“Everyone’s a theologian,” says R.C. Sproul, “and the only choice we’re given is whether we’re a good one or a bad one.”
While this is undoubtedly true, after reading about Solomon’s rise to the throne in 1 Kings 1 I’m now convinced it’s better to think in terms of legitimate theology vs usurper theology rather than good theology vs bad theology.
1 Kings 1:5, 9-10 “Then Adonijah the son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, ‘I will be king’, and he prepared him chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him… and Adonijah slew sheep and oxen and fat cattle by the stone of Zoheleth, which is by En-rogel, and called all his brethren the king’s sons, and all the men of Judah the king’s servants: but Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah, and the mighty men, and Solomon his brother, he called not.”
Even though David had earlier designated Solomon as the next ruler of Israel (1 Kings 1:13), by this time he was so sick that he could not rise from his bed—which presented a golden opportunity for an usurper like Adonijah to sieze the throne for himself. To exploit his father’s weakness he’d need three things: the strength of the military, the support of the people, and the elimination of the legitimate heir. The army brought the manpower needed to kill the opposition, the priests brought the perception that God designated him as king, and together they would be strong enough to take control of the kingdom. It’s unsurprising then that Adonijah begins his plot by enlisting the help of Joab the commander of the army and Abithar the priest, but it is surprising to see how fast they threw in their lot with him and how quickly the plan progressed. Once the three of them were together all Adonijah needed to do was to call the other princes who had a claim to the throne and get them to agree to support his bid, then kill his brother Solomon and the throne would be his.
Nathan the prophet understood this perfectly, which is why upon hearing news of the confederacy he ran to warn Bathsheeba, “Now therefore come, let me, I pray thee, give thee counsel, that thou mayest save thine own life, and the life of thy son Solomon” (v12).
That Adonijah was plotting the murder of his brother is of course no surprise—he was an usurper and an usurper is a violent man by definition. Adonijah had to be bloody and violent, because without those tools he’d never reach his goal. For him there was simply no other option. But as a consequence, it was also impossible for him to be gracious to Solomon, because were he to be gracious he’d no longer be an usurper. Violence is a necessary part of his identity.
Contrast this with Solomon who, as the rightful heir, could afford to be gracious. As the true king he was secure in his position by virtue of his legitimacy, which meant that when he wielded power it did not corrupt and destroy him as it did with Adonijah. This is why the chapter ends with Solomon offering a pardon to his brother: “And Solomon said, ‘If he will shew himself a worthy man, there shall not an hair of him fall to the earth: but if wickedness shall be found in him, he shall die.’ So king Solomon sent, and they brought him down from the altar. And he came and bowed himself to king Solomon, and Solomon said unto him, ‘Go to thine house’.”
I bring this up because it perfectly exemplifies the effect legitimate and usurper theology has on a soul. When we agree with the Bible and submit to it we experience legitimate theology, and legitimate theology does wonderful things. It centers you, calms you. It makes you mature and selfless. It gives strength and courage, fosters generosity, creates a forgiving heart, making you like Jesus. Because legitimate theology begins from a posture of creaturely acceptance and humility, it allows God to pour blessings into us.
But sometimes submission to the word of God can be hard, and at such times we think, “This can’t actually mean what it says.” If at that time we harden our hearts and choose to reject the plain meaning of the text rather than swallow our pride we make ourselves enemies of God. That’s usurper theology, and it brings with it two enormous problems. The first is that it cuts us off from God’s blessings and restricts us to what we can provide on our own power. As Alistair Begg said, “Do you believe the Bible? Or do you just believe what you want in the Bible? You see, if you only believe the bits that you like to believe, then you don’t believe the Bible. You believe yourself” (sermon 3067). Since God is the source of all goodness, blessings, joy, and peace, (meaning, none of these can come from ourselves) to turn your back on Him is to turn your back on every good thing too. There’s therefore no way to be happy or to grow in Christ while holding to usurper theology.
If you’ve seen a church that seems perpetually frozen, grumpy, or cold, you’ve seen usurper theology in action. Houses of worship that have perpetual grievances, simmering disagreements, or an uncatholic spirit are the way they are because they’re rebelling against Christ. They’re holding their independence and authority as supreme, which amounts to fighting God, for He has said, “Mine” to all that is. And He does this for our own good, for He knows that we must have our desires, our minds, and our hearts first purified before use, which means He must wash it before they are safe for us. He will give it back to us, to be sure, but it first must be made wholesome. Yet usurper theology rejects this arrangement. It would rather have pride and nothing else than humility with everything else. As Milton put it, “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”
The second problem with usurper theology is that it starts a power struggle that seeks to throw God off His throne and establish the creature as the judge of truth. But because God never rests, God never gets tired of throwing this back in our faces. Worse, we innately know that God is omnipotent and has an absolute right to do whatever He pleases. Fighting against such a foe may be possible, but winning against one is not, and the knowledge of this makes us irrational and insane. Usurper theology therefore not only denies us access to every blessings, it also drives out any remaining virtues to make us neurotic, irritable, angry, petty, cheap, delusional, selfish, opportunistic, and irrational. In short, usurper theology absolutely destroys us.
It’s easiest to see the effects of this in the cults. Cults are wildly intolerant, famously cruel and unusually closed off to outsiders. And why? Because their members know deep down they’re fighting the truth however much they outwardly deny it. They know that they’ve made an enemy of the rightful authority, have no legitimacy, and must compensate for this with pure power. So their theology is like a greenhouse for bad behavior–it accelerates the growth of the fruits of illegitimate theology and results in absolute misery.
Side Note: all usurper theology is bad theology, but not all bad theology is usurper theology. Bad theology is made up of both rebelliousness and ignorance, and they are different. While a man who’s ignorant of the virgin birth and a man who denies the virgin birth both have bad doctrine, only the one will be punished severely for it. As it is written, “The man who was ignorant of his masters will be beaten with few blows, while man who knew and rebelled anyway will be beaten with many blows.”
And usurper theology is deadly not only because of how destructive it can be, but because of how subtle it can be. Even small things can rob us of our joy when we don’t give them to God. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Legitimate theology is always an option. For the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy (James 3:17). And to get such blessings all we have to do is ask in humility, for as He Himself taught, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Matt 7:7-8).