Staying Christian while studying Theology
Greg Bannister outlines some tips on keeping a vibrant walk with the Lord while studying theology at university.
Studying theology can sometimes be disorienting. It was once so easy to just pick up a gospel, read a few verses and be blown away by the kindness, love, compassion, majesty, power and authority of Jesus. Pick up that same gospel now, start reading and before we know it questions start popping into our heads like: “What does the Greek say? Is this a pronouncement story? How does this reflect the relationship between the church and 1st Century Judaism?” etc... And if you're not then left asking the question “Is this even true?”, Jesus can still end up feeling 'unreal' to us. It can be as if those questions created a distance between us and Him that wasn't there before. Here are some tips/comments that may be of help if you're feeling a bit confused and disoriented by studying theology:
If you're feeling this way, don't worry, it's normal!
If you're feeling bewildered by it all then you're not the first to feel that way and nor will you be the last. One theologian compared starting to study theology as a bit like going through puberty. Theologically-speaking, once we were children with all the sense of security that brought. Soon we will be happy, stable theological adults; in the meantime there's this weird stage of adolescence that isn't always comfortable to go through, when we don't feel fully either one or the other.
"No temptation (N.B. Gk. peirasmos so could be translated "testing" or "trial") has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." (1 Cor 10:13 ESV)
How to cope? Keep doing things normal Christians do!
There are things we can do to help us cope and even thrive as we go through this ‘awkward adolescent’ stage. And a bit like teenagers still need to eat, drink, breathe, sleep and maintain a normal level of personal hygiene (hopefully!); so what helps normal Christians grow is what helps normal Christians studying theology grow too! It’s not that there aren’t challenges and opportunities caused by studying theology. Rather, those challenges and opportunities are just subject-specific varieties of the challenges all Christians face; and so we can face them in similar ways to the ways Christians face a variety of challenges. In other words, keep doing the things normal Christians do!
Keep reading the Bible
Adolescents don't stop eating and drinking and Christians facing the battles of studying theology still need daily bread. But our studies can sometimes 'get in the way’ of our Bible reading and listening to sermons in church. Some suggestions for ways to minimise the impact of this are:
- Use different translations for set texts and for devotional reading e.g. if the set text is NRSV, try having devotions in the NIV or Message.
- For devotional reading, read different sections of the Bible to the stuff you are currently studying. The aim is to meet and hear God, not ponder whether a given phrase is an editorial insertion!
E.g. if it’s New Testament lectures this term, reading the Old Testament devotionally and vice versa. If you're reading the gospels, perhaps make the most of the 'catholic epistles' of Hebrews; James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, 3 John and Jude.
In time, we can learn how to address the knotty questions and also feed on God's word from the same text, but in the early stages of learning theology it can help to keep the learning of critical skills in our studies and our devotional reading focused on different passages. God has given us all the Scriptures to enjoy and profit from. This may be an opportunity to find riches in the bits of the Bible you've never read before.
- Many people like to use commentaries or study notes as part of their devotional reading. If that’s you then use more expository commentaries. There are some really good ones around like The Bible Speaks Today series, or Dale Ralph Davis' expositions of Joshua-2 Kings in the ‘Focus on the Bible’ series.
- Don't be surprised if, as you learn to read the Bible better through your studies, you also learn to read the Bible better in your personal Bible reading. BUT, don't let more accurate and technical reading replace your hunger to hear God as you read. Keep praying and asking God to open your ears to hear Him. Ultimately, the Bible is a love-letter from your heavenly Father to YOU, wouldn't it be a shame if in reading it we just noted the accuracy of the grammar and literary brilliance without taking it to our hearts as a word from Him and responding in love back?
"All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness." (2 Tim 3:16 ESV)
Keep going to church
Church can be tough for theologians, especially if we like to contribute in Bible study!
- A word on listening to sermons. We should use our theological skills to ask ourselves if the preaching is biblical. But, we mustn’t expect the preacher to address the issues we're addressing in our essays. Our studies ask all sorts of questions of the Bible. Almost never is the question "What is the living God saying to his beloved people today through this passage?" But that is precisely the questions preachers should be trying to answer in their sermons. So we shouldn't be surprised that preachers prefer not to spend time in the pulpit discussing issues of dating and authorship, these things may interest us, but really they're only stepping stones along the way to the main purpose which is hearing God's word for us today through his word written back then.
