After twenty years of diligent study, including getting a Master’s Degree in Exegetical Theology, I finally feel I have worthwhile insights to share. I stopped blogging precisely because I felt there were so many other voices people should hear instead of my own. I still believe that, but I also believe the insights below will be helpful to those who feel a call to teaching ministry and those who are interested in theology in general.
Ultimately Studying Theology is About Love for God and His Church
With the proliferation of Christian denominations and the invention of the motorized vehicle, churches have become almost consumer products. We have twenty options and we pick one based on our personal preferences. Even if we are uneasy with that concept, it is what it is. Successful churches, defined here in the worldly terms of attendance and budget, are typically those that have attractive services, charismatic speakers, and dynamic children’s ministries. Notice here that Biblically faithful teaching, a leadership that shepherds the flock, and the like, aren’t part of the equation. Of course, successful churches may be Biblically faithful but worldly success and faithfulness aren’t directly correlated. With the budgets of so many churches stretched thin, these “successful” churches are often the only ones that can afford to pay those who are hoping to minister as a vocation.
Another challenge for those that study theology is that existing leaders tend to believe they are right. Few churches are going to be excited about your teaching unless you agree with what they already think. For pragmatic ministers, the most expedient path is to learn a particular church’s beliefs and parrot them. Theological study will get in the way, as it may well lead you away from what your church believes.
This sounds negative. I don’t mean it to be; I just want you to go into theological study with your eyes wide open. You are doing this out of love for God and for the good of the church. Stay grounded in these and all the hard work will be worth it in the end.
Leaders Need To Work Way More on Communication
Based on the section above, you may think I view success negatively. Not at all. Success is wonderful. Numbers mean people, and people matter, which is why this section immediately follows the previous one. Theology takes hard work over years. There is always more to learn. Because of this, many of the Church’s best thinkers never get around to communicating that knowledge to others. Recently, I came across a quote on the importance of communication by the Greek statesman Pericles – “one who forms a judgment on any point, but cannot explain himself clearly to the people, might as well have never thought at all on the subject.” Oh, that I had read this when I was 20. I have some knowledge now, but I struggle to communicate it well, either through speaking or writing. I should have studied the latter without neglecting the former.
It’s striking how many of the greatest Fathers of the church studied rhetoric intensely, meaning hours a day, before becoming leaders. For example, I am currently reading On God and Christ by Gregory of Nazianzus, who was known in the early Church simply as “the Theologian.” The introduction describes Gregory’s early training as follows, “he…studied assiduously the arts of public speaking and poetry, and would have wished to stay had he not been called back, now baptized and aged a mature 28, to the duties of family and Church. It had been a long training in skills comparable with for complexity and surpassing in range, those of a modern opera singer” (p. 10). To be blunt, people aren’t likely to pay attention to you unless you are an exceptional communicator (I’m speaking to myself here as well). Thankfully, that is a skill that can be developed. Be sure to include rhetoric among your studies.
The Science of Theology is Thousands of Years Along
I grew up in a Biblicist tradition that wasn’t connected to the historic Church. I didn’t realize until I went to seminary that most of the questions I had about God and the Bible already had answers. At that time, I thought all I needed were the Bible and the Holy Spirit to know the truth. But, as the saying goes, no man is an island, and that especially applies in the Church. God has intentionally spread talents around so that we must receive from others; we can’t go it alone. Just as you wouldn’t try to rediscover mathematics, but instead use textbooks to teach you, don’t try to rediscover theology yourself.
And whatever you do, please don’t try to innovate until you’ve learned the basics. I say again, learn the basics before you explore new ground.
The Two Healthy Paths to True Beliefs
Here is a helpful quote on developing correct beliefs by Ray Dalio, “None of us is born knowing what is true; we either have to discover what’s true for ourselves or believe and follow others.”
Most education is believing what authorities tell you. I’m speaking of education in general, not just in the Church. For example, students are expected to accept what their physics teacher tells them. It is a rare student who demands to read all the relevant studies and recreate the experiments themselves. In the same way, Christians should start with learning what the best Christian teachers have taught. Find a good catechism and memorize it. I recommend either the Westminster Shorter or Heidelberg Catechisms along with the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. After that you can start to discover the depths of Christian thought for yourself.
Only Read The Best Books
Developing a deep understanding of theology yourself takes a tremendous amount of time. That is in large part because our understanding of God and creation is the foundation of all our other beliefs. Theology touches everything. Therefore, there isn’t time to muck about. Something like ten thousand Christian books are published every year. Don’t get stuck in what’s fashionable at the moment. Instead, spend your time reading the best books, those by the best Christian thinkers that have stood the test of time, or modern books by trustworthy teachers that transmit the best of Christian truth.
Develop Your Filter As Soon As Possible, Certainly Before Picking a Seminary
In my twenties, I read hundreds of books on theology. The trouble was that I had no way of knowing which were good and which were bad. I had no filter to remove the material that wasn’t worth my time. My pastors, devout men though they were, didn’t have adequate theological training and therefore couldn’t guide me. The only option then was to churn through material as I gradually grew in discernment, to develop my own filter so to speak. Seminary was a huge help in this regard. It connected me to theology proper. To use my analogy above, it’s as if while I was trying to rediscover math myself, someone gave me a set of math textbooks.
