There are lots of reservations when it comes to the study of theology.
Some people believe that all they need is to acknowledge that they are a sinner in need of God’s grace, accept the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, God’s Son, on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, and live a life of obedience to God’s Word—the Bible. The fact is, however, all of the above are theological statements.
Other people think that simple faith experience unites, while heady doctrine divides. Theological beliefs have caused division among the churches, but avoiding theological thinking is also problematic.
Some think that if we must formulate beliefs, then everyone should decide for himself or herself what to believe. The problem with this position is that the Christian faith is relegated to the realm of radical subjectivity that fosters sectarianism, hyper-pluralism, and relativism.
In a recent book, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference (Brazos Press, 2019), Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun made this hyperbolic comment: “Academic theology today is composed of specialists in an unrespected discipline who write for fellow specialists about topics that interest hardly anyone else” (44). Volf and Croasmun are not against theology per se but criticize theologies that neglect ultimate questions of human existence and matters that are of great importance to the world. They seek to reorient theology to its primary purpose: “to discern, articulate, and commend visions of flourishing life in light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ” (11).
There are indeed certain hazards in the study of theology. One such hazard is noted by Volf and Croasmun: Theology can veer off course and become irrelevant to the questions that arise in real human life. Not many people are interested in debates about infralapsarianism versus supralapsarianism or the filioque-clause in western versions of the Nicene Creed. A generation ago, Paul Tillich rightly contended that one of the tasks of theology is to address the existential questions that arise from human existence.
Another hazard of the study of theology is confusing humanly constructed ideas with divine revelation itself. This can lead to intellectual idolatry, where we put our theological constructions on the same level as divine revelation. It’s important to remember that theology is a human work even if it is reflecting on God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ witnessed to in Scripture.
A common hazard, especially for seminarians and pastors, is replacing personal faith and acts of devotion with the study of the Bible and theology. It is easy under a busy schedule to think that writing an exegetical or theological paper, or preparation for a sermon, counts as “time with God.” It is and it isn’t. Both are important aspects of spiritual development but reading about God and encountering God personally are different activities.
There is also the hazard of thinking that getting your theology straight is the essence of the Christian life. The intellectualizing of faith neglects the fact that the Christian faith pertains not only to our intellect but to our will, desires, and feelings as well.
Finally, there is the hazard of confusing the essential doctrines of the Christian faith with disputed doctrines within the Christian community. Not all doctrines are on the same level of importance. Not all doctrines are essential to the Christian faith. Not all doctrines are worth dying over. One of the tasks of theology is to critically evaluate what doctrines are and are not essential to Christianity.
Despite these hazards, there are many benefits to the study of theology. The greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is: “Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37). Theology is essentially knowledge of God. Theology can be thought of as loving God with your mind. Knowing God, what God is like, and that God ultimately transcends our thoughts cultivates intimacy, union, and mystery in our relationship with God.
Theology has been defined as “faith seeking understanding.” We should continually wrestle with what we belief and why we believe it. One way to do that is to study great theological minds, both past and present. Theology also provides the opportunity to be clear about the dominate beliefs found in Scripture and the essential teachings of the Christian church. This not only benefits one personally, but it is also helpful in addressing questions from those seeking a better understanding of the Christian faith or are seeking to be baptized or seeking church membership.
Theology also establishes the intellectual credibility of our beliefs and actions, and it seeks to relate those beliefs and actions in a relevant way to our contemporary world. While “correct” theology may not be essential to eternal salvation, it is vital to the life and mission of the Christian church.