A Manifesto on the Value of Growth in Christian Understanding & Theological Pursuit

I’m looking at establishing a ministry at our church where we’d form a group that would read and discuss various works of theology and Biblical studies together. The following comes from a document I was working on this morning in which I outline various convictions and commitments underlying this pursuit.

The importance & value of Christian understanding

We strongly believe that growth in Christian understanding plays a vital and central role in our development as maturing worshipers of Jesus. When we ignore the pursuit of Christian understanding, we do so to our detriment, and the detriment of our churches (IOW, our churches our healthier when its members are growing in Christian understanding). In an age where Biblical and theological illiteracy abounds, we are committed to standing against this tide. Amidst a prevailing Christian culture that downplays the importance of theology and doctrine, we unashamedly and counter-culturally commit ourselves to this discipline.

The privilege of all

We believe that rigorous Biblical and theological study is not something reserved for pastors and theologians, but is the right and privilege of all believers.

A proper understanding of “theological maturity”

To be clear, we are not interested in a version of “theological mastery” which simply knows concepts or engages ideas as something like a hobby or mere intellectual exercise. We are after theological maturity. Such theological maturity entails not only (1) a right understanding of Biblical teaching and its theological import, but also (2) a deep conviction and belief in these things, as well as (3) a correlating theological discernment — the ability and inclination of character (virtue) to apply such theological knowledge to new and complex situations (what the Bible at times calls “wisdom”).

A rightly oriented knowledge

The apostle Paul says, “knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor 8:1), and “the one who thinks he knows obviously doesn’t know as he ought” (8:2). We want to take this seriously. As John Calvin said in his Institutes (paraphrasing), A genuine knowledge of God necessarily entails transforming us into worshipers of God. Legit theology is more than just ideas entering our minds for contemplation. To truly apprehend God is necessarily to be into made a worshiper of God and walk away transformed by the encounter. Or as Augustine said in his classic work on Doctrine (paraphrasing), all proper doctrine promotes the two-fold love of God and neighbor. If we are not increasing in our love of God and neighbor in our study of scripture and theology, we’re doing it wrong.

Renewal as worshipers through transformation of the mind

We understand that the way we are transformed as followers of Christ is through the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:1-2) and reorientation of our loves. Both scripture and experience testify to the impactful role that our thinking (our beliefs about God, the world, and ourselves — our “worldview”) has on the way we live. We were created to be worshipers. As such, we are always in awe of something (our god), and our imaginations captured by some vision of the good, the true, and ultimate. The direction of our lives ultimately follows the compass of our hearts and the rudder of our beliefs. Because of sin, however, our mind and affections have been colonized by false gods (idolatry) and deceived into false visions of the good life. We need a rehabilitation of heart and mind. We believe we that the avenue to our affections, among other things, is through the engagement and transformation of the mind.

The proper place of “application”

As outlined above, we wholeheartedly believe in the practicality and life-impactful significance of theology. Without the goal of life-impact (the very telos of theology, i.e., the very reason God has made himself known to us), we have actually distorted the very nature of theology and we exhibit an audacious affront to the design of God’s self-revelation. In other words, it’s no small slight, but actually an incredibly serious transgression (Mt 15:8; cf. Titus 1:16).

At the same time, however, we reject the current popular sentiment (a very American attitude) that theology’s value is to be measured by our own preset notion of what is “practical” (i.e., our felt-needs), and setting up application as our starting point for our approach and what we deem worthwhile. Yes, we expect to be transformed as we encounter God (and with that comes “application”). But we also understand that God knows what we need far more than we do, and that none of his self-disclosure was given in vain (none of it is unimportant for our study). Simply knowing and enjoying God (the very end for which we were created) is a good enough end in and of itself, notwithstanding its life-impacting benefits which surely do also follow. Moreover, the most impactful thing we can experience is not actually more “practical instruction” (prescriptions on “what to do”) — the history of Israel under the law bears this out — as good as sound practical instruction is; but to have our hearts convinced of the worth of God as we are struck with the awe of God. Our deepest problem is a disorder of worship; and therefore that which will meet us at the deepest, most life-impacting level is to walk away from our study as increasing worshipers and enjoyers of God.

The aid & treasure of Christian literature

We enter our pursuit with the belief that God has gifted the church across the ages with men and women who are great resources to us in understanding God’s Word and his truth. Although the central tenets of the Bible are clear (perspicuity) and the Bible is sufficient for knowing these things adequately, we reject that hubris which ignores the help of others and the collective wisdom found in the communion of the saints. We uphold the Biblical place of teachers, and value learning from the writings of others, even those who may be outside our exact tradition, as they can serve to broaden our perspective. In distinction from such presentist tendencies that place nearly exclusive attention on contemporary productions, we especially value the historical authors, whose works have proven worth, having stood the test of time, who give us a sense of rootedness in the Christian tradition, and whose voice cuts through our sometimes near-sighted contemporary perspectives.

