Theological Cartography Syndrome

Listen. Evaluate. Think for Yourself.

Sometimes, when one falls under the influence of a particular author or scholar, one comes to see their opinions as indisputable. They become a theological map-maker (cartographer) for us rather than a trail-guide or teacher.

When was the last time you took serious issue with a scholar most of your peers seemed to agree with–say Walter Brueggemann, Scot McKnight or N.T. Wright? If you did, what would the fans of that scholar likely say? Somewhere in there might be an attitude conveying, “Who are you to argue with the great Brueggemann, McKnight or Wright?”– a suggestion none of the three aforementioned scholars would endorse. Such an attitude is developed, often, with too much reading and too little thinking critically about what we’ve read. It’s better to learn lots and think lots, with the “epistemic humility” (thanks, Dr. Fred Aquino) to learn thoughtfully.

If we metabolize what the author we’re reading is saying, and they’re saying anything of substance, we should question some of their assertions.

No, really. We should.

The stakes are high when one does theology with such a platform and influence. We do ourselves and those we teach no favors by uncritically accepting what we read as fact or dismissing those who might challenge what we’ve read and love.

For the record, I’ve been significantly and positively influenced by all three of the aforementioned scholars. Save Dallas Willard, they have probably impacted me more than any other three. Yet, I have some points of deviation with each of them. At times, when discussing those points of deviation with friends, we’ll reach the inevitable, “He’s right because he’s Wright,” moment. Ironically, these intellectual giants made their contributions by critiquing and improving upon the “facts” of the theological authorities before them. That’s part of the beauty of theology. It’s an ongoing, thoughtful dialogue about God that really matters.

Theological Cartography Syndrome is vicious. It creates an environment in which constructive dialogue and critical thinking goes to die. Not all learning. Critical thinking. Where theological or ideological cartography reigns supreme, people become reluctant to question or to prod further discussion. In other cases, they are simply dismissed because they paddle against the ideological current. This leads inevitably to narrow, rusty thinking over time. It makes science out of theology, when theology is not science.

Pastoral Cartography Syndrome

The same can be true in the field of ministry. It’s sometimes assumed that everything a guru or amazing church says is, by nature, correct. It may be. It may be for a hundred years. But, it may also be assumed correct incorrectly for just as long.

Everyone knew the earth was flat.

Everyone knew everything orbited around the earth.

Everyone knew these things because the authorities (even the Church) told them so. To question it was heresy or to be thought of a fool. While our disagreements over the issues of our time may not be “flat earth” in substance, they can be “flat earth” in ideological rigidity.

Let’s not make popes out of pastors or science out of another’s ideas or experiences. They don’t want that anyway.

I’m so thankful for the guidance I receive from what I read and hear from various teachers in theology, ministry, and biblical studies. However, they aren’t cartographers for me–telling me where the very earth begins and ends factually. They are open to critique, and they can handle it. True scholars and leaders welcome it.

Thoughts? Have you seen this at work?

 *Note: this post is adapted from a previous post.


Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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9 thoughts on “Theological Cartography Syndrome

  1. Tim, Your blog reminded me of something Dr. Jack Lewis would frequently say in classes at Harding Graduate School: “Reading X is like eating fish, you eat the meat and spit out the bones.” I think your point is probably larger, but it parallels that we must read with discernment and intent. Whenever I read a particular author, I know they come from a particular point of view, and I know what I can and can’t learn from them. I think learning to read and think this way is a key benefit of good theological education and for me, that was at the graduate level.

    • Good stuff, Dennis. Dr. Lewis sounds like a wise man. The post was addressing what seems to be an emerging problem–that has always been a problem, I’m sure. I was also addressing this sense that some authors can’t be wrong because of their previous work–as a way of acquitting their views when they are vulnerable to legitimate critique. It’s getting to be a problem. Thanks for checking in 🙂

  2. Yeah. I get tagged with being opposed to PSA, but I’m not. I find it limited not unbiblical. I think there’s a reason the scriptures don’t give us and A+B=C kind of atonement. It’s too big to be captured that way.

    I agree with Wright and McKnight that neo-reformed salvation only needs Jesus to show up, die, and resurrect in order to be efficacious. Matt Chadler presumes to tell us the gospel, but it’s really just PSA. That’s what bugs me. Also, the communal elements – one anothers and world – are curtailed too greatly for me in Piper’s gospel.

    Good thoughts, brother.

  3. You interest me, Dr. Spivey. Assuming you’ve read widely, where do you fall out concerning NT Wright vs John Piper and the Neo-Reformers in terms of “gospel”? (I hate using “vs” by the way).

    • Sean, here’s the briefest, least thorough answer to your question I can offer and hit, “reply” in good conscience.

      In some ways, I agree with both. When I first read Wright, it was a like a breath of fresh air to me. As it’s evolved among his followers, I’ve come to agree more with Piper’s critique. I believe in some form of substitutionary atonement, in “traditional” (I prefer biblical) heaven, hell and salvation. I also believe, along with Wright, the biblical concept of the Kingdom is bigger than we’ve imagined in the past.

      Five years ago, I would have been with Wright, 80-20. Today, as I’ve seen and processed the implications of Wright’s theology practiced, I’ve come to agree with Piper generally (65-35). We end in the same place. The problem is, we don’t start from the same place–him being a Calvinist and total depravity guy. I start with Wright and end more with Piper if that makes sense.

      While I’ve got my questions about Piper in other spheres, I think Piper’s primary critique is sound–to the extent justification is de-emphasized, so is the Gospel’s power to transform Christians into Kingdom people. Sometimes, Wright seems to turn Jesus and Kingdom into a glorified social work. So, I have to return to “Jesus and the Victory of God,” or “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” etc. to remind myself of the foundation on which his latter works are built.

      I’m with Wriper 😉 I believe in a comprehensive salvation–covering our sins, future salvation in a real heaven saved from a real hell, and transformation of our life now.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts.