“Why Study Theology?”

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By Shane Rosenthal, M.A. in Historical Theology, Westminster Seminary in California, is executive producer of the White Horse Inn.

“I don’t get into that theology stuff. I let my pastor handle all that because he went to seminary.” If you trust in your pastor’s faith, what happens if your pastor runs off with the church secretary? If you leave theology to the so-called experts, how will you know if your church begins to teach false doctrine?

UPDATE: I just found this excellent article called “Theology: Why Bother?” by A.T.B. McGowan. You can download it here as a PDF file. Here’s an excellent quote from the article from J. I. Packer’s Concise Theology:

Theology is the first activity of thinking and speaking about God (theologizing), and second the product of that activity (Luther’s theology, or Wesley’s, or Finney’s, or Wimber’s, or Packer’s, or whoever’s). As an activity, theology is a cat’s cradle of interrelated though distinct disciplines: elucidating texts (exegesis), synthesizing what they say on things they deal with (biblical theology), seeing how the faith was stated in the past (historical theology), formulating it for today (systematic theology), finding its implications for conduct (ethics), commending and defending it as truth and wisdom (apologetics), stockpiling resources for life in Christ (spirituality) and corporate worship (liturgy), and exploring ministry (practical theology).

Here’s Shane Rosenthal’s article:

American culture is arguably heading more and more in an entertainment oriented and anti-intellectual direction, and this approach is not without its effects on American Christianity. Too often Christians are put-off by theology and the deep reflection of the Bible’s rich doctrines, yet these are the things that make up the most exciting and rewarding parts of the Christian life.

In his struggle against religious liberalism in the 1920’s, J. Gresham Machen summarized the liberal approach to Christianity:

Theology, or the knowledge of God, it is said, is the death of religion; we should not seek to know God, but should merely feel his presence.

With this approach, the Princeton apologist could not bring himself to agree:

it ought to be observed that if religion consists merely in feeling the presence of God, it is devoid of any moral quality whatsoever. . . Certainly it does make the greatest possible difference what we think about God; the knowledge of God is the very basis of religion.

In other words, if feeling and experience is the essence of religion, then perhaps one could justify murder, theft, or even dabbling with the occult, simply because “it feels right.” The founder of Christianity, however, had a different approach: ‘You are really my disciples if you hold to my teaching” (Jn 8:31).

There is undeniably a doctrinal core to the Christian faith. We confess not merely the fact of Christ’s death, but that his death was an atonement for sin. True faith, therefore, rests on the foundation of certain doctrinal claims: “I believe that Jesus died for my sins,” etc. However, today it is common once again to hear Christians say for example:

“I don’t get into that theology stuff. I let my pastor handle all that because he went to seminary.”

Unfortunately, this is not true faith. True Christian faith rests in the finished work of Christ, whereas the person who makes this kind of statement is actually trusting in his or her pastor’s faith. If you trust in your pastor’s faith, what happens if your pastor runs off with the church secretary? If you leave theology to the so-called experts, how will you know if your church begins to teach false doctrine? (Eph 4:14). How will you share your faith with others? (1 Pet 3:15). What will keep you from joining a cult or a non-Christian religion? By acquiring an understanding of what you believe and why you believe it, you will be able deal with questions such as these.

The command to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength is a serious charge, and it suggests that our whole bodies are to be involved in the worship of God; yes, even our minds. Unfortunately contemporary American culture does not encourage us to use our minds. Often in the church this masquerades as spiritual superiority:

“Why split hairs over theological subtleties, isn’t the real important thing that we love and serve Jesus?”

Whenever I hear questions like these, I usually respond with a few questions of my own: “Who is Jesus? Is He just a nice guy, a great teacher, or is He God in human flesh? What was significant about His death? Did it merely show us how much He loved us or did He satisfy God’s wrath toward us? What does it mean to serve Him? Do we serve Him by taking drugs and having mystical experiences, by throwing young virgins into volcanoes, or by attempting to love our neighbors as ourselves?”

You see, if theology is really irrelevant, it would make no difference whatsoever who Christ is or even how we are saved. As novelist Dorothy Sayers argued in her book Creed or Chaos, “It is the dogma that is the drama!” Christ is worth honoring and serving because of who he is and what he has accomplished, and that is what theology is all about!

