It’s interesting having studied theology, biblical studies, and biblical languages for so long that I often hear the question, “Why study theology?”
The question itself turns in my stomach like spoiled milk and makes me feel as though the person asking has little regard or respect for God, the Bible, or for anyone doing ministry. This is surely not the case, but that is certainly how such a question is received. I have met this question everywhere I’ve been in life from before becoming a Christian to my being a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ now. In the following post, I hope to provide some basic rationale for why it is important to study theology.
Mark and Jennifer went to school together growing up. They met back in 7th grade in English class. Mark had a background in playing basketball while also being generally good in academics. Jennifer had a background in the arts, loved drawing, and was just getting into painting. It would seem that Mark and Jennifer had nothing in common except being at the same school, however, it didn’t seem to matter when they were both in the cafeteria sitting across from one another at different tables exchanging glances. They acted like they didn’t realize the other was looking at them, but they both knew they were looking at each other. They pretended to listen to friends around them, but ultimately, all their attention was not on the pizza, corn, and applesauce on their plate nor the deceptively important banter exchanged around them. Their attention was focused on one another. Soon, they would be walking the halls going about their own day thinking about one another, wond’ring if they’d catch a glimpse of that person that caught their eye in the cafeteria just once more that day, that week, or if that moment really meant nothing at all. Later, Mark and Jennifer found that they were in the same English class. It didn’t take long for Mark to find the courage to talk to Jennifer, and soon they became best friends. In a couple months (2 years in middle-school time), they started dating. Mark and Jennifer learned more and more about one another as they dated.
The first few dates were like interviews except there was a nervousness on both sides of the table which was akin to standing in front of ten thousand people for a public speech. On subsequent dates talking on the dates became more natural and eventually talking about small talk passed, and talking about real life issues came onto th table. Mark and Jennifer dated on into high school and it was there that they struggled with very different beliefs about life, politics, and even faith. Despite occasional problems, and even brief separations, they went off to college together and grew closer with one another. Eventually, you couldn’t even tell the two apart. They seemed to nearly be a mirror image of the other at times. They grew so close enough that one day Mark asked Jennifer to marry him. Jennifer was overjoyed and the two married just after college. Marriage was easy at first, but after the first year it became difficult. They argued and fought about things they never would have fought about before. They had children and fought even more, but in the midst of their fighting they learned more about one another and grew more intimate in their relationship. They grew to love one another more and more daily and their love for their children aided their love for one another.
They were living the typical American dream of both working 9-5 jobs and being busy with their children outside of their jobs, but eventually their children grew up and moved on. Soon, it was just Mark and Jennifer, now old, living together. They moved into a smaller house and said goodbye to their older house which was difficult considering the many memories they shared there. Jennifer was diagnosed with cancer and was treated with chemo and then radiation treatment. Mark was heartbroken in seeing Jennifer suffer and struggle with her health, but Mark was by her side the whole way. They grew even closer to one another in the midst of hardship. The treatment seemed to work and Jennifer was around for much longer than the doctors anticipated until one day without notice, Jennifer died.
Mark was struck by the suddenness of the loss of his wife, his best friend, and companion. Jennifer knew everything about him in his old age and he knew everything about her. They were happy despite their struggles in life because they were able to share life together, living in fellowship with one another in love and constantly helping one another. At the funeral, Mark found comfort in telling all that he found great comfort in discovering that the more time they spent together and the more questions they asked of each other and the more hardships they faced with honest, open feedback, the more they learned about one another, the more they loved one another, and the closer they grew together as husband and wife.
