Thursday, June 21, 2012

Don't Fear Theology

Tuesday I attended the Baptist 21 panel discussion at the Southern Baptist Convention. It was a very interesting discussion about scripture and mission in the SBC, with a great deal of talk about theology. Afterward, I overheard someone say something along the lines of, “Why do we need to worry about all these big words and theological study? We just need to go win people to Jesus!” Now, a part of me certainly resonates with that. It’s important that we are driven by the Great Commission. We don’t want to turn into dry academics, who sit behind their desks all day, never sharing the Gospel with anyone. But there’s another sense in which I think this idea is not just a wrong one, but a dangerous one. I see a real hostility to theology among some people in our churches and in our convention, and among evangelical Christianity in general. It’s not just apathy toward it; some people seem to be very certain its study is a bad thing, or that it is only for a select few, or that it gets in the way of doing what God really wants us to do. For many people, the word theology brings to mind pictures of 16th century old men in funny hats with scowls on their faces.

But it needn’t be so. I really believe that all Christians, of every age, stripe and background, are called to theological study. Some people will be able to spend more time and effort and resources on this study than others. Some will be called to do it as a vocation. But we all must invest our time in the study of God. And more specifically, we must invest our time in the study of the God of the Bible. While it is quite true that there are some inherent dangers in studying theology, there are dangers in everything we do as fallen humans. The reasons to study it far outweigh the reasons not to do so. So below, I’ve outlined some of the reasons we should do this, and then some of the dangers inherent in doing so.

Reasons to Study Theology

-        Theology, simply put, is the study of God - If we are to know who God is, we must learn that from the Bible. We must learn it by studying. We are called to love God with all our minds (Luke 10:27) There are no spiritual dummies in the kingdom. We’ve all been given renewed minds that are able to understand spiritual things. If we do not use those minds, then we are neglecting a gift God has given us, and we are not loving God the way we are called to love him. When we love God with all our minds, then that will help us to better love him with all of our heart and soul and strength.

-        Studying theology filters our experiences to make sure they are truly of God - I really believe that relationship with God involves experiencing God. If God is living inside us, then we should be able to feel him and understand him leading us. But we must filter everything that we think we hear from the Spirit through the lens of scripture. Far too often, “spiritual experiences” have very little to do with God, and are really more about a person’s emotions, or something worse. The study of theology acts as a buffer on those experiences.

-        Right practices come from right theology - Our theology drives our practice. It’s all well and good to talk about just loving Jesus, and going on God’s mission, but how are we to do that correctly unless we correctly understand what God has called us to do? Ignoring theological study will ultimately lead to methods that are unbiblical, and ultimately, ineffective. They may “work” in the short run, but they will have no eternal benefits.

-        We have been called not to simply win converts, but to make disciples - The Great Commission tells us that we are to teach disciples of Jesus everything that he commanded of us. (Matthew 28:18-20) Inherent in that commission is the idea that we should be making disciples, who are growing in their knowledge and understanding of God, and who are leading others to a growing knowledge and understanding of God.

Dangers of studying theology

-        Knowing about God instead of knowing God - This is a major concern. It’s very easy to learn “facts” about God, and not have them sink into your soul, not allow them to change who you are. The right kind of theological study will cause you to love God and experience God in new and different and better ways. If we study God correctly, our souls will be renewed. But there’s a grave danger in becoming a white-washed tomb, who knows lots of things about God, but does not really know God. Knowing about God without knowing God will dry up the soul.

-        Pride - “Knowledge puffs up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1) – This is what happens when we try to fill our minds with knowledge about God instead of knowing God by loving him with all of our minds. And this is especially a danger for those who love theology. If we are not careful, we will begin to think ourselves somehow superior to those who do not have the knowledge we have. This is an especially grave danger among young people like me. We have a tendency to look down on others, especially older adults, who don’t have the same theological interests or knowledge that we have. This is, to put it simply, sin. We must repent of it.

-        Thinking about God instead of being on God’s mission – People who love theology must be very careful to be “doers of the Word, not hearers only.” (James 1:22) If you are someone who is naturally inclined to bookishness, like me, then it can become very easy to think that thinking about God is good enough. It is not. If our “knowledge” doesn’t lead us onto God’s mission, then it is simply knowledge, and not wisdom. And wisdom is what we are ultimately looking for through our theological studies.

The fact of the matter is this; we are all theologians. We all have ideas about God. The question is this: are you going to be a good theologian or a bad theologian? The first step toward being a good one is recognizing the importance of the practice in the first place. Here’s praying that you will do just that!