“God will never give me more than I can handle.”
The grieving spouse sighed in resignation as we sat together preparing for a funeral.
The moment didn’t call for theological precision, so I turned the conversation to prayer; however, I left the room saddened by the reliance on a theological urban legend during a time of loss. God’s Word has so much more for us than these common misconceptions allow.
In Michael Wittmer’s book Urban Legends of Theology: 40 Common Misconceptions, he examines false beliefs in light of Scripture. As a pastor, professor, and author of many books, Wittmer brings a wealth of experience to the task.
The book covers an array of issues in four sections: (1) God and theological methods, (2) humanity and sin, (3) Jesus and salvation, (4) the church and last things. Wittmer’s consistent pastoral sensitivity guides his theological precision as he serves as both myth buster and caretaker of the soul.
Urban Legends of Theology: 40 Common Misconceptions
Urban Legends of Theology surveys 40 of the most common misunderstandings of Christian doctrine. Some of the urban legends are cultural truisms that turn out not to be true; others are misconceptions of what the Bible and Christian tradition actually teach.
Author and theologian Michael Wittmer writes in an engaging and incisive manner, probing beliefs nearly every churchgoer has heard at one time or another. He offers a better alternative in each one’s place, guiding readers into the full riches and freedom of Christian theology rightly understood.
Confronts Obvious Problems
According to Wittmer, an urban legend is “something popularly believed—in the church or culture or both—that is not true” (xi). Some of these legends rob us of peace and joy, while others have more damaging consequences for our souls.
Urban legends of theology range widely. Wittmer argues against heady assertions like “doctrine doesn’t matter” and more practical contentions like “God helps those who help themselves.” He undermines the culture’s rejection of shame and dismantles the myth that Jesus never addressed homosexuality.
Constructively, Wittmer weaves his robust theology of creation through the chapters. This positive work is necessary because many of the urban legends relate to the nature of this world and truths about death, heaven, and the new creation. Preachers and teachers will be helped to avoid errors common among evangelical believers.
Corrects Subtle Errors
As I read this book, my own theology didn’t escape correction. My heart experienced “oomph!” moments as I recognized urban legends that have accumulated in my theology.
My heart experienced ‘oomph!’ moments as I recognized urban legends that have accumulated in my own theology.
For example, the book critiques the myth that Christians are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. As Wittmer writes, “Paul does not use the body metaphor to depict the church’s witness to the world (as the hands and feet of Jesus) but to describe our mutual belonging and interdependence” (226).
He goes further by pushing back against the idea associated with Alan Hirsch that Christians are called to live “incarnationally” in the culture they’re trying to reach. This would mean abandoning one’s own culture and trying to become an authentic member of the host culture. According to Wittmer, this approach confuses language related to Jesus taking on human flesh with important but distinct ideas about contextualizing the gospel message for a host culture. It also overestimates our ability to transcend our own cultural background. This is a subtle but important discussion.
Some of the chapters offer good theological conversation starters. For example, he counters the popular claim that death isn’t a tragedy but a triumph for Christians. Instead, death is “as tragic and demonic as it feels,” and these feelings shouldn’t be minimized, even when we know the deceased is glory bound (233). Death isn’t natural, and our mourning over the deaths of loved ones recognizes it’s an enemy that cost Jesus’s own life.
This book left me feeling I owe a congregation or two an apology for imprecise language in my preaching.
Urban Legends or Legitimate Variations?
Some chapters seemed less focused on urban legends than on legitimate theological variations within different streams of Protestant Christianity.
For example, Wittmer critiques free will as an explanation for the problem of evil, an idea often associated with Alvin Plantinga. The book handles the debate well, explaining Reformed objections to more Arminian explanations of God’s sovereignty. However, regardless of which soteriological camp a person belongs to, this long-standing debate doesn’t seem to fall in the category of urban legend.
At the same time, all Christians should affirm Wittmer’s conclusion to this critique of the free will theodicy: he notes we’re all hypocrites about the problem of evil because we lament sin’s existence in theory, but we vote for a fallen world every time we sin. Even the Molinists in the middle would give that a hearty “Amen!”
In another case, the book tackles questions about children who die before they can rationally express faith. Wittmer’s approach to the question indicates his own doubt that this is truly an urban legend. He notes we don’t have a slam-dunk Bible verse that tells us these children will go to heaven, but he affirms we have biblical reasons for holding to this idea.
This is less an example of myth busting as it is recognizing the limits of Scripture on this issue.
Worthy Book for Self-Assessment
Urban Legends of Theology is a profoundly useful book for a wide audience. Pastors and seasoned saints can, like I have, become overconfident that they wouldn’t fall prey to urban legends, especially if they’ve spent years in theological study.
Pastors and seasoned saints can become overconfident that they wouldn’t fall prey to urban legends, especially if they’ve spent years in theological study.
This book can also serve the church well as an early introduction to theological thinking. Newer believers and prospective teachers can observe the precision Wittmer uses in making arguments and thus learn to carefully approach challenging doctrinal questions.
Some theological urban legends can be fixed with precise language; rebutting others will call the reader to confront deeper core beliefs and ultimately to rest in the truth of God’s Word. I recommend this book for anyone curious about whether he has invited some urban legends into his understanding of God, Scripture, and the world.