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  • Writer's pictureElijah Blalock

Learn Theology Without Losing Your Soul, Part 1: A Pure Heart

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The word "theology" conjures up different feelings for different people. For some, it sounds important and exciting, but for others, it sounds boring, irrelevant, and possibly dangerous. In reality, theology is just thinking and speaking about God. In some sense, all Christians are theologians because they all think and speak about God, and we should all care to do that well. All Christians would benefit from studying some theology. However, some Christians feel especially drawn to it. Some may seek out a formal education in theology, while others may simply read books, listen to podcasts, and talk to their pastors. These Christians love thinking and studying, and that is a wonderful thing!


How do we do theology well? We should try to do theology in a way that glorifies God and nurtures our souls, but many Christians have jumped into theological studies only to wreck their faith in the process. Studying theology can be dangerous. If we want to do theology without losing our souls, then before we worry about what books to read or what seminaries are best, we need to have our hearts and minds prepared by God. In this post, I'll explain the dangers we face learning theology, and then the virtues we need to cultivate in our hearts to avoid them. In the next article, I'll go over the habits that form these virtues.


The Dangers of Theology

First, I want to highlight two dangers that I have observed among the theologically inclined. These are temptations we are all likely to face.


Pride

In 1 Corinthians 8:1, Paul says, "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." There are few things more insufferable than a first-year seminarian who has taken it upon himself to explain everything wrong with everyone else's doctrine. And yet, lots of aspiring theologians become arrogant. The temptation is powerful. While it is very easy to see someone else's pride, it is not easy to see it in ourselves. Knowing theology does not make us better Christians, but it often makes us feel like we are. Further, it can make us think that if other people would just think more like us, all of the church's problems would go away. Thinking like this makes us look down on others, seeing them as obstacles rather than brothers and sisters. An aspiring theologian must be ruthless against pride.


Error

Paul also says in Colossians 2:8, "Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elements of the world, rather than Christ." There are far too many sad stories of aspiring theologians who set out to study only to fall into heresies and errors because they have been captivated by the world's thinking. If we believe in truth, then we should not be afraid to investigate it because the truth will stand up to scrutiny. However, we would be foolish to ignore the fact that many have lost their faith during their studies. I don't want to discourage anyone from studying, but I do want to encourage everyone to make sure their hearts and minds are prepared and committed to Christ. Do we want to know Christ more fully, and are we committed to the truthfulness of his Word? Or are we inwardly more concerned about appearing intelligent and reasonable in the eyes of the world?


The Virtues of a Good Theologian

Studying theology is still incredibly rewarding, and even necessary, so we should not shy away on account of the dangers. However, we should prepare our hearts and minds for study by cultivating a set of virtues. These virtues will keep us from the dangers above and allow us to grow in godly knowledge that makes us even more faithful to Christ.


Theology is a unique discipline because we are not studying a mere object. God is a "he" — not an "it." Studying God is less like studying physics and more like studying your spouse. The knowledge we are after is not merely factual, but personal knowledge of a personal being — which includes facts but is more than facts. But even this analogy falls woefully short. God is infinite, totally unlike all of creation, and utterly beyond our comprehension and language. Some theologians have described the knowledge of God as something we can apprehend but not comprehend. (Fred Sanders gives an example and explanation of this from Richard Trench in this blog post.) To comprehend God would mean that we know all there is to know about him. But to apprehend God means to lay hold of him. The idea is that knowledge of God is a gift we receive from God through those who teach his Word. We can never get our minds around all that God is or know him by our own power. However, God has revealed himself to us, and we come to know him through the faith handed down once and for all. In this sense, we apprehend or lay hold of knowledge of God. It is not comprehensive knowledge, nor is it something we arrive at through our own reasoning, but it is true knowledge. By this gift, we do not merely know facts about God, but we know God personally. We can only receive this knowledge as we are transformed into the image of Christ, and the knowledge itself transforms us when we receive it. These are some virtues that should accompany our pursuit of knowledge.


Holiness

Hebrews 12:14 says, "Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness — without it no one will see the Lord." Part of the theological task is growing in holiness. While we may wish to jump into reading books, we should first cultivate a pure heart. We must be growing in obedience to God and rooting up the sins in our lives and our attachment to this world. Now, some wicked men have said true things. You may learn from reading unholy men. However, the knowledge they offer is incomplete. It may offer language that truthfully describes God, which is very valuable, but that is not all we are after. We should want to know God. That is more than head knowledge, though it is not less than that. If we wish to have such knowledge, we must allow God to make us holy.


