Here’s a question emailed to me from a friend who is in seminary––
I am messaging you to ask for advice, or encouragement, or something…
You see, I’m feeling very overwhelmed with being “theologically sound.” In so many of the books that are assigned and in so many of the class lectures, I often hear, “this person is wrong,” and, “this person is right.” Over and over again it’s all about these people getting this view correct, but not this doctrine, etc. As I talk to friends they comment on agreeing or disagreeing with this or that guy. And even amongst my professors, some will say well I don’t hold this, but this other professor does… You get the point.
I just feel really overwhelmed with having good theology. It seems like there are not any people who actually agree on anything, and all of them claim that they are reading the bible “correctly.”
What do I do? How do I come to my own conclusions? How do you deal with this? How does it work in your head?
I think a lot of people feel this way, even after seminary. Keeping up with all the various interesting and worthy topics out there is pretty daunting.
Below is my answer to the email. Perhaps it will help others as well.
I so appreciate your email. Your opening line says it all.
There are a few ways I could interpret your question, so I’ll answer each of your possible questions. You could mean….
Question 1. Since there are so many issues to learn, how does one know it all without feeling overwhelmed?
You tackle one issue at a time and don’t get caught up in the illusion that you will master them all. Over time, various issues will naturally intersect and reinforce one another.
So, here are some action points: Establish you own priorities and read smart. Be selective. Stop reading a book when it’s clearly not useful. Jump around within a book if needed.
Question 2: Why should I even try if these smart guys can’t agree?
No matter your sphere in life, no one will agree on everything. Don’t forget that people agree on a lot of things….big things. Chances are….someone is probably right. In fact, multiple people are probably right from a certain perspective. They may not know how to reconcile their view with other people’s opinions, but that’s a different issue. Therefore, I think most people go wrong in what they deny, not necessarily in what they affirm.
True knowledge doesn’t necessitate agreement by the masses.
Question 3: How can I have any hope that I’m on the right track?
Focus on exegesis and coherent thinking, only then on reconciling doctrines. Be especially conscious of identifying the strength of your argument. Keep in mind that many things are simply not explicit, so even the most correct positionmay not be all that comprehensive an answer.
When two people seem to disagree, find the places where they analyze the same set of verses. Focus on the way they differ in their approaches. Where is one person silent, yet the other person writes at length? Why does one side ignore a key issue that the other side emphasizes?
Try to figure out the worldview and assumptions that make people say what they claim. How are they defining terms? Subtle assumptions are expressed in various ways and phrases, like “Certainly, this wouldn’t be the case….” These kinds of sentences are usually only “obvious” to those who hold the same set of assumptions. So, for example, universalists might say, “Since God is love, obviously he would not send someone to hell.”
Something else to keep in mind….
Many people theologize by association.
For example, theologians will not cede intellectual ground simply because they are afraid of “what it might lead to.” A particular idea seems too closely aligned with some other school of thought or faction. Therefore, they are nervous about even approaching that “other” way of thinking.
On the other hand, some writers might start pretty good yet finally make some awful conclusions. Don’t dismiss what is right in their idea simply because it’s surrounded by a lot of wrong.
Photo Credit (top picture of SBTS): jwthompson2/flickr