'There is no man who does not have his own god or gods as the object of his highest desire and trust, or as the basis of his deepest loyalty and commitment. There is no one who is not to this extent also a theologian.’ Karl Barth
To be human is to be a theologian. For, as Barth put it, everyone has a god. Even the logical positivists, amidst their howls of disapproval, can be called theologians. It is simply that they worship and study a different logos to the Christian theologian. To understand this we are going to need to re-define theology for ourselves. We will need to rescue it from the idea that it is just about reading books and studying languages.
The word ‘theology’ includes the idea of the Logos, for theology is a logia, a logic or language about the theos (God) who determines it. Theology can be the study of any number of gods; but Christian theology is about knowing the true and living God as he reveals himself through his Logos, his Word, Jesus Christ. Since knowing God through his Word is the definition of being a Christian, we can see that all Christians are therefore Christian theologians. As for us, we can see that we are Christian theologians simply because we are Christians, not because we are enrolled on some particular course of study. It is therefore a complete misunderstanding of what theology is when you hear someone cheerfully (and perhaps also a bit scornfully) affirm: ‘I am not a theologian!’ As if theology could be left behind once the exam had been sat. All too often what that will mean is simply that they are a bad theologian, failing to test everything in the fire of God’s truth.
The question to ask any Christian is not, ‘Are you a theologian?’ We know they are. The question is whether the person is a good theologian or a bad theologian. We don’t mean whether they can remember the Chalcedonian definition or parse a word. Being a good theologian is not about intellectual ability. Christian theology is, as Anselm famously put it, faith seeking understanding, and therefore the only qualification for being a good theologian is faith in Jesus Christ, the revealing Word. To be a good theologian is to seek to know and rely upon the Word of God better. It is to be a faithful Christian.
Everyone lives on the basis of their take on reality (which is to say they are theologians – there is nothing that is not a theological issue). Yet as Christians we know that all our perceptions will be wrong if they are not shaped and informed by God’s revelation. Christian theology is therefore the true ‘re-search’, for it is about searching the whole of reality afresh in the light of what God has revealed. It is clearing out the junk in our minds which has accumulated through years of listening to the world around us, and replacing it with truth. It is putting on the mind of Christ and so sifting out the lies from our culture that we would otherwise live on. It is refusing to drift with the assumptions of our society, for example, the pragmatism in which our culture is embedded. We feel that we don’t need to think hard about how and why and what we go about doing; we should just get on with doing things. That mentality, however, forgets that it is infested with unquestioned theological presuppositions, and that all its activity can simply be spent in travelling in the wrong direction. So, as Christians we are eager to do evangelism. But what evangel do we tell people? Only theological study, wrestling with the Bible and the great doctrines that Christians have found there, can give us the answer.
The only way for real change to happen in our lives and in the world is for theology to unearth and replace those presuppositions and assumptions about reality. That is how we get to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6). Theology therefore could not be more relevant to day-to-day living. Given that knowing God is a life and death issue, theology must have a life or death significance. If we see theology as irrelevant, we are calling God a liar by saying that his Word does not describe reality.
Theology, then, is not a subject like other subjects. Rather, because of the universal claims of Christ, it seeks to boldly go where no mere discipline would dare, and inform every other branch of knowledge. The university grew out of the theological faculty, and, if the gospel is to be believed, may never leave it. For, as Abraham Kuyper said, ‘There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, “Mine!”’ Thus in every aspect of our living and knowing we should seek to be informed by the Word which is truth, and not to be led astray by any other words that falsely claim authoritative knowledge. That is to say, the Christian is called to be a theologian.
As for us, it is theology, good or bad, Christian or pagan, thought through or assumed, that will inform our approach to everything. So, do we believe in a coming judgement? Our answer to that can be seen in the extent to which we warn people of it. Do we believe in a monadic God, or in the God who is the community of Father, Son and Spirit? Our answer to that will determine whether or not we will be genuinely interested in relationships.
