kids’ theological convictions.
2. Your Experiences
Similar to your worldview, your personal life experiences also influence what you believe.
If the church has hurt you in some way, you may neglect the Sunday service and instead watch a sermon from your living room on Sunday mornings, downplaying the texts that command Christians to meet regularly.
On the flip side, if you’ve had a good experience in a particular denomination or family of churches or network or whatever, you will be inclined to stay even if there are glaring faults with the movement. Not a bad thing. Could be a good thing, actually. Just saying your experience will shape your decision to stay (and consequently, align with that movement’s theological convictions).
3. Your Exposure
If you grew up in a Baptist context and all of your friends and family are Baptists, and you’ve never read or listened or interacted act with others from a paedobaptist position, the thought of infant baptism may seem strange to you. And yet, infant baptism is what John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards (and many other deceased and living brilliant Christians) believe. Your exposure — or lack thereof — will blind you from potentially seeing a clear argument on the other side.
The things that you are exposed to most (and often at a young age) will affect what you believe. Often, too little exposure produces narrow-minded Christians who are not able to identify or sympathize with one who holds an opposing view.
4. Your Church
And it should be this way, shouldn’t it? Preachers have the great responsibility to preach the Word of God in season and out (2 Tim. 4:2), to preach the entire counsel of God (Acts 20:27), to teach the flock what she should believe. Some things are caught, not taught, as the old saying goes. And when we spend time around other Christians, and when we hear the Word of God preached, we learn what to believe.
5. Your Personal Devotional Life
Few things have shaped me more than private Bible reading and prayer. Not being legalistic. Just an observation from my own life: the seasons of life in which personal Bible reading and prayer are a constant are the seasons that my theology is continually built up and my soul is encouraged.
6. Books, Conferences, and Media
The books we read shape what we believe. If you’re an Arminian, and you spend a couple of years reading John MacArthur and John Piper, chances are you’ll be a Calvinist before you know it! There are a host of conferences held each year that supplement the church with theological resources. And let’s not forget about the role that blogs and YouTube, among other things, play in our lives. While most Christian content online often lacks sound theological precision, they are a tremendous blessing when done well and can aid in shaping your beliefs.
7. Your Worldview
N.T. Wright (or Tom Wright, as the cool kids like to call him) argues that our worldview impacts our reading of Scripture. He says that we all view the world from our own spectacles and this worldview can cause misreadings of Scripture. You know, I think he’s right. To say it plainer, the way that a poor person from a bad area interprets the Sermon on the Mount may vary from how a rich man does. Our worldview — our personal perspective on life — shapes what we believe.
8. Your Sufferings
Luther said it: “I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself…The method of which I am speaking is the one which the holy king David teaches in Psalm 119…Here you will find three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout the psalm and run thus: Oratio, meditatio, tentatio” (prayer, meditation, trial).”
Personal suffering has a way of making you lean more into the Word and into Christ. In these desperate times, you may be more inclined to read and pray and gain new insights that shape what you believe.
Be Grateful and Charitable
Why do you believe what you believe? It’s a complex thing. I hope this helps you to better see how you came to your convictions. This should cause you to be humble and grateful before God and thankful to those who have played a part in helping you grow in theology. It should also create a desire for unity and charity amongst the body of Christ. The more we realize that there are numerous factors that contribute to how we land on a theological position, the more readily we will be able to be gracious with those who disagree with us on secondary issues.