I remember very clearly, in my 30’s, realizing that I wanted to study theology at degree level. I had no idea that it would end with me doing a PhD, leading a college, writing books, and teaching. It hadn’t been a “career move”! I thought I was studying theology so that I’d be a better co-pastor with my husband and because I loved it. I also thought then that these were good enough reasons for all that study and investment, and I still think they are.
I couldn’t fail to notice, however, that I was in a minority in my church circles. In fact, I didn’t personally know any other women (and knew only a handful of men) involved in our world of charismatic Christianity in the UK who were studying or had studied theology to PhD level. And the ones who had pursued higher degrees had done it as part of ministerial training. I was a layperson who didn’t really think I was being ‘trained.’ I was simply learning, and loving it.
Historically, evangelical charismatics have carried a suspicion of formal theological education. The fears were that you might become too critical, too jaded, too cynical, too cerebral to be fit for anything practical, or worst of all, lose your faith. Negative experiences of young people going off to study theology at university, only to be deconstructed and left in pieces, scared off the older generation all together and they warned young people not to pursue theology. Even I encountered this in my 30’s from some well-meaning advisors. Thankfully, the mood has shifted a bit, both in the university and in the church. I meet more and more Christians in the evangelical charismatic world who really don’t need to be persuaded that studying the Bible, Christian doctrine, and church history in an academic setting is a good thing! I also think that the academy has become more, not less, respectful of faith positions.
There’s still more work to be done though, in persuading Christians that study and learning should be a normal part of their discipleship and growth in the faith. I don’t really understand the resistance, but I still see it around me, so these are some of mine and others’ thoughts on why all Christians should study some theology.
Perspectives: a professor
I listened to an interview recently with D. Stephen Long (Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University), who began by saying that the main reason to study theology, the science of God, is because the study of theology is ‘a useless discipline.’ He goes on to explain what he means by that. He’s noticed over the years that, ‘If I need to give students a reason why that matters, then often those reasons become more important than the subject matter itself.’ The reason to study theology, the study of God, is to study God, and ‘Knowledge of God is an end in itself, it is not a means to something else. … As Augustine put it, “God is to be enjoyed, not used.”’
His second reason though is that the uselessness has a ‘use function.’ (Useless doesn’t mean pointless.) The contemplation of truth, beauty, and goodness is part of the essence of what makes us more human.
In addition to this, he notes that there’s always been an awareness in the church that faith drives us to seek wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. This has been mine and countless others’ experience. You can’t know God and not want to know him more. Charismatics are great at singing about it—“I wanna know you more…”—not so great at engaging with the multiple ways that God has given us to do it!
The way to know God more in order to love him more, is to learn more about him. Of course that means seeking him and his presence in prayer, worship, and contemplation, and asking the Spirit to reveal the mysteries of God to our hearts, but it also means applying our minds in ways that we apply them to learning any subject: learning the original languages of the Bible, reading books, researching meaning, listening to teachers who are more learned than we are, asking questions, etc. The two pursuits should go together, and when they do, there are so many reasons why this helps us to be better Christians and more effective disciples.
Perspectives: a student
Out of interest I asked a bunch of charismatic Christians in their 20’s who had either studied academic theology, or were in the process of studying, or were about to start studying, why they had chosen to do what they were doing. Here’s what they came up with – and this is in no particular order.
- It helps you to learn from others’ mistakes.
- It gives you the ability to speak more precisely and truthfully about God.
- It challenges your assumptions, which strengthens your ability to rebut sceptics/skeptics.
- It gives you an idea of what the non-negotiables of the Christian faith are.
- It keeps you from error and believing nonsense.
- It means you can study your own traditions and learn about where you fit in in church history.
- It gives you the opportunity to think about the pastoral implications of what you believe.
- The truth sets you free and studying good theology sets you free.
- It enables you to have an answer for the hope that’s within you.
- It shapes your character because what we believe defines us.
- It feeds your mind and your spirit.
- It gives you more confidence when people ask you questions about the Bible and your faith.
- The church has often abused its power. It’s important for all people to know what they believe and not leave it up to the leaders.
- You have a duty and obligation to study your faith.
- It’s arrogant to assume you know all there is to know already, or that it’s irrelevant to you, or that it might be at your fingertips should you want it.
- It takes discipline and work and that’s a good thing.
- It deepens our worship of God.
- It can be deeply moving and illuminating (someone remembered a story of a young man who just wept in response to understanding the implications of the incarnation).
- It gives you tools for further learning, you find out where to look for more information and who to turn to for answers.
- It is inspiring to know the stories and thinking of so many men and women through the ages who have known Jesus.