This story is of course a fictional tale. Mark and Jennifer are not real people and the story is made up. However, in a relationship with someone one finds the more one learns about the other individual, the closer they grow with that person. As questions are asked upon an initial encounter, some answers are found and a greater understanding of the other is the result. Many couples today do not stay together, but upon disagreement split up and divorce their relationship with the other. The same can be said of many with God. Many today are inclined to find a disagreement with God on account of their experience in life not going the way they desire it to go, perceiving a wrongdoing by God when the evil done was in truth done by the sinfulness of humanity or the antithesis of God in Satan or both working together, seeing Christianity as an option as opposed to the Truth and choosing a different and false option, seeing Christianity from a consumer standpoint in which they view it much like a drug and when they have had their fix they move on to something else, or perhaps finding a perceived problem with Scripture in order to justify wrong behavior and then divorcing oneself from faith in God through Jesus Christ.
Today, we live in a world in which there are many views of things, but it is increasingly unpopular to believe any view in particular or exclusively. Belief in God is okay to many, but there has to be complete tolerance and an openness to adherents of other faiths also having claim to truth. Sound familiar? This is pluralism and that is the state of the Western world in which we are nearly at the capitol of such a view in the United States. Even in churches today there is a new theology roaming about which views God as a distant therapist who helps when we ask, but otherwise remains distant so that we can live life however we desire as long as we show others that we are genuinely happy people living morally upright lifestyles. This is the sin that is called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism by Christian Smith, and it is dominating American churches today.
Outside the church, you have various views about God with hardly any of them being accurate and biblically based. Inside the church, you have various views with some being biblical while others being unbiblical living amongst each other and holding hands on Sunday morning. How did we come to this point and how can we get back to living Christ-centered, biblically based Christian lives? How do we return to biblical Christianity while not appearing to outsiders as morally prideful bigots who care nothing for the cares of the world and everything for ourselves? Conversely, how do we return to biblical Christianity while not sacrificing Christian morality for a desire to become too missional in our own culture that the line between Christian and secular become blurred even in our churches?
The answer is a simple one though the questions are complex. We need to do theology. Not just theology, but good theology. This answer brings us back to the original question, “Why study theology?”
I told the story about Mark and Jennifer and the challenges of American Christianity in the 21st Century to reinforce the point that we need theology and without theology, good, sound, biblical, Christ-centered theology, we become divorced from the historic Christian faith, become aimless wanderers in a sea of deceptive misconceptions about truth amid a world relativistic, pluralistic, deconstructive criticism.
We study theology, simply put, in order to grow into a deeper relationship with the Creator God. In the midst of our pursuit of studying theology, we put ourselves under the microscope of Holy Scripture which is the revelation of God to humanity and not only allow it to search our hearts which God alone can truly do, but we also by the Holy Spirit come to understand the truth of Scripture as God reveals it and reconcile the story of redemption in the Bible with the world around us today where we live.
We study theology because we want to know God more. What is theology? Theo- God, and -ology means the study of something. Theology, then, means the study of God. When we kneel down to pray, when we open to a chapter and verse of the Bible, when we discuss the Bible with other Christians who possess the Holy Spirit within them, we enter into the world of theology.
Now, it should be said, that not all theologians are Christians, but all Christians are theologians. Everyone who enters into a covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ (the New Covenant) becomes a theologian. Being a theologian is much akin to being on a journey on a theological version of Route 66; there are many stops along the way and many famous places to check out, but ultimately it isn’t the journey that makes the theologian, but rather the end goal, the destination, the focus of the affections to the triune Creator God and being in communion with God. The Christian story is one of not merely historical data, but one of intimate relationship. We learn this as Christians through reading the Bible, but how is it we learn what a Christian is and how we exercise our faith in community today? How do we worship and what do the parts of our worship services mean? Why do we do what we do in church and where does it all come from?
To answer these questions briefly, it all comes from a bunch of dead theologians who have wrestled with how to better understand the Bible and to reconcile the Bible with everyday life. Great thought has been put into a Catholic Mass or a Greek Orthodox service, and even a Protestant worship service. Every part of the worship service has been discussed and debated at one point or another, and every part of it is based on how we understand the Bible and how to relate as best as possible to God and to other believers in worship.
