Fridays With Fred: Studying Theology
Friedrich Nietzsche made no secret of his disdain for the Christian faith. Thus, it’s unsurprising that he also loathed theologians. In his own day, he saw them as a modern embodiment of the priestly caste, power hungry teachers whose doctrine hollowed out the human experience and sapped it of potential—he might have a point. But putting aside his broader criticisms of theologians and the Christian faith, I want us to consider a remarkable insight concerning theological studies, in The Anti-Christ, a warning which all students of theology should heed.
Nietzsche asks, “What destroys more quickly than to work, to think, to feel without inner necessity, without a deep personal choice, without joy?” Though this question comes within a sustained diatribe aimed at the theological institution, it’s well worth some reflection. For, in passing, Nietzsche puts his finger on the perilous side of theological inquiry. However much you and I might disagree with the fiery German philosopher, his rhetorical question shouldn’t be ignored.
Look at the quote again. As someone who was zealously committed to human flourishing, Nietzsche identifies the importance of desire and delight—or the lack thereof—in theological studies. Inevitably, all studies will demand that we “work,” “think,” and “feel without inner necessity,” “deep personal choice,” or “joy.” This is as true of accounting and engineering as it is for theology. Nietzsche himself grew frustrated with having to engage Kant and Schopenhauer. But when we consider the subject matter of theology, however appropriate that choice of words is, I believe the theological student faces a quite peculiar and potentially devastating danger.
Over the course of a theological undergraduate degree, students will type hundreds of thousands of words, covering a wide range of broader disciplines, including: Old and New Testament studies, pastoral theology, church leadership, history, homiletics, dogmatics, and doctrine. Undoubtedly many of these assignments will be hurried, while students juggle lectures, course reading, and—hopefully—serving in their local church. Such is the demanding reality of higher education, and therefore accredited theological studies. So my concern isn’t with this unavoidable pressure. It’s with the attitude that it might create towards theology, the Bible, Christian ministry, and even God.
In a previous offering of Fridays With Fred, I argued for the formative power of habit and practice; I’ve also written on the theme since, both here and here. Tying this well established notion into Nietzsche’s question from The Anti-Christ, I worry what years of crunching theological papers and readings does to the heart of the student. I fear how these habits will deform the Christian student, who’s very probably on track to becoming a Christian leader, minister, or teacher. Correctly, Nietzsche says that doing begets being; practice shapes persons. Therefore, far from merely picking up bad habits while at theological college, whatever the student repeatedly does will be reaped in their character. This brings me to a few further questions we might ask.
Can we really go about theological thinking though we lack the “deep personal choice”—let alone “joy”—without becoming a theologian who deems such things superfluous? If we prayerlessly spend a week poring over the Greek text only to produce a syntax diagram and exegetical comments will our approach to sermon prep be any different? Can you pen profound papers on the technicalities within systematic theology without regularly praising God for his work, confident that such topics—God’s gracious work of salvation among them—won’t cease to stir your heart with rejoicing? If my studies repeatedly objectify God, his character or nature, aren’t I in danger of what Thielicke calls “the psychology of the possessor”? We could go on, multiplying questions, but I hope I’ve made my point.
To those engaged in theological training, either as students or lecturers, Christian writers and teachers, church elders and other leaders, be careful how you handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). Examine yourself. Examine your heart. When you find yourself dispassionately engaging in the theological task, due to some external necessity, remember: few things destroy more quickly than to work, think, and feel without a deep personal choice or joy. Because this is true of theology, it is true of your soul.