- It’s humbling to find that there’s so much to discover, to realize that you don’t know it all, and that no, you weren’t the first person to think that.
Those are a lot of good reasons! I want to add another perspective and that is from my experience as both a theology student, now a teacher myself, and a pastor of young people.
Perspectives: a pastor
There is something that grows in Christians, which happened to me and I’ve seen in others, which is a hunger for depth and substance that can only be met by intentional and disciplined study. Of course you can read books on your own, but it’s not the same as being in a classroom, learning from someone who knows more than you, whose faith you respect, and whose character you admire. There is something compelling, in a world where the Christian faith is so often disparaged or dismissed, about a man or woman who has turned their impressive intellect into seeking God, studying the scriptures, turning over stones, considering other possibilities, and coming up with reasoned, intelligent, and biblically based answers for why you should put your whole trust in the person of Jesus Christ and your whole life into his hands.
Further to that, there’s a delight you experience when someone takes a Bible story and explains the background, or the meaning of a word that you wouldn’t have known otherwise, when they use their scholarship to bring the Bible to life. Or when someone shows you God in a different light that suddenly makes so much more sense to you because you feel maybe you knew it deep down but you couldn’t have articulated it. Or when someone tells you about a time in church history where you see exactly the same issues that you’re facing going around again and it helps you to work out what you think and how you should respond. Or when you hear a theologian’s comments on the society that you live in and you’re able to step out of your culture for a second for a better and more enlightened perspective. Or when you read the writings of a Church Father or Mother on the nature of God that becomes an outpouring of praise and worship and you feel that too. If you’re a Christian, it’s about bringing all the aspects of your life together with time to reflect and think about who God is, why we think and do what we do, and how that might affect the world. It’s the stuff of life.
I know that studying theology isn’t always like that. Some books/authors can be dull, pompous, obscure, irritating, and just plain wrong … but that is also half the fun of it! And I also know that if we had amazing teaching programmes in all our churches and all our conferences that we could maybe find those things there, but we all know that it’s not like that. There’s a more serious side to this conversation because the truth is that I was bored and frustrated in the charismatic church. I was bored of the talks that were just one story after another. I was tired of repetitive and me-centred worship. I was frustrated by simplistic answers that I knew weren’t well thought through and were going to be pastorally disastrous. I think I was in danger of mentally drifting off and becoming disengaged. Theology won me over and kept me in the centre of the church in a way that I needed.
One of my little group of 20’s said that he’d been warned off thinking too much on the grounds that if you engage your mind, you short-circuit the work of the Spirit. He joked that his church culture had taught that we’re transformed by the removal of our minds! We don’t want this. We don’t want a brain drain. We need to attract and to keep the curious, the questioners, the seekers, the hungry, the bored. We need to feed them, nurture them, and engage them. We need to realize that teenagers and young people need more than cool youth leaders and worship songs. They need depth and good answers to their questions. I hope that WTC will be part of a change in culture in the charismatic church where it will become the most natural thing in the world for Christians to be educated in their faith.
Why do people not study? There’s always the time and money thing, and I get that, but I think there are two bigger barriers. The barriers I see most are that theological study is seen as either intimidating or irrelevant—the stumbling blocks of the under- and over-confident!
We are doing everything we can at WTC to eliminate the stumbling blocks. We’ve created a place where it’s not intimidating, it’s not irrelevant, and where it is affordable and accessible. We’re trying to make sure that there are no more excuses, unless someone finds they are still too far from a Hub, and we’re working on that.
I love our students and the enormous variety of people that turn up. All of them are Christians wanting to strengthen their knowledge and understanding of their faith, but for very different reasons. The majority of our students are from almost any sphere of work you could think of: the health service, accountancy, caring, farming, business, the charity sector, etc. They generally say they ‘want to go deeper with God.’ Others want to study to enrich their ministries in the local church. Some are paid by the church, are church leaders, or are preparing for church leadership. Still others are in recovery from addiction or building a new life having served a prison sentence. It all makes for interesting discussion in the classroom!
These are mostly people who come just to study applied kingdom theology for life and work. But we’re also branching out in 2019 to begin two new vocational programmes in ‘Kingdom Theology and Student Ministry’ and ‘Kingdom Theology and Church Planting and Leadership.’ These are exciting new ventures and will offer more focused training.
I’ve already said that I really don’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to study theology, but I hope that this post will help those who are wondering why you would, what you’d get out of it, and if it’s for them. I hope in a small way I’ve described why studying and teaching theology, the science of God, is challenging, exciting, and endlessly fascinating.