Love

The greatest commandments are that we love God and love our neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40). 1 John 4:8 says, "The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love." There is no true knowledge of God without love. All theological studying must be motivated by the love of God. Just as I seek to know my wife more fully because I love her, so too our study of God must be motivated by our love for him. Further, because of God's perfect worthiness of our love, all true knowledge of God will increase our love for him. Knowledge that does not increase our love for God is worthless.


Theological study should also be done for the sake of our neighbors. We should earnestly desire to love our neighbors by speaking truthfully to them about God. Theological study should produce treasures to be shared with the church to build it up and increase its joy. Additionally, just as true knowledge increases our love for God, it should also increase our love for our neighbor. "If anyone says, “I love God,” and yet hates his brother or sister, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother or sister whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen." (1 John‬ ‭4‬:‭20‬)


Finally, a good theologian loves those he or she studies. You would not want someone to take you out of context or hastily dismiss your arguments. You would want to be read carefully, listened to attentively, and rightly understood. Further, you would want to be read charitably. You would not want to be insulted, slandered, or called a heretic for every minor disagreement. You should extend the same kindness to all you learn from.

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Faith

Anselm is famous for his motto, "Faith seeking understanding." He writes, "For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand." (Proslogion, 1) We do not begin the task of theology as unbiased investigators. Because knowledge of God is apprehended rather than comprehended, to understand, we must believe. This is not to say that faith is unreasonable, nor is it to say that we cannot use reason to find assurance when we doubt or to help persuade an unbeliever. These things are certainly valuable. What we believe is not incoherent or illogical. However, while God is not contrary to reason, God is above our reason. He must grant us the knowledge we are after. He does this as we believe. While it is good to ask questions and seek understanding, we must not act as though we can put God on trial. We must avoid the unbelief of the Pharisees who always demanded more signs (Mark 8:11-12). Theology is ultimately for those who believe and desire God. Our belief is never perfect, and studying can be a means by which God helps our unbelief (Mark 9:24), but theology cannot help a heart that loves darkness rather than light (John 3:19).


Faith is also an important guardrail for our theological musings. We desire to understand the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all (Jude 3). Many inexperienced theologians think too highly of their own independent thinking. There is a core set of Christian beliefs, expressed primarily in the Nicene Creed, that ought to be honored as a time-tested expression of biblical doctrine. The creed is the oldest and most widely held standard among believers of all types for a reason — it gets the Bible right. Further, most Christian traditions and denominations have confessions of faith that explain in more detail what they believe. These traditions developed the way they did for a reason. While it is good to learn from as many as possible, trying to make a hodge podge of them all will likely result in incoherence. Theology is a complex web of interconnected ideas, and tinkering with one leads to changes in the others. Arriving at a coherent system takes years of careful study. I think it is wisest to own your tradition and seek to operate within it. You may conclude that your tradition is lacking or unbiblical in some way, but this is not a decision to be made in haste.


Humility

If you read Proverbs, one of the Fool's defining characteristics is that he is arrogant and unteachable. It is shameful for a theologian to be this way, regardless of how much he knows. Arrogance is a blight on good theology and an insult to the God it represents. Good theology spoken with an arrogant spirit is like a beautiful painting smeared with mud. We need humility in two ways. First, we need humility before God. Our creaturely intellects cannot grasp the infinitude that is God. Our language can never fully express the truth about him. The most true and beautiful theology ever written will not be worthy of comparison with what we will see when we see God. We should be slow to speak about God and careful when we do, lest we start to talk like Job's friends. Second, we need humility before others. We should assume that other people have something to teach us, even if we strenuously disagree with them on major points. We should never presume we have all the right answers. We must learn to listen carefully, even to those we disagree with, and to graciously receive critiques, even if they are uncharitable.


Pure in Heart

In Matthew 5:8, Jesus says, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." What are we after when we study theology? If you gave me some piece of theology to read without telling me who the author is, I could read it and make an assessment. Without knowing anything about the author, I could judge that the theology is biblical and say that it is good theology, meaning that it is correct. But imagine a scenario in which that piece of good theology was written by someone who lived a life of sin. Is it still good theology? It is in the sense that it is still correct. I could learn from it. But it's not good in that it did not achieve its purpose in its author. We are after correct answers, yes, but we are after more than just correct answers. We seek to know God and be transformed by him. Let us not do theology in a way that renders our correct answers ultimately useless to us. God is the goal, so let us pursue theology with a pure heart that we might see God. In a follow-up post, I'll describe some habits that help us do just that.

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