Theology — important? … or impotent?
My journey through Bible College began over 20 years ago when I attended my first diploma class in the Internship Diploma Program at the Bible College of New Zealand Ministry in Dunedin, where I lived. As a 34-year-old, and having grown up in the Christian context—one in which I was encouraged to pray and read my Bible daily to become a faithful disciple of Jesus—you may think that I knew my bible, understood my faith, and had little time for the strange academic pursuit called ‘theology’. The church tradition I grew up in, including the Anglican Church I attended in my teenage years, had always affirmed what one might call ‘higher learning’, yet I have a background as a ‘tradie’, and my parachurch ministry associates often expressed disinterest, if not disdain, for any academic pursuit outside traditional evangelism. All this changed, however, the day I attended my first morning at Bible College.
On this morning, and the many that followed in my pursuit of the Ministry Internship Diploma, I realised how little I did know about the bible, and how little I truly understood about this Christian faith I professed. My worldview was solidly Evangelical; however, many of the things that I believed, understood, practised, and encouraged, were little more than the traditions, symbols, and rituals that I inherited from the various church contexts that I had grown up in. I’m not suggesting these things are not valid but, reflecting on that first day, I now realise that I expressed many of them without any thought as to why I did so, or with little understanding of their background and purpose.
Back again to Bible College: as much as I loved exploring the biblical text, or understanding the ins and outs of practical ministry — and considering various ways to do this within my own local context — it was the new and wonderful world of theology that had the greatest impact on my life and my understanding of God. It was exciting to traverse the history of, and the various historical debates concerning, Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience as the sources for understanding our faith; to delve in-depth into the bible concerning the doctrine of God — God as triune; God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent; God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I was exposed to a whole new understanding of Jesus as we considered the Jesus of the bible and the Christ of history and faith. The discussions of his person and work, so central to our faith, highlighted the reasons behind many of the Christian debates, heresies, creeds, schisms, and dynamic expressions of mission and ministry throughout the last 2000 years. I gained new insight as we explored the personal work of the Holy Spirit; as we looked at humanity, the make-up and meaning of the church, and the various approaches to Christian hope and eschatology. Through this discovery, the longing that I’d had for much of my life to know my God more, to understand his word, and to faithfully become more like Jesus as I lived my life for him, finally found fuller expression and meaning.
Even today, some people ask me, ’Why do we need theology? Surely all we need is the Bible and the Holy Spirit, and to do what they say.” Or others assert they are ’not academic enough for study, and theology requires something that is beyond me.” But even these questions and statements are themselves theological. Everything we think about God, the universe, ourselves; everything we do at church or in life, is theology. As Joshua Harris states in Dug Down Deep,
I’ve come to learn that theology matters. And it matters not because we want a good grade on a test, but because what we know about God shapes the way we think and live. What you believe about God’s nature — what he is like, what he wants from you, and whether or not you will answer to him — affects every part of your life. Theology matters because, if we get it wrong, then our whole life will be wrong.
When you take stock of the past 2000 years of church history, you can’t help but be struck by the diversity, and at times stupidity, of the various shifts and turns evident within the Christian context. There is much that the church got right, and many Christians we read about, even today, fulfilled the call to be faithful followers of Jesus and express the purpose for which God made them. Many of the faith communities established and controversies that occurred were the result of people seeking to, theologically and biblically, obey God. There is, however, also so much that we have got wrong — not because we read different bibles or worship a different God — but, I would argue, because the theological lens through which we read the bible, understand God, and understand our place in God’s plan, was often based on naïve, unreflective, distorted, or inherited theologies, which led to many of the strange, and at times un-biblical expressions of faith, life, and church that we now see as lacking.
My point is not to be critical of everything that has come before — doing so is futile, and a wrong approach to good theology. My challenge here is to reiterate what many of us have found by studying theology. When we take the time to explore the amazing depth of Christian language, and Christian thought especially as it has been developed throughout history, we find that our faith has not been quashed or limited, or that we have become a strange alien academic, unable to be practical because our heads are always in a book, always philosophically arguing the abstract meaning of some word or idea. Instead, the rituals, symbols, and praxis of the Christian faith, regardless of our context, expand in meaning and relevance for us. When we take up the challenge of what Anselm called ‘faith seeking understanding’, we find that our understanding of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, creation, life, and the purpose for which God has redeemed us does not lead us into cul-de-sacs of circular arguments. Instead it provides for us the theological food that enables us to mature as Christians, and to wisely, and more confidently, follow after, lead others towards, and live for the plans and the future that God has already laid out for us. I argue that learning theology should not be an option, or an elective in Christian discipleship, but should be a core element in anyone’s journey — no matter what level you engage in it. Furthermore, it should not be considered purely the domain of the academic institution, or just for ‘that lot over there’, but encouraged in every Church context, whether you belong to an Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, or Pentecostal community.
Daniel Migliore asserts ‘that Christian faith prompts enquiry, searches for deeper understanding, dares to raise questions’. This faith that we profess is not a naïve or blind belief that requires no questions or seeks no further clarification. It is instead a dynamic faith, where we are required to not only obey, but also to seek the one whom we obey in order to know the God who calls us into being. This is the task of Theology. Migliore goes on to ask the question, ‘How could we ever be finished with the quest for a deeper understanding of God? What would be the likely result if we lacked the courage to ask, do I rightly know who God is and what God wills?’ My journey into theology began not knowing where it would end, if anywhere. But twenty years on, my love of theology has led me to new understanding of the bible and God, and to authors, historical discussions, and contemporary expressions of faith and ministry that would never have happened had I not had the courage to ask the questions and step into the arena that is ‘Christian theology’.
This post was written by Grant Buchanan, Dean of Learning and Teaching at Harvest Bible College.
Theological study with Harvest Bible College means experiencing practical theology from experts in the field and hands-on ministry training in your home church and beyond. Find out more about our courses.