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The Importance of Not Studying Theology

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Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman is Academic Dean, Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


It might seem odd to write an editorial for a theological journal on the topic of not doing theology and how important that can be; and, indeed, perhaps it is contrarian even by my own exacting standards. But it is nonetheless important. Let me explain.


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 plays out in theology in two ways. First and most obvious, there is a basic question of motivation which needs to be addressed right at the start of theological endeavor: am I doing this purely and simply for personal satisfaction? Has the study of theology become so central to my identity that the whole of my being is focused on it and seeks to derive things from it in a way which is simply unhealthy and distorts both its purpose and the person who I am? That is something with which all theologians will, I suspect, wrestle until the day they die, being part and parcel of who we are as fallen creatures; but there are also things we can do which ease the situation.


Strange to tell, I suspect that having a good hobby or two is critical. These can be important outlets for aspects of our personalities that have only limited and occasional usefulness in theology. I am aware that I have certain personality traits which, when applied to church or my studies, are likely to lead me to bad places. I like my own company; I like to push myself; I like to strategise and plan; and while not a bad loser on the whole, I do like to win. Far better than losing, in my experience. None of these things is bad in and of itself, but I need to make sure that the satisfaction I get from them is not such that it harms the church; and if I have no outlet for them other than theology and church, it will be a disaster. So I run long distances, and after twenty-five years, I have taken up chess again, harmless outlets for personality traits which could otherwise be problematic. On the roads, the trails and the chessboard, I can be alone, I can scheme, and I can win as much as I want without fear of harming others.


The second way in which the study of theology for study’s sake can play out is the manner in which it can ultimately disconnect you from reality, an odd result of studying that should, in theory at least, ground you more firmly in reality than anything else. I often wonder, as I sit in church on a Sunday, of how much of the knowledge I have is truly significant for the people in the pews—the man who has just lost his job, the single mum struggling to hold it together, the teenager coping with all of the pressures that come with the transition to adulthood.


Now I am not saying that high-powered technical theology is not important. For the single mum, the most important thing she can hear on a Sunday is that Jesus is risen. A simple statement, one that can be grasped by a child, but also one which rests upon a vast and complicated array of other theological truths and connections. But the mistake the professional theologian, or even the over-enthusiastic amateur, can make is the assumption that truths such as ‘Jesus is risen’ are in themselves so boring and mundane that they must always be elaborated and expressed in highly technical language in a way that can blunt the sheer gospel-power of what is being said.


This attitude often betrays itself in reactions to sermons. If the proclamation of the gospel on a Sunday morning is more likely to elicit from you a question as to what the pastor thinks of the genitive construction in the passage immediately after what he has expounded, it could be that you are studying too much theology or at least studying it in a way that is not aimed at deepening your knowledge of God but deepening your knowledge of a technical field, in the way one might deepen one’s knowledge of chess openings, bridge bidding systems, or sports statistics. To put it bluntly, you probably need to get out more, spend time with real Christian people dealing with real everyday situations.


Further, the 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 opening of Calvin’s Institutes, with its statement about the intimate connection and interdependence of our knowledge of God and our knowledge of ourselves, makes a similar point: it is not, as is sometimes argued, anything to do with the modern concern for contextualization, and everything to do with the connection of our identity to that of God, forcing upon us the realization that theology cannot be abstracted from who we are before God.


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.


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If that’s true, does that mean evangelical churches weren’t preaching the gospel in Memphis 50 years ago when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while protesting unjust wages and unsafe conditions for sanitation workers? There’s more agreement on the priority of evangelism than you might think in the debates over racial reconciliation on Twitter. The main disagreements come over the application or implications of the gospel, especially as it relates to social justice. Both sides see the gospel at stake with the wrong emphasis. And both sides are working to end injustice on earth. The real difference is how they prioritize issues such as abortion, religious freedom, mass incarceration, and officer-involved shootings. 2. Popular pastor wants Christians to unhitch from the Old Testament. The most generous interpretation of Andy Stanley, perhaps the most influential American pastor today, says he wants to work backward from an apologetic emphasis on Jesus and the resurrection before getting to the authority of Scripture and the witness of the Old Testament. More skeptically, he’s falling into a familiar trap of dichotomizing the God of the Old Testament from the God of the New Testament. Even his supporters should admit that the pastor famous for being a communication savant has contributed great confusion about the New Testament and orthodox approach to the old covenant, which has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. If some have abused or tripped over the old covenant, we should labor in teaching to show them the better way modeled by so many of the church’s great exegetes. 1. #MeToo claims major Christian leaders and elevates theologically rigorous advocate. The fierce denials of Bill Hybels only temporarily deluded other Willow Creek leaders and ultimately worsened the epic decline of his famous church. The moral compromise of Hybels, so long an advocate of women in ministry even as he seduced some of them, led many to say it’s time to reckon with celebrity power. The willingness of the most popular and powerful female voices in the SBC forced a reckoning in America’s largest Protestant denomination that disgraced one of its longtime conservative leaders. From this wreckage emerged one of the most rigorous theological voices on a national stage in recent memory, as Rachel Denhollander brought a biblical account of justice to bear on maybe the biggest scandal in the history of amateur American athletics. Previous Top 10 Theology Stories: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017. View the full article

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