My Story Part 10: On Becoming an Amateur Theologian

“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

― Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1995)

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. 

— 1 Peter 3:15

Johannes Kepler, a key figure in the scientific revolution of the 17th century, once wrote that through his scientific research and theories he “was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him.” He also wrote: “Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it benefits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.”

What Kepler said of astronomy can perhaps also be said of theology, that it consists in “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” Properly speaking, “theo-logy” is about the study (logos) of God (Theos). Call it “God-talk” if you like. And the goal of theology ultimately ought to be doxological, oriented to the praise and worship of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Knowing about God and actually knowing God should never be separated.

And trust me, theology is, perhaps despite initial appearances, the most practical discipline or subject there is.

I know. You’re skeptical.

Let me add to that and say this. Every Christian–every single follower of Jesus–is a theologian. Not because every Christian is responsible for writing tome after tome of dense theological prose. Rather, because, as A.W. Tozer once insightfully wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

And we all think about God. Certainly some moreso than others. And some–or maybe most–just not very well. Maybe I can put it this way. Each person is at least an unintentional theologian. They don’t intentionally seek to learn more about God. But they have thoughts all the same, however informed or uninformed they may be.

And our thoughts about God have consequences. This is true whether I deny God’s existence or I think he’s some sort of distant, uncaring, uninvolved Deistic deity or the God of the Christian Scriptures. Each view, and there are more, impacts how we approach everything from politics, science, sexuality, entertainment, and relationships.

Think of it this way: Am I and the other human beings around me the result of the blind, pitiless indifference of evolutionary processes or instead are we made lovingly and purposefully in the image of God?

Theology touches upon the most fundamental questions of human existence.

Here’s the thing. I know that there will be people who balk at the idea of some being more informed than others about God. Because God is ineffable and mysterious, it’s sheer hubris to think that one person can know more about God than another person. Kepler aside, we certainly can’t examine God or claims about him like an astronomer examines the orbits of moons and planets. All “God-talk,” therefore is, at best, speculation and, at worst, mere superstition.

Or so some think.

Obviously, this isn’t my view. As a character in The X-Files (a sci-fi show from the 90s) once said, “There are more worlds than the one you can hold in your hand.” Indeed. Reality is about much more than what we experience with our senses and can measure.

Beside, even the claim that only scientific truth counts as truth is itself not demonstrable using the scientific method. It’s an unscientific assumption. Technically, it’s what has been called “scientism.” The notion that only science can tell us what’s true about the world is itself not a conclusion drawn from empirical observation and testing.

All this to say, that it is possible to make theological truth claims. There are plenty of sound, powerful, and persuasive arguments for the existence of God and for the veracity of Christian truth claims. We’re not only talking about subjective experiences or mere opinions and preferences.

Of course, I didn’t always realize or understand this.

My real introduction to theology took place in the same year I got involved with IVCF. I began to take classes in biblical studies and in Christian thought. It was a gradual introduction. I cringe to think of what my first papers were like. Filled with assumptions and unclear thinking, no doubt.

But this process was just as important as the process of getting involved with IVCF. I was still wrestling with a lot of questions. I was working out my beliefs. I was reading the Bible in many ways for the very first time.

And what studying theology did was help me to anchor my wrestling in the history of Christian thinking, from ancient theologians like Augustine to modern theologians like Karl Barth. Christianity has a profoundly rich theological tradition that stretches from the first to the twenty-first century.

I remember professors such as Dr. Charles Scobie, who introduced me to biblical studies, and Dr. Colin Grant, who introduced me to theology and critical thinking. Being in their classrooms, even when I didn’t agree with them, pushed me and challenged me to articulate my positions and arguments. We all need people who push us like this.

Here’s the thing: learning how to think is as important in some ways as learning what to think. Sadly, we live in a culture where a lot of people are simply not able to think critically. Our thoughts barely extend past the most recent Tweet or meme or Facebook post. I heard recently someone say that in our internet culture more and more people “think with their feelings.”

Yikes. How is this not a dangerous thing?

Unfortunately, sometimes this is even true in some church traditions. More, there are people in churches who look down on deeper thinking and being intellectual. Being educated is seen as a negative. Like historian Mark Noll commented when examining the history of American evangelism, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

How many Christians, for instance, base their faith on the next spiritual high? On a particular sort of “worship experience”? That many even refer to worship services as “experiences” is itself troubling. Not only does it focus worship on how it makes us feel, so we equate our feelings with the work and presence of the Holy Spirit, it’s at risk of misunderstanding and of miscommunicating to others the nature of worship and therefore the Christian faith. It’s the sort of thing a more robust theology–a theology of worship, specifically–would address.

Ramble, ramble, ramble . . .

But this is why theology is important. It matters. It’s immensely practical because it informs and shapes how we live. And, besides, we all do theology. Each of us thinks about God. What we think about God matters. It’s what matters most.

And I certainly wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t learned that years ago.

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