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What’s your favourite TV ad of all time? Mine has got to be the British Telecom ‘Beattie Ads’ launched around December 1987 starring the wonderful Maureen Lipman (and a red BT Tribune phone) as Mrs Beattie Bellman, a Jewish granny. Having just been told by her grandson Anthony that he’s flunked his exams, passing only pottery and sociology, Beattie says: ‘He gets an ology and he says he’s failed … you got an ology … you’re a scientist!’ As a result, a star is born and Beattie takes the British nation by storm. Maureen Lipman goes on to star in 32 TV commercials and contributes the word ‘ology’ to the English language.

The dictionary defines an ‘ology’ as ‘a subject of study; a branch of knowledge’, as against an ‘ism’, which the dictionary defines as ‘a distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a religious or political ideology or an artistic movement’. We have become very familiar (albeit subliminally) with both ‘ologies and ‘isms today … they are everywhere. From ‘biology’ (the study of physical life) to ‘melissopalynology’ (the study of honey) to ‘scelerology’ (the study of the outer coat of the eye ball), there are more ‘ologies in the English language than you ever thought possible. And much the same can be said of ‘isms. ‘Relativism’, for example, is the idea that everything is relative, while ‘socialism’, ‘communism’, and ‘capitalism’ all refer to different theories of government.

But are ‘ologies and ‘isms of any actual real value? Are they ‘helpful’ to us … or a ‘hindrance’? Do they ‘free us up’ … or do they ‘chain us down’? In Serri’s allegorical science fiction novel The Restoration – a story about a world subjugated by a powerful empire and how the people of that world fight to take it back – one of the characters, Magdalena, poses the question: “‘Isms’ and ‘ologies’ …  haven’t we enough of them?’” Good question! Researching this subject, I came across a book that I just had to buy: Ologies and Isms: A Dictionary of Word Beginnings and Endings (Oxford Paperback Reference) by Michael Quinion. Second hand (from Amazon) it cost me the exorbitant amount of £0.01p (but then it was the latest revised edition) … the postage (£2.80) cost more than the book itself?! Perhaps this says more about our opinion today on ‘ologies and ‘isms than anything else?  But is this right?

I would suggest that, as a rough ‘rule of thumb’, ‘ologies’ are good but ‘isms’ are to be avoided at all costs! ‘Ology’ is a suffix derived from a Greek root indicating ‘words’ or ‘speech’ or ‘reason’ etc. It implies ‘knowledge of’ and refers to the ‘study of’ or the ‘science of’ a subject. Thus, any genuine ‘ology’ should increase our knowledge and understanding and help us to be more ‘formed’ or ‘rounded’ people. ‘Isms’, on the other hand, refer to a particular set of distinctive doctrines or dogmatic beliefs, conditions or characteristics, system or practice. By its very nature an ‘ism,’ kills its subject ‘by hugging it to death!’

For me ‘theology’ is ‘the queen of sciences’. It is that branch of knowledge that underpins all other branches of knowledge. At its simplest ‘theology’ means ‘the study of God’ or ‘the word of God’ (from two Greek words: theos (God) and logos (word).  It has become ‘popular’ in some evangelical circles to deride the importance of ‘theology’. ‘Theology is perceived to be too ‘highbrow’, ‘intellectual’, ‘academic’ and the enemy of a simple, biblical faith. I recall one Baptist Minister I knew, who joked about ‘the church being slowly emptied by degrees’ (by which he meant Ministers with university degrees)?! Strangely enough, when he finally got a degree in theology himself he stopped saying this?! But ‘theology’ is simply ‘the study of God’ and, as that very wise man Solomon tells us: ‘Instruct a wise person and they will become even wiser, teach a righteous person and they will increase in learning. To be in awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One brings understanding’ (Proverbs 9:9,10). To include ‘God’ in the equation (whatever the subject may be) is therefore eminently sensible if we wish to gain any understanding. An ‘ology’ therefore creates freedom. As Jesus once said ‘you will know the truth and the truth sets you free’ (John 8:32).

