Six risks of theological study

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

 

When I published my post on the rewards of theology, and advised that this post was coming, a colleague suggested that one risk of doing theological studies is chinos and a tucked-in checked shirt.

We all know the stereotypes associated with academics, and ivory towers, and religious institutions. And there are those who wear chinos, or Harry Potter glasses. And then there are the courageous chill dudes who try their best to be fully sick and street cred while totes blitzing the faith thing yo.

But that’s not quite what I had in mind. Here are six risks of theological study. There’s no correlation with the six rewards I mentioned earlier.

First is the problem of pride. Theological study trains us in critical thinking and awareness of a spectrum of beliefs and practices, and we may come to delight in identifying bad exegesis, poor theology, or poor intellectual arguments in the work of others. Unless we take care to practice humility and grace, our theological learning may lead us to substitute dry intellectualism or cynicism for heartfelt faith and ordinary spiritual experience. As theologian Wayne Grudem writes, “Systematic theology rightly studied will not lead to the knowledge that ‘puffs up’ (1 Cor 8:1) but to humility and love for others.”[1] No one likes a proud theologian.

A second risk of theological study is being misunderstood. “Even if you tread the path of reflective Christianity lightly and cautiously,” write Stan Grenz and Roger Olson, “you will probably find some people pulling away from you – especially if your religious context is heavily influenced by folk theology. Some believers will not be able to understand your desire to grow intellectually in your faith.”[2] There will be some who dislike your particular variety of thoughtful Christian faith, and others who prefer to avoid or attack clear thinking about God. Paul’s advice in Romans 12:18 is relevant here: “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Third, theological study may lead others, who thought of you as part of their team, to regard you as a “fundamentalist,” or a “liberal,” or an “enthusiast.” They might accuse you of taking your religion too seriously, or threatening to rock the boat and make others feel uncomfortable. Or they might accuse you of changing teams, batting for the other side. When I began my theological studies, at a college of a different denomination, a well-meaning aunt dismissed that denomination’s gospel witness as offering “false hope.” I continued studying there, and the experience has in some ways profoundly changed me, but I am confident that the “hope” offered was not false.

Fourth, theological study may lead to the loss of your current church affiliation. This may be premature or ill-advised, so don’t rush to join the other team or a different game. As a young adult I was advised not to go to Bible college because those who do so often “lose their faith.” But there may have been many reasons for such apostasy. Switching church affiliation may also be the result of risks 1, 2 or 3 above – or one of the rewards I mentioned earlier. On the other hand, theological students must be prepared to discover potential doctrinal problems or dogmatic flaws in their home church or denomination. You may feel compelled to leave a spiritual home if you come to see it as having wandered from sound Christian teaching. If you do, try to leave on good terms.

Fifth, many theological students struggle to master one or more aspects of the discipline: for example, learning New Testament Greek or the culture and history of the ancient Near East; understanding the philosophical foundations of patristic theology; appreciating the strange worldview of medieval monks. My Achilles heel was biblical languages. Not everyone should go to theological college or seminary, but if you have the opportunity to do so, and feel excited rather than daunted by the prospect, I say go for it. In the late 1980s, AFES staffworker Bruce French challenged students at my university to invest the same time in theological education as we had in our university studies. I took up the challenge, and have never looked back.

Sixth, there is the flip side of the pride problem. As my friend Amanda Ballantyne observed, theological studies have a habit of demonstrating how much you don’t know. The more you study and the deeper you go, the more you realise just how much more there is to know. This is especially true of the Bible. But I reckon that’s a risk well worth taking.


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


References

[1]      Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Nottingham: IVP, 1994), 34.

[2]     Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 140.