Some ask today, “Well, this is good, but since all these dead theologians have already thought about these things, isn’t it okay for me to simply say ‘I believe in Jesus’ and go about my normal life the best I can?”
First of all, the Christian life is far from normal. In American, we live in a culture of abundance, yet, as Christians we are called to moderation in all things. This goes for sex, alcohol, shopping, how we dress, what we do, where we go, etc, etc. We are called to be counter-cultural and inter-cultural at the same time. We are called to be separate from the world, but in the world and actively engaged with the world. This is far from normal living and it is a far cry from easy. Secondly, it is absolutely okay to say you believe in Jesus. However, we worship the God of the Bible who exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – One God, Three Persons. One Lord Jesus Christ, Two Natures – One Essence. Some of the earliest heresies of the church arose around some who believed in an apocopated understanding of God and a false Gospel. This was typically centered around how to understand God, what God has done, and Jesus. Now, if you divorce yourself from the historic understanding of the Christian faith which we understand today in studying Christianity within the first 1,000 years which all Christians count as authoritative today, than you not only divorce yourself from the opportunity to learn more about God and understand God better by other Christians who have devoted their lives to knowing God, but you segregate yourself from historic Christianity and put yourself in a corner on your own where what you believe reigns supreme while the tradition of orthodox Christianity which views tradition (church, church fathers, creeds/councils, history) and Scripture as bearing authority to some extent for the Christian life falls by the wayside. Know that. A desire for simplicity is not bad, but a desire to be a Christian and not think deeply about God, who He is and what He has done, is sinful and akin to intellectual slothfulness.
Being a Christian isn’t simply jumping into a set of beliefs and choosing what one wishes to do and believe a la carte; being a Christian is losing an identity and finding an identity in Christ which comes by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit upon genuine repentance, confession, basic understanding of God and the history of redemption, belief in Jesus Christ and the Gospel of God, and a life that is turned upside down in order to live in obedience to God stemming from faith in Him. The last of which, if it doesn’t happen, than we are told the former never really took place. So, why wouldn’t you want to know God better? Why wouldn’t you want to love God more? Why wouldn’t you want to spend all your intellectual capacities apart from your work and basic functions of life in knowing the Creator God and learning to trust Him more? We do this by reading the Bible? However, we read the Bible with the guidance of the church, and we read it along with the many brothers and sisters in Christ who have read and tried to understand the Bible. We read theology not to separate ourselves from the Creator God or to grow estranged from Jesus Christ, but rather to glorify God with our hearts and minds, and prayerfully hope that all of our affections might be stirred to move us to live godly lives in imitation of God.
I said earlier that theology is like a journey on Route 66, but the difference in the analogy apart from the obvious is that one can reach the destination in a journey on Route 66 in a relatively short amount of time in this life. In the journey of theology which is the journey of faith in God, knowing Him, and being obedient to Him, we are on a continual journey that doesn’t end. We never arrive because we are not God and we are not omniscient. Nevertheless, we continually plow forward in life learning more about God so that we might grow old and be much like Mark or Jennifer in the previous story. We hope that we can grow old with God and despite life’s many trials and setbacks, we can grow closer with God and grow into deeper love with Him so that we can proclaim with the apostle Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
I will end this post about theology with a great analogy by theologian Michael Horton who once described the study of theology much like entering an ocean for the first time. You enter the ocean, you get your feet wet and you feel pretty confident in yourself. Then, you take a few steps forward and find that the water gets a little deeper. You take a few more steps and you find that there is still much more to the ocean, so you jump fully into the water and find yourself submerged. You find almost immediately that there is more ocean in a lifetime to explore on your own. The same goes with theology. One never arrives at knowing all there is to know about God, but one jumps into the waters of theology and if one is bold enough, by God’s grace, one discovers there is the deepest ocean to discover in which one never leaves and all one can do is swim around for a short time until one day by God’s grace you find yourself dwelling in the presence of God and all your questions will be either answered or forgotten as you bow down before your Creator God who is seen in Jesus Christ to worship.