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Why Everyone Should Be a Serious Theologian


For Christian believers, there can be a love/hate relationship with theology.

We love theology because it provides an ordered, systematic, storied picture of the sixty-six books of the Bible. Theology packages the Bible—which can itself feel daunting—into a more digestible, less intimidating, easier to understand, cohesive whole.

Theology gives us an interpretive lens from which to more clearly see God, the world, our neighbor, and ourselves. It anchors us and forms our most deeply held convictions. It give us greater certainty about things that are true and things that are not; about things that should be treated as lovely and things that should be treated as repulsive; about things that are healthy and that enhance life and things that are harmful and that diminish life. On the whole, and when handled with humility and care, theology can be a tremendous asset to our existence.

But if handled poorly, theology can bring out the worst in us. As Paul was quick to warn the Corinthian saints, we can fathom all mysteries, but if we don’t have love, we have and we gain nothing. James says the same thing, perhaps even more bluntly, when he says that having the most sound, water-tight, correct system of doctrine *by itself* puts us in the same category as the devil of hell. “Even the demons believe,” James says, “and they shudder.”

We can memorize the whole Bible and affirm and believe and even preach every word of it, and still not be even remotely submitted to it. To the degree that this is true of us, we, like the demons, ought to shudder. Then we should run to Jesus immediately.

My predecessor at Nashville’s Christ Presbyterian Church, Dr. Charles McGowan, once shared a metaphor with me that I found both humorous and helpful. He said, and I paraphrase:

Scott, I believe that in the life of a Christian, theology should function like a skeleton. The skeleton is, of course, absolutely necessary for providing structure and strength to the rest of the body. But, like a skeleton with a body, if our theology is the only thing or even the main thing about our spirituality that is visible to others, it means that we are either spiritually sick or spiritually dead.


And so on point.

In his skeleton metaphor, Charles was in a way explaining why some people think of seminary, the place where many aspiring ministers go to become sound in their theology, as a “cemetery.” Those who think of seminary in this way are concerned the study of Scripture become so much of an academic exercise, that the pursuit of God wanes into a dull, lifeless, and in many ways useless endeavor.

Positively, these are also people who haven’t forgotten that the first and greatest commandment is to *love* the Lord our God with our whole selves, and to *love* our neighbor as ourselves.

The skeleton metaphor is especially relevant for those of us who come from a Reformed Presbyterian tradition. You see, we Reformed folks are known for emphasizing sound doctrine. Most of us would say that sound doctrine—that is, a biblically-grounded, accurate theology—is the greatest strength of our tradition. Indeed, this may be true. But when we fail to prioritize the life of the heart as a logical and necessary fruit of the life of the mind—manifest through things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control—we risk of missing the whole point. Deep knowledge of Scripture as the *sword* of the Spirit, and the sound doctrine that flows from it, must always lead to manifestations of the *fruit* of the Spirit.