Another danger is that our essays can lead us to unconsciously adopt a mindset that says the Bible is a set text which is there solely to be understood. Listening out in sermons for application reminds us that God's Word is not just there to be known and understood but also obeyed. Pray for opportunities to put what you learn into practice.
- A word on participating in Bible studies. It can be tempting, because we're all proud, to want to show off our knowledge. Other students might also assume we know everything there is to know about the entire Bible just because we're studying theology. The result is they can sometimes be intimidated by us or assume our answers are always right. A bit of self-awareness should mean we can still participate and contribute in Bible studies, but not in a way that intimidates others.
It's worth remembering that the Bible is a book that was written to ordinary people. The Corinthians weren't biblical scholars, they were everyday folk like us. That means that if they could understand what Paul was saying, with a bit of thought and application everyday folk in our day can get a handle on the heart of Paul's message too. If we understand that, then it will help us realise that any insight we might have based on some obscure detail we've picked up as a result of our studies may not necessarily be the main point of the passage being studied. Instead we can learn with others together as we work at trying to understand the main points in a passage.
"And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near." (Heb 10:24-25 ESV)
Keep praying and praising
God can sometimes 'feel unreal to us' because we can stop relating to him as another person who we worship through prayer, praise etc… Instead we can start to see him as an 'it' to be studied. This can happen because we spend so much time reading about Him impersonally and in the abstract in our studies, much like a biologist analyses the internal organs of a frog. The result can be that instead of learning about a God who, like a beautiful and far off galaxy, is so much bigger than us that we are left with a sense of awe and wonder; instead we can be left with a sense that God is a small lifeless human construct, rather like a dead frog after dissection. One of the ways in which we can keep our walk with God relational is to make time to pray and to force ourselves to actually pray. Church can often be a great help here as we worship God in song. Don’t be afraid to belt out the truth. Helmut Thielicke has some very wise words to say about being in relationship with God rather than just reading about him in A little exercise for young theologians.
Knowing God should lead to love and worship, not merely lead to academic interest and dryness. Keeping our prayer lives going is a great way to do that. Reading the Psalms as a springboard to prayer can help, not least because they show us how believers in the past have related to God through all the varied seasons of life.
"Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you." (1 Pet 5:6-7 ESV)
Keep sharing the gospel
God is a God who loves the whole world. When he came to the world in person he didn't come as a theologian, he came as the son of a manual craftsman with a message anyone could understand. This means that, for all the extra detail (helpful or otherwise) that we gain through our studies, the basic Christian message of the gospel and those same truths applied to our lives in deepening discipleship are actually straightforward enough for anyone to grasp. But what we can miss when we’re steeped in a university environment is that grasping truth takes more than just intellectual understanding. Psalm 34v8 invites us to "Taste and see that the Lord is good". That is quite different from "agree that the intellectual proposition 'God is good' is in fact true". One way for us to increasingly enjoy and know (and not just know about!) the goodness of God and his purposes for us in Christ is by sharing the gospel in evangelism. Sharing the gospel will also help us have a sense of perspective, keeping the main truths of the gospel central.
"and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ." (Philemon 6 ESV)
Many of the challenges and opportunities we face studying theology are simply versions of the challenges and opportunities facing other ‘normal’ Christians and can be addressed accordingly. But there are some challenges that are particularly acute for theologians and it’s these issues that I want to address here.
Open an "Awaiting Further Light" (AFL) file in your head
I have bad news for you. You'll never know everything there is to know about God. Theology is both limited and unlimited. It's limited because whilst God is infinite, he has not given us an exhaustive knowledge of himself. There is a limit to how much God has shown us of himself. But theology is also unlimited because what he has given us is so deep and rich we can never exhaustively study all he has revealed to us. This means that we will need to live with not having all the answers. But what do we do with the questions we don't have answers for? Or what do we do with questions we think we might have answers for but we're really not sure if the answers are right and true? Answer: put them in the "AFL file". We will all need to carry around an “Awaiting Further Light” file in our heads. It’s a place where we park unfinished theological business. It might be a verse we’re confused by, an argument by a theologian we’re not sure is right, it might be a whole area of study.