First, our discipleship: to use a remarkable expression of Paul’s, theology is logike latreia, our ‘reasonable worship’ to God, and must involve our bodies. ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your reasonable act of worship’ (Rom. 12:1). Our bodies (the way we actually live day by day) will be used by us either ‘in view of God’s mercy’, or in view of something that is not the gospel. It is the job of a theologian to get a good view of God’s mercy to ensure the former. Good theology will mean good discipleship; bad theology will mean bad discipleship. A theology that does not involve bodily (real, active) service of Christ will not be a theology of this Word, for if theology remains merely ‘academic’ in the sense of being head in the clouds, then it cannot be a true theology of the Word who became flesh.
Second, theology will inform our evangelism. To know this Word truly is to copy him, and so seek to go to the world and change it with his offer of salvation. Yet we are not only motivated by good theology to do evangelism, we are also equipped to do it. This is why Peter commands: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Pet. 3:15). It is often when you are out of the study telling your friends about Jesus that you find you need to get back there to learn how you can answer them better. Good theology of the gospel means a purer presentation of the gospel to a world that so desperately needs precisely that.
This, then, is why we should seek to improve our theology: for good or bad, the theology we have will inform all our discipleship, the enthusiasm and effectiveness of our evangelism, and our whole lives. How do our academic studies fit into that bigger task of theology?
Everyone is a theologian; but not everyone has been given the opportunity to devote such a large amount of concentrated time to this task of ‘re-searching’ reality. Put simply, it should be a joy to take our minds off our daily delusions and to fix them on the truth, which is good news. However, as we know all too well, it is not quite that simple. At times we feel what a privilege we have been given in the opportunity to delve deeper into theology; yet studying for a degree in theology is not all quiet times and Bible study. When we are having to come to grips with some obscure point of grammar, or when we are compelled to spend our time researching some musty corner of Church history, it is very easy to feel imprisoned in academic irrelevance. What then, should we make of this kind of very practical concern in studying theology and how do we make sure we are being good theologians at the desk and in the library?
The first thing to realise is that not everything that is alien or uncomfortable is bad. The problem with us evangelicals is that we can be like the fussy child who will not dare to try any new food – simply because he doesn’t know what it tastes like. As a result we arrive at university with so many warnings in our ears about the dark powers of this occult subject, theology, and how so many nice young Christians have been pulled down into the pits of liberalism through it. We start our courses and find ourselves bombarded with new ideas and new things to do, and our suspicions can become confirmed.
We will see that there are dark powers to be wary of in studying theology, but before that we need to know that it is of the essence of theology to be shocking, disturbing and confrontational. The Word first confronts us as an offensive message about our sin and need of salvation, it disturbs us from the grave of our sin. It then replaces all the idols we have so comfortably relied on, before sending us out to confront and disturb the world with it. In fact, because of the confrontational nature of good theology, we might say that if you are not being disturbed and challenged by what you study, you are not currently doing real theology. There are no tourists in real theology. Theology should be a struggle as our world is turned upside down in the light of the gospel, and as we are sent out by Christ to turn the whole world upside down. We should not automatically dismiss a strange practice, or whatever we find to be unsettling, and that challenges how we have been taught and how we think. The true test of good theology is not our level of comfort with it, but Scripture.
A case in point is the amount of time we are called upon to spend looking at what certain theologians have thought, rather than at the Bible. Isn’t this strange practice rather a waste of time? Certainly it must never squeeze out Bible study, which must always remain as the immovable foundation of all our learning. Yet this alien practice is actually essential, for the God who is a community calls us to function in community. One Christian will never have all the answers. We do theology as the Church together, benefiting from the written wisdom of our fathers and mothers in the faith as well as our living brothers and sisters. This means that as we examine some theologian, however great or mistaken, we need to remind ourselves of our constant need for Christian fellowship. The lonely theologian is not the Christian theologian, who loves the communities of God and his Church. We study the Bible best when we are assisted by great and faithful Christians of the past as well as those Christians around and nearby us.
In sum, we do good theology in our studies when we struggle with the Word as it confronts us and the world; when we test all things by it and not by our personal whim and when we do our study within the fellowship of the Church, both past and present, learning from the wise and passing on their wisdom.
