Six rewards of theological study

Welcome to The Theology Whisperer, a series of short blog posts on theology and theological education.

U.S. megachurch pastor Todd White said recently he had changed his theological orientation after reading classic evangelical writers.

Books on systematic and historical theology sometimes include sections on the task of theology, and how to prepare to study. But they rarely discuss risks and rewards. So I thought I’d do just that. In this post, I look at some of the rewards, and in my next post at some of the risks.

First, theology helps us to know more about God, and to know God better. In the opening book of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin observes that we attain such knowledge primarily through Scripture; God’s revelation is verbal but also relational. Theology clarifies and summarises the biblical revelation. The first and most important reward of theology, then, is love for and knowledge of God. As Calvin puts it, we “learn to worship [God] both with perfect innocence of life and with unfeigned obedience, then to depend wholly upon his goodness.”[1]

Second, theological study gives the student a deeper appreciation of the history and doctrine of the Christian faith than would be possible without such dedicated study and exposure to the lives and writings of great thinkers of the past. And this depth of knowledge, and the acquired skill in the use of intellectual resources, allows the student to discover answers to all kinds of questions arising in the course of living the Christian life in the contemporary world. The lack of such resources, and lack of a reliable grid to make sense of my scant learning, is what first drew me to theological education. I’ve told the story of that journey elsewhere.

Third, theological study enables us, in principle, to examine the options and adopt a carefully analysed and evaluated belief system that offers consolation during those inevitable periods of existential angst and spiritual dryness when we are unable to feel God’s presence in our lives. Stan Grenz and Roger Olson talk about this in their book, Who Needs Theology? – one of the few books to discuss the risks and rewards of theology in detail.[2] We all have such times, and good theology helps us make sense of the silence and the darkness. Bad theology makes it worse.

Fourth, theology offers a key, or a door, to an enriched intellectual, spiritual and emotional life. A good program of theological studies, such as that offered by major theological colleges or schools, will include opportunities for theological reflection and integration. Knowing God is inseparable from participating in a particular community and its practices, and the best formal theological studies will help the student integrate faith and learning, theology and praxis. There’s a fine hymn by Thomas H. Troeger (b. 1945) that expresses such integration well, in the context of Christian faith and secular learning:

Praise the source of faith and learning
that has sparked and stoked the mind
with a passion for discerning
how the world has been designed.
Let the sense of wonder flowing
from the wonders we survey
keep our faith forever growing
and renew our need to pray.

 

Fifth, a good theological education provides the freedom to stand confidently on the shoulders of giants, and to embrace opportunities for leadership and service otherwise out of reach. In some ways theological education is no different from education in other academic disciplines, especially the professional fields. Each academic discipline has its intellectual giants, its key texts, and its exclusive prospects for graduates. But theology also enriches church life and ministry in ways that go well beyond the benefits of professional life.

Sixth, theological education brings us into contact with a wide fellowship of theologically trained thinkers and practitioners. In Pilgrim Theology, theologian Michael Horton notes that the old Reformed theologians sometimes referred to their summaries of the faith as “our theology” to indicate that what they were writing was distinct from God’s own self-understanding. But they also did so to clarify that “to study theology involves entering into a long, ongoing conversation, one that we did not begin … We do not read the Bible somewhere off by ourselves in a corner; we read it as a community of faith, together with the whole church in all times and places.”[3] What a privilege!

Well, there are six of the rewards of theological study. No doubt there are others. Which of these resonates most closely with your experience? What others are there? Feel free to share your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you.


This post was written by Rod Benson. Leave a comment in the box below, or email theologywhisperer@gmail.com 


References

[1]      John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX; ed. John T. McNeill; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1.10.2.

[2]      Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 138-141.

[3]      Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 13f.