For many people, who are considering a course in theology, there is an unspoken fear that such study will somehow ruin their faith: “Surely critical Bible study, followed by academic arguments about ‘God’, will kill my faith and ruin my love for him?”
It isn’t necessarily so. As I try to explain to those who attend our Open Days at Wycliffe Hall, there are ways in which ‘talking about God’ (which is all that ‘theo-logy’ is) can serve to strengthen us in faith, hope and love. Remembering Jesus’ summary of the ‘greatest commandment’ (Deut. 6:5 in Matt. 22:37), theology can instead cause us to ‘Love God….
..with all our mind’. We do not leave our minds behind at the college door, but instead bring them under God’s revelation. Ancient Israel was a community that knew she had been addressed by a speaking God, who had graciously given her his Word (see eg Psa 19, 119; 147:19-20). God’s people grow as they submit themselves to this revelation and are ‘ruled by the word of Christ’ (Col. 3:16). Good theology is therefore a matter of ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him’ – or, better, speaking truly of the God who himself has spoken.
… with all our heart’. Yet the Christian God has not simply revealed a body of truth (a ‘load of words’), but has revealed himself – as a person to be encountered, known and loved. His Son, Jesus, is not just a teacher of truth, but is Truth Incarnate – truth in personal form, a person whom we can know and love (1 Pet. 1:8). So a Christ-centred theology must also be, secondly, a growing in love for the One we already know.
… with all our soul’. The God of the Bible is also dynamic and active in his world. From the Exodus onwards, Israel knew their God as ‘rescuer’ and ‘saviour’. And this saving activity, they knew, was for those who were undeserving and powerless – indeed who were sinful and needed forgiveness. In due course God’s Son would die upon a cruel cross, not just to demonstrate God’s love, but to atone for sin and to redeem lost ‘souls’. So any ‘biblical’ theology worthy of that name will, thirdly, involve responding humbly to the God who saves.
… with all our strength’. Finally, the Bible is manifestly concerned about human behaviour and obedient action: ‘be careful how you walk’ (Eph. 5:15). ‘Walking’ (‘halakah’) is a key picture for the godly life in Scripture. So good theology will never be just ‘God-talk’ but will lead to, what might be called, ‘God-walk’. It will result in a walking obediently before the God who commands.
Guided by these four principles, studying theology need not destroy our faith and love. Instead it can be positively healthy and healing. Teaching staff at Wycliffe Hall are conscious we are studying together with fellow disciples of Jesus (‘souls’ needing forgiveness’) and we aim to give our students the best we can for their Academic Teaching (‘mind’), their Ministerial Training (‘strength’), and, above all, their Spiritual transformation (‘heart’).
Ultimately, as Eugene Peterson reminds us in his Poetry from Patmos, theology is a subset of worship: it is a speaking of God such that ‘he is not reduced or banalized, but known and adored’, so our lives are not ‘cramped into what we can explain but exalted by what we worship’.
Associate Vice-Principal, Wycliffe Hall