I live in a town that is educated. Like it or not, America’s political capital and it’s surrounding area is, as the kids say, a “nerd party” of remarkable proportions. Many people in my neighborhood hold a degree from an institution of higher education (and usually a prestigious one at that). Having a doctorate myself, I have noticed the completely blasé attitude that my own academic status inspires for the typical Washingtonian. Then I learn that they have a doctoral degree as well.
Given this regional educational profile, I am always struck by the way that Christians in the Washington area often ignore theology as a topic worthy of higher education. Leaving aside for the moment the complaint that the tuition-investment in seminary does not pay off in a high-income job (I know far too many J.D.s working for think-tanks or teaching at high schools to believe that income is the main factor in pursuing graduate degree, not to mention that financial aid at my seminary is plentiful), we should consider several reasons for pursuing graduate theological study.
- God invites us to know what he has revealed about the world and himself. Sure, theology suffers from a perception problem that is the result of one-part Western anti-intellectualism, one-part popular, experiential versions of “authentic” faith, and one-part legitimate fatigue from highly abstract theological reasoning. But we should not forget that the Lord reveals himself and that he expects his revelation to be studied. After all, the first problem we as humans run into is rooted in a misunderstanding about God’s self-revelation (what did he say about eating the fruit in the Garden? [Gen 3:1]). God speaks, and he expects us to know what he says. When we don’t, bad things happen.
- The Bible encourages us to organize God’s revelation into a system of belief. God’s word is historical and real. There really were clouds and thunder on Sinai, and Moses’ adrenal glands did have good reason to be pumping him full of fear as he stood before the living God, but this does not mean that God’s revelation loses its validity once we step away from the actual event. The great value of the Holy Scriptures is that they give us an inspired, reliable account of God’s revelation. We are supposed to know what it says and be able to apply it into our lives. A quick perusal of Jesus’ “have you not read” statements (Matt 12:3, 3; 19:4; 22:31; Mark 12:10, 26; Luke 6:3) shows how he did not suffer biblical ignorance lightly, particularly when ignorance belonged to those like the religious leaders who claimed to have a high view of divine revelation. Applying the word of God into different situations and expecting those applications to logically relate to one another is a basic definition of systematic theology. Jesus assumes that this sort of application is a part of reading the Scriptures; if you cannot apply it then you have not really read it.
- Because God is personal, theological study helps us better understand the coherence and meaning of the world God has created. God is personal, and the creation that he has shaped with his own hands reflects his person (Rom 1:20). When we know creation well, we better know the Creator, and the opposite is true as well. When we study God’s attributes revealed in the Scriptures, we come to a deeper understanding of his creation and the meaning that we expect to find in it. Why are human relationships so valuable? Why does everyone want true love? Is it just because we need to preserve the species or is it more profound than that? Perhaps, the triune nature of God and his identification with love (1 John 4:8) better helps us understand the profundity of the question for those made in the image of God. If we expect the universe to be coherent and to have meaning, we find a rationale for that expectation in the person of a Creator who reveals himself.
- What we know reveals what we love. You don’t have to guess what a person loves if he is endlessly rattling off statistics about his favorite sports figures, and you can tell a lot about a person’s faith by how much they know about the object of their faith: the triune God. Of course, knowing theology does not necessarily mean someone is a believer (the world is filled with hypocrites), but someone who claims to love Jesus but does not know much about him might want to reconsider the authenticity of his or her faith. If I claim to love my wife, but I am not interested in knowing anything about her…well, you get the point.
- Theological study helps us experience God in a deeper way. Knowledge has a way of deepening experience. Laying hold of new categories, insights, patterns about God and his work of redemption will help you identify those same things in your own life. See #3 above. Knowledge of the Creator will lead to a deeper experience of both Creator and creation.
- Theological study leads to more expansive worship. This point follows from the last. The more you know about the God who has revealed himself, the more equipped you are to worship him in every aspect of your life. Take for instance the claim of the ancient doxology that God is the “God from whom all blessings flow.” If you take that to heart, you are instantly placed in a worshipful space. If all of the blessings you enjoy in life (from getting extra sleep in the morning to seeing your cancer go into remission) really do descend to you from one God, then you are constantly being fed with reasons to praise him. The knowledge that God is creator and sustainer of the world, including your life, offers you a multitude of reasons to give thanks and praise. Even sorrows give an opportunity for worship when you realize that you only understand the evil you experience in light of the goodness of God and how even suffering has meaning in his redemptive purposes for the world. Furthermore, the Scriptures teach us that God grieves with you, that he has suffered deep loss too, and all of this gives you cause for worship.
- Theological study gives glory to God. Each of these preceding points can find their actualization in the fact that they bring glory to God. His glory is the reason why we respond to his invitation, why we organize what he says about himself, why we seek to find meaning in the world, to explore the object of our affections, to experience God deeply, and to expand our worship. We want to glorify him in all that we do, including what we study.
There are many other great reasons to study theology, but these are the ones that come to mind for me most often. Seminary certainly is not the only way to pursue this study. There are great books out there, more than perhaps at any other time in history, and there are many great educational resources for lay people, not to mention a booming industry of theological conferences and podcasts. Any of these resources can provide the deeper study that so many people desire without even knowing it.
Seminaries, however, offer a learning community of teachers and learners, with whom you can engage theology in the context of real human relationships, relationships that have this one thing in common, a desire to know God better. I cannot overstate the value of such a learning community.
If you have access to a healthy, faithful seminary near you, consider taking some classes. Most seminaries allow for auditing of courses. I know my campus in the Washington, D.C., area does. I also know that many seminaries, including mine, will offer substantial financial aid packages for students who want to pursue a degree.
Consider joining us for a class.