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Don’t Study Theology

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:

  1. Does what I’m reading help me grow in my knowledge of and love for Christ?
  2. 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.

7 thoughts on “Don’t Study Theology”

  1. I think the time that the principle of there always being some point of application really hit home when the small group I led studied Daniel.

    It was the first study I didn’t butcher, but at the end–at least for the last session–the question came up, “What’s the point of knowing this?”

    My problem had been I’d done all the background research, but failed to bring clarity to the reason why we should seek to understand eschatology and how it affects our lives in the present.

    Ever since, I’ve been trying to avoid making that same mistake.

  2. There should always be application with the study of theology. At the minimum, theology should be applied to our understanding of God’s character. All theologians must be cautious that the study isn’t the end goal. Great article.

  3. Thanks, Aaron.

    This evening my wife and I were driving home from our LifeGroup Bible Study. We are going through the Gospel of John this year.

    She commented what I had been thinking but hadn’t verbalised. “I find the study too dry.” “Why?” I asked. “Because there is just study – no application.”

    She was right, for three months we have been spending a lot of time digging deep – but rarely was there any application. We have been learning stuff – but I question whether we have been growing in wisdom.

    So your post is timely and gives me courage to address this matter with our LifeGroup leaders (I’m one of them, by the way). We need to always ask, Lord, what have I learned in this study that impacts my life and the way I live it?

  4. There is another danger to studying theology in my opinion, and that is that some can take that as a licence to patronise and feel superior and wiser than other Christians, forgetting that it is through the Holy Spirit that we are blessed with a better knowledge of the Son and the Father, and not what we learn from other’s interpretation of who God is.

    A personal and intimate relationship with God is open to all who have accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts, and so theology degree or no degree, we can all aspire to such unfathomable and glorious knowledge, and we can all and must all continue to remain humble as we acknowledge how little we really know.

    Thank you for allowing me to comment on your post.

    1. Good thought – I wonder if it’s when we see people taking license to be patronizing or having a superiority complex it’s a signal that their theological study is not for the purpose of growing closer to Christ, but to feed something else?

  5. It’s funny that you blogged on this, this morning. I’ve been thinking along this same train of thought the last couple of days. My mind goes to Romans 10:2. There are many, who are zealous for the word of God, the study of the word of God, and maybe even God Himself, yet they don’t truly know Him, and their motivations, their zeal, is not where it ought to be. They are seeking knowledge, and not God at all. The same is true in many areas of our Christian walks, whether it be our study, spiritual disciplines, or our various areas of service to God, and our ministries/churches. If our zeal is not for God Himself, and seeking to know Him, on a deeper level, not just collecting information about Him, or trying to impress Him, or others within our circle of theology, or our churches. If we are not truly seeking Him and seeking His righteousness, and submitting to that righteousness, then we are completely missing the point, as you have so accurately alluded to in your post.

    Thanks for putting words to my thoughts this morning. 🙂

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