Why Studying Theology Is Important

It is God from whom all those who love him derive both their existence and their love; it is God who frees us from any fear that he can fail to satisfy anyone to whom he becomes known; it is God who wants himself to be loved, not in order to gain any reward for himself but to give to those who love him an eternal reward—namely himself, the object of their love[1] ~ Augustine (354-430)

Come now, insignificant mortal. Leave behind your concerns for a little while, and retreat for a short time from your restless thoughts. Cast off your burdens and cares; set aside your labor and toil. Just for a little while make room for God and rest a while in him[2] ~ Anselm (1033-1109).

A Scene That Could Make You Laugh or Throw up

Can you picture the scene?  It’s midnight, and just as everyone is ready to go home, a theological conversation begins.  Before you know it, one person in the group raises his voice to a fever pitch, and as he looks incredulously at his long time friend, the words actually come out of his mouth: “You’re a supralapsarian?  How dare you?”  To make matters worse, he confesses to his friend that he’s changed his position from historic premilleniallism to amillennialism.  Just when the conversation couldn’t get more obscure, these two snobs delve into the topic of the perichoretic union of the three Persons of the Trinity, and start talking about the Cappadocian Fathers and the Council of Nicea.[3]

Onward Theologians

Let’s face it, the eager individuals in the above conversation were meant to study theology.  But what about the rest of us?  For many in the church, theology is reserved for the academic individuals who like to argue about semantics and split hairs over the finest of details.  For the average layperson, however, he or she is simply trying to live life and make it through the day.  Thinking about the doctrine of the Trinity or the hypostatic union is probably the furthest thing from his or her mind.

I remember being at a small group Bible study once when, as the conversation turned to theology, one person said, “Theology is just what man thinks about God.”  Given the nature of the conversation, the implication was that we didn’t need to worry about theology; what really mattered was our personal relationship with God.  To be sure, our personal relationship with God is vitally important and shouldn’t be minimized for a moment.  It is crucial that we have a warm and lively relationship with God.  We ought not get so caught up in theological discussions that we forget to apply the Bible’s teachings to our everyday lives.

This raises a question, however: Why study theology?  In what follows, I will give three reasons why I believe studying theology is important for all Christians:

1.  Theology is essential for our relationship with God.

For starters, the word “Theology” comes from two Greek words which mean “God” and “word.”  For this reason, theologians refer to theology as “Words about God.”  The goal in theology, therefore, is to think God’s thoughts after him.  As already mentioned, some people are turned off by theology, supposing that it is nothing more than an obscure intellectual pursuit which will in the end cause hearts to turn cold.  While I suppose that such a thing might happen, I am thankful that I have not actually seen this happen.

Theologian Rick Cornish notes that people often ask questions like, “Can’t I just read the Bible, have faith, and love Jesus?  Why study theology?”  Of course believers should read the Bible, have faith, and love Jesus.  But as Mr. Cornish points out, “Reading the Bible, having faith, and loving Jesus require thinking and understanding.”[4]  Studying theology helps us think deeply about our faith, know what we believe, and read the Bible better–all of which enrich our relationship with God and cause us to love him more (Matt. 22:37; cf. 1 Pet. 3:15).

Two Essential Beliefs

When I say that theology is essential for our relationship with God, what do I mean?  The bottom line is that one cannot be a Christian unless one believes certain things about God.  This is important because, as has been said, there is no greater sin than to think of God other than he is.  For the Christian, we believe that God is triune—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This means that God is one in essence, but three in persons.  To begin to comprehend this truth, one must study the Bible thoroughly; but it would also be wise to read the theologians of the past who have helped the church understand this great mystery.  Once you begin to read how theologians explain the doctrine of the Trinity, guess what?  You’re waist deep into some heavy theology.

To look at another core belief: Christians believe in the deity of Jesus Christ; that is, we believe that Jesus Christ is God.  Not only did Jesus claim this about himself (Jn. 8:58), but he asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).  But Jesus also experienced hunger (Matt. 21:18) and other human feelings and emotions (Lk. 19:41; Jn. 11:35).  This indicates that Jesus is not only God, but he is also human.  This doesn’t mean he is fifty percent God and fifty percent man.  No, it means he is 100 percent God and 100 percent man.  While human minds cannot fully grasp this truth, we believe it because the Bible so clearly teaches it.  Furthermore, those closest to Jesus and the apostles testified to this truth and were willing to die for their belief in it.

Thus, anyone who is a follower of Jesus must believe the truth about Jesus.  As Millard Erickson writes, “It is not sufficient to have a warm, positive, affirming feeling toward Jesus.  One must have correct understanding and belief.”[5]  In this respect, theology is important because it helps us understand and believe what is true.

Why Splitting Hairs Sometimes Matters

I mentioned above how some people view theology as nothing more than splitting hairs and arguing about words.  Well, sometimes this can be critically important.  In the fourth century, for example, when Athanasius was defending the deity of Christ, the difference between orthodoxy and heresy came down to one small letter in one Greek word.  Athanasius, and those standing with him, argued that Jesus was homoousios with the Father; that is, of one substance with the Father.  The heretic Arius and his followers (known as Arians) argued that Jesus was not homoousios with the Father; they said, rather, that he was homoiousios with the Father; that is, of similar substance with the Father.

