“Why do we need to study theology? I mean, don’t we just need to know that Jesus died for our sins and then share that with people?”
I uttered these words in complete sincerity three years ago.
In high school, I knew I wanted to be a pastor, but I had no interest in theology. Heck, I don’t even think I knew what theology was. (Who’s John Calvin? John Wesley? And why’s every theologian named John?)
I remember this conversation distinctly. I was sitting in the front seat of our church van as my youth pastor drove to a youth event. We were talking about the possibility of me going to Moody and I finally voiced a question that had been gnawing away at me for some time: why theology?
Fast forward three years. If you know me well, you probably know I love theology. While I haven’t yet mustered the strength to really voice my theological views in the form of blogs, I have grown to appreciate theological study and discussions (not debates) for the great enrichment and edification they bring.
What happened? What changed?
In short, I realized that the study of theology is not a chore to be done by those locked away in libraries, but is a gift that should be seized by all Christians who desire to grow in their knowledge of God. But this didn’t happen over night. In fact, in my first year and a half of Bible college, I thought very little about theology. It’s been a slow and stretching process to open my mind and heart to learn the intricacies of Christianity.
But as I have grown to love theology in this past year, I’ve found that not all have the same passion for it. The other day, I walked through a Christian book store. As I browsed through their book selection, I was struck by a disturbing reality. While there were full bookcases dedicated to “Christian Living,” “Marriage,” and “Devotions,” there was not even a shelf for theology.
When I asked the store clerk why that was, he responded by saying they offer what sells and theology isn’t a hot-topic for their customers.
I could have predicted his answer, but the response still grieved me.
Jesus encouraged His disciples to have faith like a child (Matthew 18:3). I don’t know many children with PhD’s in Systematic Theology—so I don’t think that’s the pre-req for salvation. A person doesn’t need to deeply study the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the divinity of Christ, etc. to be a Christian. But just because it isn’t needed for salvation should not detour us from adding it to the faith we already profess (2 Peter 1:5-7).
It’s like this:
Receiving salvation is like being given a new car. It’s beautiful to look at, but unless you take the time to learn how to drive it, your enjoyment of that car will be limited. So too, when we accept salvation but don’t take the time to understand the depth of it, our joy found in our salvation will be restricted.
Where along the way did we become content in our knowledge of God to not desire a deeper understanding of our faith?
I believe part of the answer lies in the fact that we live in a consumerist culture and Christianity in America often doesn’t look much different. Don’t believe me? Go to a Christian bookstore and you can see for yourself. Books filled with self-help philosophies for an enriched spiritual life, five-step plan for a better marriage, three-tip secret to better parenting, and on and on. Of course, these are made up titles, but you get the picture. We’ve all seen the like. Even our study Bible’s—those that are made to provide greater depth to the text compiled by theologians and historians—often have titles like “Life Application Study Bible.” Of course the Bible is to help give us applications to live by, but is that all? Do we not read the Bible to encounter the living God and come to a deeper understanding of Him or do we read it just to take away points of application? I digress.
C.S. Lewis, when talking about theology commented:
For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.
I read this quote a couple years ago and thought, “I wish.” But I can now say with full sincerity, there are few things that bring as much spiritual enrichment and joy to my life than sitting down with a book on theology, asking tough questions, and wrestling with Scripture.
To many of you (as it used to with me), that sounds worse than nails on a chalkboard. But why is that? What holds you back from tapping into the great depth of faith God offers through the study of theology?
If it’s apathy about the idea of learning more about God, then I have nothing for you. You can enjoy your free car and the limited joy it will give you sitting in your garage.
But for others, if it’s simply the daunting task of not knowing where to start or who to read/listen to, say no more. Here are three practical steps to start theological study.
- Read Scripture with a pen and journal. Think critically over the verses you’re reading and as questions arise, don’t gloss over them, write them down. Cross-reference other verses, look up commentaries, or find articles that discuss that topic.
- Follow blogs, listen to podcasts, watch debates, and read books that will challenge and expand your thinking. Read widely and with an open mind, always coming back to Scripture as your authority. (Examples: Greg Boyd’s reknew.org blog and podcast, John Piper’s desiringgod.org blog and podcast, Christianity Today’s blogs on theology and culture [Brett McCracken’s blogs are some of my favorite in that category], Kelly Kapic’s A Little Book for New Theologians, and a host of others). The amount of hours I’ve spent listening to debates recorded on youtube while driving somewhere is rather impressive. Theological study doesn’t need to require immense time out of your day, it can be as simple as rearranging the way you already spend your day (i.e. your car rides, your evenings off at home, the books you choose to read, etc.)
- Seek out people that have a deeper understanding in areas you wish to study. The beauty of the body of Christ is that no one person has every answer, but together we can build each other up and grow in our understanding of God and Scripture. Join a Bible study that goes through books on doctrine and theology, ask a pastor or mentor to help you study a given topic, find a peer who wants to start studying together to deepen your faith, or, if your church doesn’t offer theological education, talk to your pastor about helping start a study.
I by no means have “reached the end” of my theological journey. I’ve only just begun. I realize now more than ever that after three years of Bible college, I have more questions about my faith than I did when I arrived. But that’s okay. In fact, it’s good. Paul encouraged Timothy to “Pay close attention to [his] life and[his] teaching.” To do this we must constantly keep our beliefs in question as we trace them back to the cross of Jesus where God demonstrated His fullest revelation of Himself in self-sacrificial love.
2016 was the year theology went from being a distant, boring study for old people to a close and personal opportunity to grow and love God better. It came with many challenges as I began to go up against preconceived notions of God and the Bible. But as I reflect on the growth seen, I have no regrets for my time spent studying. In 2016 I realized that theology is beautiful; not boring. I grew much in my understanding of theology, but in 2017, I hope to grow even more as I continue to dive into the doctrines and depth of our faith that construct the beauty of what we call Christianity. Will you join me and do the same?