Why bother studying systematic theology? Who wants to rehearse obscure debates with their confusing terminology, hair-splitting tendencies, and willingness to label heretics as hopelessly damned? Isn’t any formal study of God in a seminary setting basically an academic exercise, devoid of the Spirit’s power, an exercise that encourages arrogance, condescension, and contentious attitudes? After all, don’t we already have everything we need to make our way in the world in the Bible, prayer and worship, and church? As one Christian put it, “I’ve never been to seminary, but I’ve been to Calvary.”
To be sure, these criticisms are not entirely wide of the mark. Seminary can foster attitudes inimical to humility and Christian discipleship. Yet, as Christians, we must recognize that we’re all theologians, whether we acknowledge it or not. Indeed, as Karl Barth once observed, it is impossible to criticize theology from a non-theological vantage point. In other words, to criticize theology is to do theology. In fact, the reasons given above for rejecting systematic theology come from an ‘embedded theology,’ understood as implicit, usually unarticulated beliefs about God, the world, Scripture, the human condition, salvation, and so on. All of these topics are undeniably theological. Part of theology’s work then is to help us articulate our own core beliefs about God, placing them under closer scrutiny. A conscious study of God and God’s ways as revealed in Scripture helps us when we are faced with numerous questions about the Christian faith, whether these questions come from ourselves, or from skeptics.
For instance, theology helps us in considering the following questions, such as how we can make sense of the theological truth that God is a triune being, and the implications of being created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27), who exists in eternal loving fellowship with the Son and the Holy Spirit. Though one could argue that the church’s confession of the Trinity is couched in obscure language and metaphysical abstraction, our prayer life will inevitably suffer if our understanding and practices of this core discipline do not include the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. When we think of prayer as our efforts to gain an audience before a solitary, all-powerful, transcendent being, it is little wonder that our prayer life suffers. Theology is equally useful when considering questions about Jesus Christ. What’s wrong, for instance, with celebrating Jesus as the greatest human being who ever lived, who, in his life, teaching and death, gave us the ultimate template for radical, God-centered obedience? And is this confession even Christian? To answer this (in the negative) requires some rudimentary theological knowledge of who Jesus Christ is, which carries significant implications for our very salvation.
However, we should note that these exercises do not merely aim at articulating our beliefs about God with greater precision, though this is an inevitable byproduct of theology, but are driven by the goal of loving God more deeply with our mind, heart, and soul. Ultimately, theology is about worship. The disputes in the history of the church that lead to division were really about whether or not opposing sides could continue to worship together. To label one a heretic—unfairly or deserved—was to cut one off from the fellowship of Christ, from corporate worship.
Yes, one can certainly pursue God without seminary. But the disciplined study of God—theology—in a seminary context can also prepare and equip us for a lifelong journey of growth through learning and worship. Indeed, our study of God should leave us more humble, gentle, and in awe of God’s mysterious wonder (Rom. 11:33). This semester we invite you to study the wonder of God’s works in a seminary setting—not for knowledge’s sake alone, not to develop a set of propositions that describe God in more detail, but to be awed and humbled before God’s greatness.