There is, however, another and more sinister reason why we should struggle as we do our theological studies. That is the presence of error and false teaching. In any other subject, error will have only limited repercussions that can often be simply blushed at or laughed at. In theology, the repercussions will be eternal. For in theology, error and false teaching distort reality itself, and can thus, as Irenaeus put it, be homicidal.
How should we be prepared to face them? It is tempting, of course, simply to run away. The common Christian fear of theology is often just about that. And certainly, there are some theologies we will just have to leave for the moment since on our own we are incapable of facing and dealing with them (another reminder of the need for fellowship as well as the fact that, just because we are individually incapable of answering some problem does not mean the Church as a whole is). However, error and false teaching are not going to go away before Christ returns. And so we must prepare ourselves and the wider Church to tackle these spiritually murderous ideas. Part of the point of studying theology is to be equipped to do just that. We have thus been placed in an immensely responsible role within the Church – as we know Christ more, to tackle all that is opposed to him and his gospel. And seeing that, we find that, for whatever reason we enrolled on our course, we have now been saddled with a duty that forbids us to be lazy in our studies. For the health of the Church and the world, we must confront error and false teaching with the saving truth of the word of God.
To do that, we must realise that we go into the fray without any weapons of our own. The only weapon that can deal with false teaching is the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph. 6:17). Any other weapons provided by the armoury of our own wisdom will only work against the truth, so corrupt are our hearts. In fact, before we even think about stepping out like that, we need to be sure of our own spiritual diet. And so, before swallowing any theology, new or old, we must ensure it is edible and nutritious by passing it through the proving fire of scripture. As Paul puts it so many times: ‘Test everything’ (1 Thess. 5:21); ‘Do not go beyond what is written’ (1 Cor. 4:6); ‘Let God be true, and every man a liar’ (Rom. 3:4). When we do this, actively rejecting what scripture proves to be false and (full of prayer and praise) embracing what we find to be true, then studying theology will no longer be a time of spiritual stagnation or backsliding, but of wonderful growth. For, through being forced to counter heresy, God has so often brought his Church to even clearer understandings of his truth (witness the early Christological debates and the Reformation); and through truth we simply get to know more of his greatness and graciousness.
As we have seen, we are to reject the false teaching and error around us and as they are presented to us, but there is another danger for the student of theology. That is, theology can turn ugly inside us.
The easiest and most common way for that to happen is for us to allow theology to become theoretical. Just as we can become anaesthetised to both love and violence on TV, so theology (and worst of all, the Bible) can become a mere subject for us to study coolly. Rather than theology being our life of response to God’s revelation in growth and evangelism, we can use it to make absurd godlets of ourselves as we proudly flaunt our so-called ‘knowledge’ in front of our bewildered ‘non-theological’ brothers and sisters in Christ. (We have to mark off ‘knowledge’ as we have, because that understanding of it makes the fundamental mistake of thinking that truth consists of data, rather than being a person [John 14:6]). It is so easy to catch yourself, as you are reading your Bible, and find that you are not learning of Christ, but simply wondering what Wellhausen would say, or making mental notes to use the verse in the next essay. It is a short step away from our actual task of helping the Church to do theology towards making theology a specialist science that no ‘mere Christian’ can do. The horrific end result is that, instead of having grown in our knowledge of Christ and so matured in faith, we have become a Pharisaical intellectual priesthood, preventing God’s good news from spreading through the world. We become, then, enemies of the gospel.
Therefore, as students of theology (which we should always remain), we must daily ask ourselves if our theology involves real, bodily service of the Word and life in the Church. More simply, do you do theology to know Christ better, or do you use it to hide yourself, like Adam, from him?
We have seen that to do Christian theology is the greatest thing possible for a human, because it not simply about lectures and books, but about knowing Christ, ‘re-searching’ reality and re-tuning our lives in the light of his revealed truth. We can also see that, so far from being irrelevant, it is the most logical thing in the world to know this Logos, to make him known and to seek to replace all other competing words with him. Then our studies yield eternal fruit. It is only when we fall back from actively seeking to know him, and so let another word determine our lives, that we become illogical. Our studies, therefore, should only lure us to know him more and to entice others to live in reality by enjoying this true queen of the sciences.
Michael Reeves is President of Union and Professor of Theology. He is the author of The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Paternoster, 2012).