‘Isms, however, have the completely opposite effect! Unless we are very careful indeed they tend to ‘tie us up in knots’ or ‘hug us to death’ because essentially, they are full of dogma that wants to ‘throttle the life out of us’. My advice is to avoid anything that has an ‘ism’ in it like the plague. Take ‘Calvinism’ for example. Calvinism is a major branch of Protestantism which follows the theological system developed by the followers of John Calvin (the 16th century French Reformer) marked by a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the depravity of humankind, and the doctrine of predestination. Personally, I am much indebted to ‘Reformed Faith’, still subscribe to its more basic tenets, and find its thoughtful, biblical, reasoned approach to understanding the Christian Faith much more satisfying that much of the ‘lightweight’ theological thinking found elsewhere. Having said that, I am only too aware that it is very easy to adopt ‘Calvinism’ as just a ‘system of belief’ rather than something that inspires a living faith and a compassionate declaration of the Gospel message!? Sadly, I know too many Calvinists who, whilst outwardly sharing my indebtedness to Reformed Faith, come across as more interested in getting across to others the ‘five points of Calvinism’ rather than the ‘good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ’. Their version of ‘Calvinism’ appears to have ‘hugged them to death’ spiritually speaking.

It was because he saw this danger that the most influential exponent of Reformed Faith during the 20th century, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, was always careful to describe himself as a ‘Bible Calvinist’ rather than a ‘system Calvinist’. Moreover, ‘system Calvinism’ ties us in to, what in effect is, a closed set of dogmas that – rather than seeing the Reformation period as one of those vital ‘epochs’ that helps shape the Church for the future – prevents us from questioning its precepts or exploring its possible developments. For example: ‘Was John Calvin actually a Calvinist or were the essential points of Calvinism a creation of his followers?’ or, ‘Are the teachings of Karl Barth (the 20th century Swiss Reformed theologian) a natural development of Calvinism?’ Thus, those of us tempted to adopt ‘system Calvinism’ need to constantly bear in mind the parting exhortation of John Robinson to the Pilgrim Fathers (as they were about to set sail for America aboard the Mayflower) in 1620: ‘I am verily persuaded that the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word. For my part, I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of those reformed churches which … will go, at present, no further than the instruments of their reformation. The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw; whatever part of His will our God had revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it; and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented …’  

What I say here of ‘Calvinism’ however, could equally be said of many other ‘isms’ found in Christian circles – everything from denominationalism such as Roman Catholicism and Episcopalianism, etc., through various movements such as Pentecostalism and Restorationism, to differing views pertaining to the Second Coming of Christ such as Post-, Pre- and A-Millenialism. And what is true of the Christian religion is equally true of other world religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, etc., and political movements such as Capitalism, Socialism, and Communism, and so on, and a host of other philosophical approaches to life. The point that I am trying to make is that as soon as something simply becomes a ‘system’ for us, instead of a living reality it inevitably ends up crushing us and damaging those around us instead of being an energising and life-giving force. This is especially true for us professing Christians when we replace a living personal relationship with Jesus Christ with, what in effect, is just a ‘religious system’?! Left to our own devices the ‘old selfish, sinful nature’ will automatically rise to the fore, and corporately we will naturally degenerate to some form of ‘institutionalism’ approach rather than following the ‘relational model’.

Of course, naturally speaking, it is much easier to follow some kind of ‘system’ that has already been put in place rather than ‘think for ourselves’. I am constantly amazed at the number of highly educated, capable people I come across, who hold down high powered jobs that require constant thought and application, who, when it comes to matters of faith or religion, seem to leave their brains at the door and submit themselves to dogma and leadership requirements that in normal circumstances they would dismiss out of hand! This is why I would suggest that, as a rough ‘rule of thumb’, ‘ologies’ are good but ‘isms’ are to be avoided at all costs, and why the words of George Rawson (the 19th century Congregationalist hymn writer), based on John Robinson’s sermon, remain worth pondering today:

We limit not the truth of God
to our poor reach of mind,
to notions of our day and place,
crude, partial, and confined:
No, let a new and better hope
within our hearts be stirred:
O God, grant yet more light and truth
to break forth from your Word.

Who dares to bind to one’s own sense
the oracles of heaven,
for all the nations, tongues, and climes
and all the ages given?
That universe, how much unknown!
that ocean unexplored!
O God, grant yet more light and truth
to break forth from your Word.

Eternal God, incarnate Word,
Spirit of flame and dove: enlarge, expand all living souls
to comprehend your love;
And help us all to seek your will
with wiser powers conferred:
O God, grant yet more light and truth
to break forth from your Word.

~ George Rawson (1807-1889)

Jim Binney

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