The only difference is one small letter.  Here’s the lesson: Words are important.  And sometimes we must split hairs and argue about words.

A Word about the Current Theological Landscape

Athanasius’s stance for the truth and willingness to not capitulate even when it came down to one letter in one word is a sharp rebuke to the church in our day.  Aside from the fact that individual Christians believe theology to be unimportant, even churches rank theological acumen on the bottom of the list of pastoral qualifications.

While investigating what churches are looking for in a pastor, one church I saw was seeking “a dynamic leader with a passion to facilitate growth.”  Another wanted a pastor who engaged in “relevant, thematic preaching incorporating creative use of drama and contemporary worship.”  It’s hard to see how the apostle Paul would have succeeded in ministry these days.  In the midst of cries to be relevant, all Paul could say was, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).

Many churches today are desirous of men who are “powerful communicators.”  In contrast, the apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:3-4, emphasis mine).  As Michael Horton observes: “Note that Paul specifically cites his weakness in the area of relational and communicative skills as a means of directing faith not to his personality but to the Gospel.  So much for being ‘dynamic.’”[6]  In truth, God does require that pastors be knowledgeable of the Bible.  In First Timothy we are told that a pastor must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2), and in Titus 1 we are told that a pastor “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (V. 9).  Note how pastors are to “rebuke those who contradict,” that is, those who teach incorrectly.  Obviously if a pastor is to correct false doctrine, he must actually know correct doctrine fairly well.  And in order to know correct doctrine one must actually give himself to study.  This would certainly require knowing theology.

Why Studying Theology Can Be Dangerous

Of course, studying theology can be dangerous as well.  The most obvious danger is pride.  Truth be told, we all tend to like the sound of our own voice; and perhaps we like it more when it’s filled with words that no one else knows except us.  This, of course, is a real danger, and it will most likely haunt the student of theology until he or she goes to glory.  In addition to pride, Millard Erickson says that the study of theology “complicates the Christian message, making it confusing and difficult for the lay person to understand.”[7]  I think Erickson is right.  I have known quite a few Christians who have been intimidated by theology and often struggle with the concepts that are taught.

Another danger is that studying theology can cause us to be so wrapped up in the minutia of theological details that we cannot relate to others’ everyday problems.  As I already mentioned, sometimes getting caught up in precise theological details is required, but other times it just makes us flat out weird and annoying.  Carl Trueman, professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, opened up about what goes on in his mind while listening to his pastor’s sermons:

I often wonder, as I sit in church on Sunday, of how much of the knowledge I have is truly significant for the people in the pews—the man who has just lost his job, the single mum [he’s from England, this is how he spells “mom”] struggling to hold it together, the teenager coping with all the pressures that come with the transition to adulthood.[8]

As Trueman points out, however, it is not that we should stop studying theology; we should stop studying theology.[9]  In other words, studying theology is not the problem; the problem is studying theology for theology’s sake.  The ultimate aim in studying theology is not filling our brains with more information; it is so that our hearts can be gripped with the greatness of God, which will in turn lead to a life of praise.

 2.  Theology fuels our worship.

I once heard John MacArthur say, “Hymnology is tied to theology; and where you have depth you have height.”  The more we know about God and the greater clarity we have about the works he has accomplished in redemptive history,[10] the more we are catapulted into lofty praise.  After Paul’s lengthy doctrinal letter to the Romans, he culminates his thoughts in the eleventh chapter this way: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (V. 36).

Each five books of the Psalms end with an eruption of praise.  Think of Psalm 41:13: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! Amen and Amen.”  Or consider Psalm 72:18-20: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.  Blessed be his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory!”  This is because theology leads to doxology.

The reality of the unfathomable greatness of God, along with the overwhelming sense that our minds cannot comprehend a being as great as him, produces genuine thanksgiving in the hearts of God’s people.  This is the way it has been throughout church history.  The greatest hymns ever written were produced by minds that had a grasp of Christian theology.  Think of the last stanza of the great hymn, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name”:

Holy Father, Holy Son, 
               Holy Spirit: three we name thee, 
               though in essence only one; 
               undivided God we claim thee, 
               and adoring bend the knee 
               while we own the mystery.

Charles Wesley, in his hymn, “And Can It Be?” expresses the joy of a guilty sinner who is declared “not guilty,” and now has no condemnation to fear (Rom. 8:1).  Rather, since he is clothed in Christ’s righteousness, he can approach the throne of grace boldly (Heb. 4:16).

No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in him, is mine;

alive in him, my living Head, and clothed in righteousness divine,

bold I approach th’ eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own.

If one does not know the Bible or theology well, one cannot fully appreciate the beauty of these words.  When Christ is lifted up and placarded before God’s people in the fullness of his beauty, with his work of redemption and reconciliation in full view, it calls forth high praise.  For, as Jonathan Edwards said, “There is an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ.  Christ, as He is God, is infinitely great and high above all . . . but he also condescends to such poor creatures as men. . . .  He who is so high condescends to take a gracious notice of little children.”[11]  In order to appreciate those words, one must read and re-read Philippians 2:5-11, and then sing, “Man of Sorrows, What a Name!”