I don’t want you to go through the same struggles. Once you know the creeds and a good catechism, you’ll be better able to tell if the speaker or writer knows what they are talking about.
Suggested Reading Before Starting Seminary
Since I praised seminary above – I went to Covenant Theological Seminary by the way – I want to offer guidance on how to discern the good from the bad at a given seminary. Modern theology is not like other subjects, say math, to keep the comparison going. With math, there is no disagreement over the basics. One university is going to teach calculus pretty much like another. Not so with seminaries. Nearly every subject will be covered differently from seminary to seminary. In the section on belief above, I said your options are to believe others or learn for yourself. Seminary is supposed to give you the tools to learn for yourself as well as teach you what others have said. But are the tools they teach sound? Are they teaching the best of Christian thought?
Most students don’t know enough to weigh what is said. Therefore, I want to recommend some resources to prepare those attending seminary. Beyond the creeds and confessions mentioned above, I suggest you read Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis by Craig Carter and The Last Superstition by Edward Feser. Carter’s book will teach you how the Bible has been interpreted for most of Christian history, which is important because so much of current Biblical interpretation methods are grounded in, or at least strongly influenced by, atheist conceptions of the Bible. Feser’s book will introduce you to metaphysics, the rational study of reality, contrasting the main historical Christian approach with the latest secular approaches.
These aren’t necessarily easy reading. Take your time and look up the words you don’t know.
Learn the History of Thought
Reading the books above will introduce you to the history of ideas. The philosophical study of reality isn’t taught in schools anymore, so you’re probably not familiar with the subject, but you need to get familiar with it. The result shapes how you think about the world. Fish don’t study the water they swim in, they may not even be aware of it, but if it’s poisoned, they get sick. In the same way, we aren’t necessarily aware of the ideas that shape how we think. But the ideas have become poisoned. The way out of this is to go back to the basics and rebuild from the ground up.
There was a time when the Christian understanding of reality was what the smart, cool kids believed, in fact this lasted for well over a thousand years. Things started to go wrong in the thirteenth century when thinkers began to reject the idea of universals. This spread until it dominated the universities of Europe. Then came the seventeenth century – Descartes, Locke, and Spinoza. Even though the first two identified as Christians, their understanding of reality unraveled the rational, Christian system of thought. I don’t say they refuted the Christian system because they didn’t. Regardless, their ideas took over. We got modernism, romanticism, nihilism, existentialism, and post-modernism. All of these are wrong, but they are what so called rational, educated people believe these days.
It was unsettling learning in seminary that my thoughts were shaped by some French philosopher in the ‘60s. Ideas trickle down through influential progressive professors at universities to their students, who then become teachers and politicians and others who shape our culture.
The thing to do is learn what Christians used to think about the world before they became “enlightened.” This doesn’t mean you must reject science or anything like that. In simply means you must reject being shaped by the rejection of God and all the beliefs that proceed from that.
Theology Peaked In the 17th Century
Because of the preceding section – the rejection of God by intellectual culture – theological study began to decline in the seventeenth century. The best theologians came out of the best universities, but what do you think happened when those same universities taught Descartes and Spinoza instead of Aquinas and Calvin?
As far as I can tell, theological development in the church went something like this…The first several centuries featured various theological giants – Origen, the Cappadocian fathers, Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, and others who worked out the basics of Christian doctrine. There were other theological developments along the way, until Catholic doctrine peaked with Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. A couple of centuries later, the Reformers corrected most of the major errors of the Catholic church and then their successors filled in the details, peaking in the seventeenth century, at which point the Enlightenment took over popular thought.
After this point, intellectual inquiry shifted from learning to live a wise life to learning to manipulate nature to our advantage. I’m pro-science and technology; technology brings people out of starvation and gives us cool stuff. But I am anti-neglect of the study of deeper reality. Since education has become “practical,” the tools we need to understand reality well are out of our grasp. We may not even be aware of them. Who studies metaphysics, logic and epistemology these days?
All this to say, theological knowledge has massively declined since modernity took over. The best resources were written by the heirs of the Reformers. While there are many excellent teachers in the Church today, a lot of popular works just aren’t very good, largely for the reasons above. Focus on works written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for your basic theological study.
Many of the Great Works Are Locked Away In Latin
A serious complication is that theological works were written in Latin in those days and most of it hasn’t been translated into English. Unless you are fluent in Latin, you can’t read it. Look up Gisbertus Voetius, one of the greats, in the Post-Reformation Digital Library (PRDL). They have 196 of his works. If you go onto Amazon.com you can find one of these, Spiritual Discernment, available in English. PRDL has 30 works by Petrus van Mastricht, who according to Jonathan Edwards, produced the greatest theological work in history. One of these thirty has been translated into English, and only this year.
Guys are doing PhD dissertations on the meaning of a certain preposition in a single verse of Romans. I intended to complete something similar when I first entered seminary. Now, I question the wisdom of this. The modern Western church has incredible riches at her disposal to aid in understanding a given Biblical text. Yet many Evangelicals don’t have even a basic understanding of the doctrine of God (Mark Jones’ God Is is a great place to start). It’s my contention that our best and brightest should focus on recovering our theological heritage. It would be worthwhile to fund the translation of our Protestant heritage into English. Then efforts can be made to communicate the insights of the past for the benefit of the average Christian.