The urgency of our situation & the need for retrieval

We live at a crossroads which only increases the urgency of this pursuit. We live in an age in which the plausibility structures that once gave Christianity credence are quickly deteriorating and in which we are regularly being desensitized to sin and acclimated to false outlooks on life. The pressure to cave and compromise Biblical truth is potent. False teaching abounds. And the contemporary issues that challenge us are proliferating at a pace that’s dizzying. For those of us who are parents, we also face the task of discipling our children through this ethically and religiously volatile maze. At the same time, many in a previous generation moved away from certain traditional practices of theological education (e.g., catechisms, creeds, pedagogical hymns, etc.) at precisely the time when we now feel we may actually need them most. That crowd sought more “fresh” and pragmatic approaches. Among other things though, we see the damage caused by what was left behind and the void this abandonment has now created. We therefore desire to recover / retrieve the pursuit of theology for both ourselves, our families, and our churches.

The Religious Life of Theological Students by Benjamin B. Warfield

The fall semester is soon approaching. In light of that, I thought I’d share Benjamin B. Warfield’s short (public domain) essay on the religious (or what we might today call, “spiritual”) life of students of theology.

WarfieldA minister must be both learned and religious. It is not a matter of choosing between the two. He must study, but he must study as in the presence of God and not in a secular spirit. He must recognize the privilege of pursuing his studies in the environment where God and salvation from sin are the air he breathes. He must also take advantage of every opportunity for corporate worship, particularly while he trains in the Theological Seminary. Christ Himself leads in setting the example of the importance of participating in corporate expressions of the religious life of the community. Ministerial work without taking time to pray is a tragic mistake. The two must combine if the servant of God is to give a pure, clear, and strong message.

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On Not Divorcing Theological Studies from the Religious Life*

I am asked to speak to you on the religious life of the student of theology. I approach the subject with some trepidation. I think it the most important subject which can engage our thought. You will not suspect me, in saying this, to be depreciating the importance of the intellectual preparation of the student for the ministry. The importance of the intellectual preparation of the student for the ministry is the reason of the existence of our Theological Seminaries. Say what you will, do what you will, the ministry is a “learned profession”; and the man without learning, no matter with what other gifts he may be endowed, is unfit for its duties. But learning, though indispensable, is not the most indispensable thing for a minister. “Apt to teach”—yes, the ministry must be “apt to teach”; and observe that what I say—or rather what Paul says—is “apt to teach.” Not apt merely to exhort, to beseech, to appeal, to entreat; nor even merely, to testify, to bear witness; but to teach. And teaching implies knowledge: he who teaches must know. Paul, in other words, requires of you, as we are perhaps learning not very felicitously to phrase it, “instructional,” not merely “inspirational,” service. But aptness to teach alone does not make a minster; not is it his primary qualification. It is only one of a long list of requirements which Paul lays down as necessary to meet in him who aspires to this high office. And all the rest concern, not his intellectual, but his spiritual fitness. A minister must be learned, on pain of being utterly incompetent for his work. But before and above being learned, a minister must be godly.

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Review of Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith


Desiring the KingdomJames K. A. Smith sets out to present a vision of what a distinctively Christian education should look like. Without discarding the importance of what Christians think (worldview), he argues that authentic Christian learning ought to focus primarily on the formation of Christian desires (‘social imaginary’). In short, Smith argues that Christian education is more about formation than information, more about what one loves than what one knows. Practically speaking, distinctively Christian education should mean much more than merely teaching what is taught at any other university, but just from a Christian worldview. Rather, Christian education should be fundamentally rooted in liturgical worship as that discipline which forms students’ desires. Thus, he describes this educational ideal as ‘ecclesial,’ rooted in formative liturgical worship.

Smith’s philosophy of education is based on an understanding of worship, which is rooted in a specific anthropology. Therefore, although his main goal is to present a philosophy of education, his work has much broader implications for areas such as anthropology and corporate worship.

Smith begins his case by presenting an anthropology, because one’s view on education (and worship) is intrinsically linked to one’s understanding of the nature of man. Whereas the prevalent Christian anthropology seems to view man as primarily a thinking or believing creature, Smith argues that man is primarily a lover or desirer. Man’s decisions and behavior is primarily oriented by desire, what he loves, a vision of the ‘good life’ and a corresponding longing for it.

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