Lest anyone fail to see the practical nature of theology, we must remember that gazing at the person of Christ brings consolation to our lives.  As the writer to the Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:16).  Charles Spurgeon wrote about this when he was only twenty years of age:

“Oh, there is, in contemplating Christ, a balm for every wound; in musing on the Father, there is a quietus for every grief; and in the influence of the Holy Ghost, there is a balsam for every sore. . . .  I know nothing which can so comfort the soul; so calm the swelling billows of sorrow and grief; so speak peace to the winds of trial, as a devout musing upon the subject of the Godhead.”[12]

3.  Bad theology leads to bad living.

As G. K. Chesterton said, “Heresy always does affect morality, if it’s heretical enough.”[13]  In part, I think, this is one of the reasons why “No religion has emphasized faith and the necessity of holding right doctrine more than Christianity . . .”[14]  We simply cannot escape the fact that what we believe influences how we live.  While I will not elaborate on any one example extensively, I can think of at least two areas where we see this play out in our lives.  Take growth in the Christian life for example.  If I were to ask you how God brings about growth in our lives, what would be your answer?  Very rarely these days do we find Christians referring to the means of grace that God has established, namely, the Word of God, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer.

Additionally, we live in an age where many depreciate the value of preaching.  One catechism of the past, however, identifies preaching as “an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building [believers] up in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation” (Catechism based on the 1689 London Baptist Confession, Q/A 93).  In contrast, if one believes growth in grace comes about through intense experiences, or by applying a certain technique to one’s life, or through praying some special prayer, then of course God’s ordinary means of grace will be seen as unimportant.

The other example is one’s philosophy of ministry.  Indeed, one’s view of the Christian life is evident in one’s philosophy of ministry.  In my experience it seems that many pastors think the way to grow a church is by creating a light, comfortable environment, implementing contemporary worship music and using drama/skits.[15]  But of course, in adopting such methods, many pastors assure us that they have not changed their theological convictions.  I beg to differ.  James F. White, for example, in his book Rethinking the Church, gives this reason as to why he believes non-Christians do not like church: “Their problem is not with Christian theology; it is with how we do church.”[16]  By saying that unbelievers in their fallen state do not have a problem with Christian theology, White is making a profound theological statement.  Such a statement, whether knowingly or unknowingly, speaks to White’s view of human depravity.  If he views humans as partially depraved, then the theology he outlines in his book is consistent with his view.  If, on the other hand, he believes in total depravity, then his philosophy of ministry is inconsistent with his theology.  The point is that we cannot isolate our beliefs: Theology and ethics are inextricably linked together.

In the end, everyone is a theologian because everyone, at one time or another, thinks about God.  Whether you think God is “that than which no greater can be conceived,”[17] or that “God is dead,”[18] you still think about God.   And since everyone thinks about God, we must think about him in a way that is pleasing to him.  After all, “What you believe and think about God affects nearly every area of your life.”[19]

[1] Augustine, On Christian Teaching (trans. R. P. H Green; NY: OxfordUniversity Press, 1997), 1.64.

[2] Anselm, Basic Writings (trans. and ed. Thomas Williams; Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007), 79.

[3] This scene is a slightly embellished story told by Gerald Bray in The Trials of Theology: Becoming a ‘Proven Worker’ in a Dangerous Business (Andrew J. B. Cameron and Brian S. Rosner, eds. [Scotland: Christian Focus, 2010]), 150.

[4] Rick Cornish, 5 Minute Theologian (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2004), 27.

[5] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed. (Grand   Rapids: Baker, 2005), 30.

[6] Michael S. Horton, “Wanted: Ministers Who Preach Not Themselves, But Christ,” Modern Reformation Nov./Dec. 9:6 (2000): 13-19.

[7] Erickson, Christian Theology, 29.

[8] Carl Trueman, “The Importance of Not Studying Theology,” Themelios 35:1 (2010): 4-7.

[9] Ibid., 7.

[10] See, e.g., T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008).

[11] Don Kistler, ed. Altogether Lovely: Jonathan Edwards on the Glory and Excellency of Jesus Christ (Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria, 1997), 19-20.

[12] Cited in J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1973), 18.

[13] Cited in Michael S. Horton, ed. The Agony of Deceit: What Some T. V. Preachers Are Really Teaching (Chicago: Moody, 1990), 11.

[14] Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1988), 9.

[15] See, e.g., James E. White, Rethinking the Church: A Challenge to Creative Redesign in an Age of Transition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003); also, see Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church: Growing Without Compromising Your Message and Vision (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 251-277.

16] White, Rethinking the Church, 24.

[17] Anselm, Proslogion, ch.  3.

18] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (trans. Graham Parkes; NY: OxfordUniversity Press, 2005), 11.

[19] Gregory E. Ganssle, Thinking about God: First Steps in Philosophy (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 16.


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