Some Dangers of Theological Study
I applied myself more than usual, and had an article posted at IX Marks challenging pastors who have a low evaluation of theological study and highlighting the importance of systematic theology for Bible teaching and local church ministry. In this post I want to briefly touch on some dangers inherent to theological study, both at college and in local church. My reason for doing this is balance: I may not undervalue theology, but could find myself at the other pole, where theology is self-indulgent and fails to serve God’s people. Another reason for writing this post is because, as Helmut Thielicke notes in A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, love and truth are seldom combined when it comes to academic learning. And this cannot be the case for those who are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
In an old post reviewing my recent reads, I joked that I could be accused of loving books more than people, and I fear the same could sometimes be said about my enjoyment of theological inquiry. Though I do not share his sentiments, Dr Manhattan, from The Watchmen, unwittingly expresses the dangerous lure of theology, “I am tired of Earth, these people. I'm tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives,” only instead of an ivory tower he retreats to Mars. Theology is an enriching pursuit, which should be undertaken by every Christian, but we must be aware of the ease with which it can become an escape. I cannot deny the pleasure of sitting down with a cup of freshly brewed tea and Herman Bavink’s Reformed Dogmatics, but I can work hard at directing my studies to equip me to better teach and train other Christians. As former Archbishop Michael Ramsey wrote, in The Christian Priest Today, the church’s hold on the faith is dependant on its ministers’ ability to develop their own theology. Christian theology should never be disconnected from life, for it is the means of understanding it.
Theology cannot become a pursuit in itself. In his essay Learning in War-time, C. S. Lewis quotes from the Theologica Germanica, where the anonymous author warns against becoming lovers of knowledge – or our knowing – above the thing (we might add person) known. There are two problems with this; both are incongruent with Christian theology. Firstly, developed and deep studies can puff up, causing pride. There is a tendency amongst the learned to become condescending. This is a travesty, since true theology cannot but create humility as we reflect on our creatureliness, God’s glorious holiness, and gospel of unmerited grace. Secondly, theology can become idolatry if we love our knowing more than what is known, our Lord and God. As Lewis says, the intellectual life is not the only pathway to God, it is a treacherous path beset with dangers to carefully consider. What does it profit a theologian if she authors numerous works, earns a tenured professorship, and is awarded more PhDs than he can fit on her office walls, if she loses her soul?
Above, I mentioned Thielicke’s unassuming but profound book. One of my lecturers at college encouraged us to read and reflect on it annually, and I am grateful for his counsel. In fact, I am tempted to say the book is worth owning for Martin Marty’s introduction alone. In it, he makes a few painfully incisive points about studying theology. He challenges the alienating piety of those who claim to know more than any reasonable finitude allows, and calls out the abstraction and aloofness that characterises many theologians and their relationship with the local church. But, in my opinion, his best point is on the odium theologicum, “The pettiness of little men who care much about big issues.” As I conclude, let us remember that theological study is when little creatures claim to understand an infinite God, let alone big issues. We can barely afford pettiness, must learn humility, and are failing if our knowledge does not move us to worship God and serve his people.