How often do we study theology for the sake of studying theology?
Carl Trueman’s provocatively titled article, Minority Report: The Importance of Not Studying Theology, addresses that very issue. Trueman writes,
The greatest temptation of a theology student is to assume that what they are studying is the most important thing in the world. Now, I need to be uncharacteristically nuanced at this point: there is a sense, a very deep and true sense, in which theology is the most important thing in the world. It is, after all, reflection upon what God has chosen to reveal to his creatures; and it thus involves the very meaning of existence. In this sense, there is nothing more important than doing theology.
But this is not the whole story. One of the great problems with the study of theology is how quickly it can become the study of theology, rather than the study of theology, that becomes the point. We are all no doubt familiar with the secular mindset which repudiates any notion of certainty in thought; and one of the reasons for this, I suspect, is that intellectual inquiry is rather like trying to get a date with the attractive girl across the road with whom you have secretly fallen in love: the thrill comes more from the chase and the sense of anticipation than it does from actually finding the answer or eliciting agreement to go to the movies.
This is a great temptation for me. I’m a very “booky” person. I genuinely enjoy studying complicated ideas. I like reading a lot (as is obvious from much of the content of this blog).
But I’ve found that I have to constantly be asking myself two questions:
- Does what I’m reading help me grow in my knowledge of and love for Christ?
- Am I actually growing wiser because I’m applying what I’m reading or am I merely accumulating information?
Reading Trueman’s article reminded me just how important it is for me to be constantly asking these questions. It’s not enough to accumulate information. To be “smarter.” As D.A. Carson said on Saturday, “This is not [about] Bible trivia; this is knowledge that makes you wise for salvation. . . . You can know a lot of Bible, but not know the Gospel.”
Gaining knowledge is not increasing in wisdom. We become wise when we begin to apply and appreciate the things we learn. To develop a pattern of sound doctrine.
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus,” wrote Paul to Timothy in 2 Tim 3:14-15.
Timothy studied the Scriptures. He applied them. He became wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ because he understood that the point of his theological knowledge was not him—it was (and is) Jesus.
Trueman’s article concludes in the same vein and I’ll leave it with you for your consideration:
[T]he study of theology in the abstract can lead to the objectification of the task. Luther was once asked what the difference between what he believed and what the Pope believed was. On one level, he said, there is no difference: we both believe Christ, the Son of God, came to earth, took flesh, died on the cross, rose again, ascended into heaven, and will return. So where was the difference? ‘I believe he did these things for me’ was Luther’s response.
The point Luther was making was that the Pope had objectified theology in a way that it no longer had that personal, existential dimension that caused him to revise his own understanding of himself and, ultimately, to bow down in worship and in awe. . . .
The answer to such abstraction is not to stop making the study of theology our goal; it is rather to stop making the study of theology our goal. We have a tendency to make the chronological end points—what new things we learn each day—the most important. Yet this confuses the process of learning with the real order of things.
The study of theology is not a chase after something or a movement beyond where we start our Christian lives; it is rather a reflection upon the foundations of where we already are. The end term is, strange to tell, the beginning. I start by confessing with my mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in my heart that God raised him from the dead, and I never actually go any further. All my theology, all my study, is simply reflection on what lies behind that. Thus, I never move beyond praise, never leave behind the beauty of adoration of the living God; I simply learn more and more about the deep foundations upon which that praise and worship rest, which all believers share from the most brilliant to the most humble.
We need to stop studying theology, or, perhaps to put it better, we need at least to stop thinking of what we do as study in the generic sense. It does not move us beyond our starting point; it merely helps us to understand that starting point better.