Theological Study = Spiritual Death?

Embarking on biblical and theological studies is vital, but it can also be very dangerous – especially in an academic context. We’ve probably all heard the joke that equates seminary with cemetery, as if to say deep biblical and theological study will mean the death of one’s faith. This is certainly a danger.

J.I. Packer, in his famous Knowing God, gives the following warning:

[W]e need… to stop and ask ourselves a very fundamental question – a question, indeed, that we always ought to put to ourselves whenever we embark on any line of study in God’s holy book. The question concerns our own motives and intentions as students. We need to ask ourselves: What is my ultimate aim and object in occupying my mind with these things? What do I intend to do with my knowledge about God, once I have it? For the fact that we have to face is this: If we pursue theological knowledge for its own sake, it is bound to go bad on us. It will make us proud and conceited. The very greatness of the subject matter will intoxicate us, and we shall come to think of ourselves as a cut above other Christians because of our interests in it and grasp of it; and we shall look down on those whose theological ideas seem to us crude and inadequate and dismiss them as very poor specimens…. To be preoccupied with getting theological knowledge as an end in itself, to approach Bible study with no higher motive than a desire to know all the answers, is the direct route to a state of self-satisfied self-deception…. [T]here can be no spiritual heath without doctrinal knowledge; but it is equally true that there can be no spiritual heath with it, if it is sought for the wrong purpose and valued by the wrong standard… The psalmist [Ps. 119:1-2, 5, 12, 18, 97, 103, 125] was interested in truth and orthodoxy, in biblical teaching and theology, not as ends in themselves, but as means to further ends of life and godliness. His ultimate concern was with the knowledge and service of the great God whose truth he sought to understand…. And this must be out attitude too. Our aim in studying the Godhead must be to know God himself better…. As he is the subject of our study, and our helper in it, so he must himself be the end of it.” (21-23). [Brackets mine].

Much is said by Packer in this passage. First, he encourages us to take an under-the-hood glimpse into our motives and desires. Why do we want to learn more about God? Why are we spending hours pouring over Bavinck and Turretin? Why do we put ourselves through months of sleepless nights, kept awake by Greek and Hebrew homework? Is it in order to know God better? Is it to guide our worship of God? Is it that we might serve the church more faithfully? Or is it that we might make a name for ourselves, or be a boastful “know-it-all”? Are we learning more about God to glorify Him, or ourselves?

Second, Packer warns that studying God’s holy word with the wrong motive will go wrong for us. Do we want to know God, or just know about Him in order that we might cause the older lady in our Bible study to complement our erudition?

Scott Oliphint says that the “unending circle of our Christian experience goes from precepts to praise to practice, and back to precepts again — all to the glory of God.” The study of God’s word should elicit worship. But what about in an academic setting? When struggling through Van Til and Hodge, can we be brought to worship? B.B. Warfield, in his popular The Religious Life of Theological Students, stated very helpfully:

Why should you turn from God when you turn to your books, or feel that you must turn from your books in order to turn to God? …. [T]heology has as its unique end to make God known: the student of theology is brought by his daily task into the presence of God, and is kept there. Can a religious man stand in the presence of God, and not worship? It is possible, I have said, to study even theology in a purely secular spirit. But surely this is possible only for an irreligious man, or at least for an unreligious man…. Do you prosecute your daily tasks as students of theology as ‘religious exercises’? If you do not, look to yourselves: it is surely not all right with the spiritual condition of that man who can busy himself daily with divine things, with a cold and impassive heart…. Whatever you may have done in the past, for the future make all your theological studies ‘religious exercises.’… Put your heart into your studies; do not merely occupy your mind with them, but put your heart into them (2, 5, 6).

This is certainly a good, albeit difficult, exhortation. When you are a hundred pages behind in your Calvin and Vos reading, awake at 3 AM, the temptation to study theology for its own sake (or for the sake of the class only) is real. But what can be done to maintain right motives?

Here are a few practical tips:

  1. Reflect and pause when weighty matters are being discussed.
  2. Read with a thankful spirit. Pray and thank God for his majesty and His mighty plan of redemption.
  3. Remind yourself often to check your motives for learning about God.
  4. Remember that you are dealing with incomprehensible mysteries (though not with mysticism).
  5. Research well with a view to service.

As one “climbs the latter,” so to speak, in theological knowledge, it is tempting to see the church—to see fellow saints—as a mere side note or ornament to the “main thing”: our own knowledge, reputation, or study. Cornelius Van Til was once asked why he spent so many years of his life in deep philosophical and apologetic study. We can all learn from his answer: “To protect Christ’s little ones.”

The final thing to note from Packer’s statement—and something that will provide us with balance—is that doctrinal and theological study is absolutely vital. It must be done. These cautions about theological study are not calls for anti-doctrinal attitudes or a less vigorous study of systematic and biblical theology. God and His word must be studied with intensity.

“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” – John 17:3

“Let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 9:24

“For I desire… the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” – Hosea 6:6

“He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” – Titus 1:9

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” – Hebrews 5:12-6:2

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” – 2 Peter 3:18

For the sake of “Christ’s little ones” and for the sake of your own soul, study God’s word diligently and with proper motives (1 Tim. 4:16). Publishing papers, writing books, memorizing catechisms, being well versed in Owen and Edwards, being able to answer tough questions are all fine things in and of themselves; but if we make them the main thing, we damage ourselves and our hearers. Will love for Christ and His sheep bring us to deep study, or will it be our own prideful and pompous arrogance? Will our hearers, by our example, breathe the air of love and humility, or of a professional haughtiness?

Indeed, every time we stop to study theology God asks us, “Pray, why do you study Me so diligently?” And every Lord’s Day we teach God’s word, God asks us, “Pray, why do you teach about Me this morning?” Let our answer be: “So that I might know You, worship You, live according to Your word, and encourage the same from others.”

© copyright J. Brandon Burks, 2016

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