We need an AFL file because it is right that no question is off limits. But sometimes big issues and questions come up and frankly we don't have time to deal with them in the busyness of a university term. It can help to know that we've not ignored them, but that we want to give them due consideration when we've actually got the headspace to do so. Having an "AFL file" shouldn't be an excuse for intellectual laziness, instead it's just accepting that we can only do so much at a given time and some stuff needs to be 'parked' to one side, until we can address it later. Some stuff goes into the "AFL file" and gets pulled out and resolved soon afterward. Other stuff may stay there for a long while, both situations are fine. We can also pull a problem out, have a look at it do a bit of work on it and put it back for later, chipping away at it over time until we're happy we have resolved it. We don't need to know everything, only God needs to know that. What we do need to know is that we can trust God in what he has told us and work hard to understand and apply what we do know.
"The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law." (Deut 29:29 ESV)
Read widely, including good evangelical scholarship
How we approach the study of theology will affect the conclusions we reach. And maintaining our intellectual integrity as we study is very important. If a person approaches the Bible assuming it could not possibly be the word of God and they also rule out all claims for the supernatural a priori then it is inevitable that they will reject a lot of the Bible as historically and theologically false. A lot of old liberal biblical studies falters for just this reason. BUT if we as evangelicals just decide to dismiss all liberal scholarship then three things will happen:
A) We will fail our degrees. If we are going to be responsible students we must engage with positions we disagree with, if we don't do that, we aren't really engaging with our studies.
B) We will lose our intellectual integrity.
Our God is a God of truth. Therefore we shouldn't be afraid to listen to other people just because they say something different from us. We should listen but be prepared to disagree and show where and why they are wrong.
C) We will miss an opportunity to learn and grow.
This is because, whatever else is going on, liberals are reading the same Bible we are. They might see features that are in it that we don't, even if we don't agree with the whole of their interpretation of what those features mean, at the very least we can still learn from them that they are there.
How then can we maintain our intellectual integrity and seek after the truth as faithful Christians? In part, by realising we are not alone and that God has gifted the church with excellent evangelical theologians and biblical scholars. Their work does not always make it on to faculty reading lists, but their scholarship can be of the very highest quality. When approaching an essay or topic it can help to know how others who share our convictions about God and Bible have worked through the same issues we’re facing. In all of our essays, much of what we do is stand on the shoulders of others – why can't those others be fellow evangelicals from time to time? The best of evangelical scholarship learns what it can from liberal scholarship and incorporates what is true into its own understanding. Surely this is the only responsible way to study - examine everything, test it and hold on to what is true. It’s simply following Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians about prophecy is equally applicable to our reading. “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thess 5:20-22 ESV) This applies equally to scholarship coming from an ‘evangelical’ stable as it does to scholarship coming from a ‘liberal’ source. Everyone’s understanding is tainted by sin, no-one is beyond being used by God to explore his truth.
That said, you may find that as you read good evangelical scholarship the experience of many others becomes your own. Namely your outlook changes and rather than approaching theological studies defensively, you find you have an increased confidence in the Bible as God's Word and an increased ability to build on that foundation and learn all you can of God's truth as you search the Scriptures. A great place to find this scholarship and pointers to other sources can be found on theologynetwork.org. Themelios is also an excellent resource, it is an evangelical theological journal that has lots of archived articles aimed at theology undergraduates that are a great place to start reading when approaching essays.
By working hard at our intellectual integrity we will stop ourselves falling into the trap of compartmentalising our faith and our studies. When this happens we end up believing some things on Sundays in church and quite different things the other days of the week as we read and write. It is possible to rejoice in God and the trustworthiness of his Word all seven days of the week as we see the Bible's reliability defended against its critics at the highest level by our brothers and sisters who are full-time academics.
"Do your best to present to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." (2 Tim 2:15 ESV)
Pray for your studies
God can help us as we study. God is the author of all truth. He lives inside us by the Spirit of Truth. Praying as we work and study, and praying for our work can be a great way to build up our faith, even as we work hard in the library. Anselm of Canterbury coined the phrase "fides quaerens intellectum" - faith seeking understanding. It's a great way to think about what we are doing as we study theology as Christians. We are taking our faith, our personal trust in God, and seeking to understand it better. We want to get to know the God we trust in better. We want to understand the deeds he has done better. There’s so much to explore, not least the blessing and riches of his sending his Divine Son to become human, to die on the cross for our sins and to rise again for our salvation. We want to know the God who lives in us and empowers us by the Holy Spirit better. We want to know how this God would have us live better. We can't do any of this without his help. And if we try to learn without him, it all becomes dry and theoretical. With his help though, as we study we can find ourselves led not only into a deeper understanding of his truth, but also into a deeper love for him, joy in him and a deeper desire to live for him.
"Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law" (Ps 119:18 ESV)
Ask for help if you need it
God has not asked any of us to be lone-ranger Christians or theologians. Let's make the most of each other. Let's chat things through with our friends, let's chat things through with the Lord in prayer. It's okay to find things tricky – that's called being human and a creature rather than being God the Creator. On a practical note you might find issues in your studies cause real questions to arise in your mind. Don't be afraid of the questions, but also don't be afraid to ask others how they deal with them. If people do fall away while studying theology then humanly-speaking it's often for one of two reasons:
1) Sin crept in.
We all sin, but what can happen is that through choices we make we can find that deep down we want sin more than we want God. When that happens we can find we make a deliberate choice to sin which we then back up with all sorts of arguments that we once thought were spurious. A classic example is a Christian falling in love with, dating and eventually marrying an unbeliever. Paul clearly teaches that Christians should marry fellow Christians (see 1 Cor 7:39). But often what happens to people who've made that choice is that they justify their behaviour by changing their beliefs on the issue of how God wants Christians engage in dating, relationships and marriage. This change in ethical beliefs can then infect any belief that God will judge unbelievers for rejecting Christ. After all who wants to believe that they won't spend eternity with their husband or wife whom they love so much? As sin takes over, it's possible that all sorts of denials of the gospel can then follow over time. At the end of the day we all face temptation to sin, but when God saved us through Christ he didn't save us as individuals, he saved us to be part of the body of Christ, the family of God, the church. We can help each other when we are tempted, we can pray for each other. We can be each other’s friends and hang out together in ways that help keep us out of situations where we know we'll be tempted. We're all facing various battles, let's help each other stand and fight them.
2) Private feelings of doubt snowballed.
Doubt is often misunderstood. It’s not the same as just having questions. Sometimes we have genuine intellectual questions raised by our studies that we want answering. If that’s the case then we can often find good answers to those questions in the work of solid evangelical scholars who can point out, for example, the flaws in the arguments that raise the questions, or the faulty assumptions such questions might be based on.
Often we have questions and often we can find answers to them. Of the ones we can't find an answer to, much of the time we just live with them because we don't find them particularly troubling. However, what can sometimes happen is that such an unanswered question gets attached to a general feeling of unease or unsettledness. We no longer then just have an intellectual question, instead our uncertainty about the question creates an existential problem for us. Instead of trusting God to have the answer we distrust him and we start to genuinely doubt. When this happens, what we often do, because we're all insecure, is we pretend the feelings and the questions aren't there and we bury them. So we ignore the questions. What can then happen in some cases is that the feeling of unease spreads and grows and instead of feeling uneasy about one issue we're feeling uneasy about ten questions, and then over time that turns into twenty questions... And the questions aren't just about minor things like "why does Matthew have two demoniacs when Mark only has one?" but major questions that we're almost too scared to articulate: "Can I really trust Jesus with my whole life? What if this really is all just a delusion I made up or wanted to believe?"
There is an alternative and better course of action than just burying our questions and doubts. That alternative is to air them with friends or older Christians you can trust. If they're very theological-studies-specific, an older Christian who knows a bit about the challenges of studying theology. Airing such questions early means that the feelings of doubt haven't grown into something that feels unmanageable. If we air our doubts early, we can have them resolved before they grow into something that troubles us even further.
Sometimes it helps just to acknowledge that the feelings of unease are there and actually sometimes they will just come and go, just like our mood can change from time to time. Other times someone else might have faced exactly the same experience and questions and they can show you how they resolved it and the feelings of doubt can then fade. Facing doubts, sharing them, and resolving them in ways that are faithful to God and intellectually honest is one of the many ways in which God grows us in maturity. We were made to face life's challenges together, be they moral or intellectual. And as we encourage each other in living faithfully for God we're all built up as believers together too. Don't be a lone-ranger Christian, don't be a lone-ranger theologian. Theology, and especially the joys and challenges of theology, were designed to only be experienced as part of the body of Christ. And God has designed Christian growth to happen in such a way that we need each other if we're to be mature and steadfast believers.
"Rather speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love." (Eph 4:15-16 ESV)