Another phrase I hear often these days is this:

“Well, my idea of God is. . . .”

The problem is that your idea of God just might be idolatry if it is not based squarely upon the Word of God. Theology defines the boundaries of our thoughts concerning God; it takes into consideration all of the Scriptural data on a given subject, such as the attributes of God, the work of Christ, or the ramifications of sin. Theology attempts to give an account of how God has revealed Himself to His people in history. This is why theology is ultimately the most practical thing a Christian can be involved with, for what could be more practical than to know who God is, what He is like, what the basic message of the Bible is, etc.

Ignoring God’s own self revelation, and focusing on what Christ can do for us now (either in terms of experiences, or changed lives, etc.) is to lose the essence of Christianity which is centered on the historic gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection. Again from Machen,

If the saving work of Christ were confined to what He does now for every Christian, there would be no such thing as a Christian gospel—an account of an event which put a new face on life. What we should have left would be simply mysticism, and mysticism is quite different from Christianity.

One of Paul’s many prayers to the young and developing churches throughout the ancient world was that Christians would grow in wisdom and understanding of who God is: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (Eph. 1:17). While Christians today do express interest in knowing God, they usually do so apart from any deep reflection about God. Yet Paul here clearly teaches that growth in wisdom, knowledge, and depth of insight about God will help us to know Him better. What’s more, this was not just passing advice; this was something Paul often and earnestly prayed for.

But, you might say,

Paul also says that “knowledge puffs up” (1Cor 8:1).

Yes, it is true, there is a danger of conceit when sinners aquire virtue, and thus when compared with love, which is what Paul is doing in 1 Cor 14, it is a lesser virtue. However, Paul is not thereby suggesting that we pursue or remain in ignorance, but continually urges us to “let the the Word of Christ dwell in [us] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom…” (Col. 3:16).

Similarly, the Apostle Peter wrote, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him…” It is our knowledge of God, Peter is saying, that is the primary fuel for godliness. To avoid theology therefore, is to be “ungodly.” It was this very apostle who was asked by Jesus himself, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” (Matt. 16:16-17). Here Peter’s view of Christ (theologically speaking—his “Christology”) wins God’s approval.

But later on as Jesus was explaining that he must “go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed,” Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Matt. 16:21-23). Here, Peter had an ungodly theology. In fact, it was so ungodly that it was as if Satan himself were talking to Jesus. But what was so bad about what Peter said? Well, briefly stated, he was focused on “the things of men” rather than Christ’s mission of the cross. This is one of the biggest problems in the church today. In many pulpits across this country, you will hear passionate and exciting things, even very religious things. But many of them are ultimately focused on the things of men rather than on the centrality of the cross. If Peter could get sidetracked, so can your pastor, and so can you.

This is the heart of the matter for us today. Because we think that theology is irrelevant, we have been “conformed” to the world’s way of thinking rather than being “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:2). Only if we resist the emphasis on personal experience, self indulgence, and the anti-intellectualism of our day, and begin to mine the rich resources of our Christian faith and heritage, then will we “no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14).

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Relevant Bible Passages For Further Study:

Job 38:1; Prov 2:1-6; Isa 56:10; Jer 4:22; Hos 4:6; Mal 2:7; John 6:56-69, 8:31-32; Acts 6:9-10; Rom 1:18-28, 10:2-3, 12:2, 16:18; 1Cor 1:10, 14:20; 2Cor 4:6, 10:5; Eph 4:11-15; Phil 3:8-10, 4:8; Col 1:6, 28; 2:2-3; 3:16; 4:6; 2Thess. 2:13; 1Tim 3:15; 4:6-7, 16; 6:20; 2Tim 2:15, 23-25; 4:2-5; 1Pet. 3:15; 2Pet 3:15-18; 1John 5:20;  see also, Titus 1.

For Further Reading On This Topic See:

Christianity & Liberalism (PDF), by J. Gresham Machen
History and Faith (PDF), by J. Gresham Machen

Additional Reading Recommendations: (by blog author)

Deeds Over Creeds by Gary Johnson
Why We Have Creeds & Confessions by Daniel R. Hyde
“Why This Blog (Doctrine Unites)?” by this author

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