Theology has a bad reputation. Too many people believe it is stagnantly soporific and sadly we theologians are oftento blame for failing to communicate the electrifying power of deep thinking about God. In part one we explored four ways that theology is vital for your personal development as a Christian.
Now we will explore further why theology not only helps us draw close to God but is essential if we are going to be equipped to serve in his world.
1. Theology is the defibrillator for your soul
There are mornings when you don't want to meet me before I've had a cup of coffee. If you bump into me on the station platform in my decaffeinated state you'll be lucky to get more than a few grunts of acknowledgment. Coffee is the stimulant that can transform a zombie version of me into a functioning human being. It's the closest I get to imagining what it would be like for someone to place the paddle on my chest after a heart attack, sending a surge of electricity pulsing through my body and bringing me back to consciousness.
Whether it's imagining the resuscitating power of coffee or the resurrecting impact of a defibrillator, we need to get a similar sense of the role theology is supposed to play in our spiritual lives. We can hear it in Psalms when David looks at the state of his heart and attempts to shock it out of complacent apathy by commanding himself:
"Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits."
King David uses theology to awaken his heart to God. He uses both personal theology, by listing all the blessings that God has given him, and biblical theology, by retracing great moments of Israel's history with God, to stimulate a deeper appreciation and desire for God. Forgive us theologians when we have made theology a spiritual sedative rather than a faith defibrillator. It is time to rediscover the awakening power of theology, whether that is morning by morning, or to resurrect a dying faith.
2. Theology is the accelerant for spiritual fire
Water was pouring through the roof of the bivouac that my friend and I had built in the forest. The word 'roof' is a bit of an overstatement as the shambles of branches and leaves we'd thrown together for our shelter was never going to hold off the torrential downpour we were experiencing.
The camp was supposed to make men of us boys and having been rudely awoken by running water in our faces the urgent task was now to make fire. Everything was wet, we had no matches and no matter how much kindling and cotton wool we threw in the path of the flint and steel we had brought with us, it was not going to cut it. We hadn't done the research, we were underprepared and getting colder and wetter by the minute. What I wouldn't have given for a can of lighter fluid!
For some of us, theology has been presented as a means to extinguish passion and conviction, rather than as a way to ignite it. But without an accurate picture of the glory of God and the grace of the gospel the church loses its life and its light. In other words without theology the church is in danger of becoming cold and dark. Without clarity about what we believe and the God we believe in we the church cannot love God nor share that love with a world in need.
On October 16, 1555, not far from where I live in Oxfordshire, two men, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, were chained up and set ablaze in the centre of Oxford. As a mercy Ridley's brother had brought gunpowder for the men to place under their necks to help speed their deaths. Ridley was heard to have cried "Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit...", but apparently the wood was too freshly cut and only burned the lower half of his body. People heard him cry out: "Lord have mercy upon me! I cannot burn. Let the fire come unto me, I cannot burn." A member of the public is said to have finally helped the flames to catch and thus mercifully speed up Ridley's death. Latimer, who died more quickly was said to have tried to console Ridley with these words: "Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God's grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out."
It was theology that put these men on a stake. It was their utter conviction that it is only by the grace of God, not by human effort, that women and men may be forgiven their sins and welcomed into the family of God. It was the love these men had for seeking to base their understanding of God on what the Bible teaches and not on the pronouncements of ecclesial power that gave them the courage to be willing to die in order that others would know the kindness and compassion of God. It was theology that lit a fire of revival that swept through the world and helped millions of people come to know the power of the gospel.
3. Theology is the earthquake-proofing faith needs
The high-rise buildings of Japan contain huge shock absorbers, sliding walls and even foundation pads made out of Teflon to prevent buildings from collapsing. All these precautions have helped Japan's densely populated cities survive major earthquakes.
Theology can play a similar role in the life of a believer to these technologies. Theology will not stop bad things from happening in your life but will help you be prepared to deal with their impact. Of course theology cannot do this alone.
Jesus' parable of the wise and foolish builders reminds us that the storms of life will come to all believers, but those who not only know what the word of God says but do what it says will be able to withstand them. The storms of life could refer to challenges that suffering and tragedy bring to all of us or it could refer to the coming judgement of God. Either way the combination of knowing the truth about God and obeying the truth about God is the key to assurance of coping with temporal and eternal suffering. Knowing the truth about God is essential to providing us with confidence for the future.
4. Theology is the oxygen we need for life eternal
It is very difficult to scream under water. I found that out the hard way when I did a brief stint of cage diving. With the massive exhaling of breath I pretty soon ran out of oxygen and had to try and swim to the surface before my lungs exploded. After around one minute without oxygen, brain cells begin to die. After three minutes brain damage is very likely. After 10 minutes without oxygen many brain cells die and the person is very unlikely to recover.
Trying to live without good theology is as dangerous as attempting to live without oxygen. Paul takes his theology very seriously as he states here:
"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God's curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God's curse!" (Galatians 1: 6-9).
Paul argues that getting the content of the gospel right is very important. In fact it is so important that even if Paul himself or an angel from heaven were to preach a different gospel then they should be cursed by God. Why would Paul pronounce a curse on himself and angels?
The gospel is the only way of having our sins forgiven, being welcomed into the family of God and knowing hope of eternal life. The gospel is a life and death issue. Maybe the Galatian believers didn't realise that - they were confused over a seemingly small question of ceremony. The debate seemed to be as inconsequential as whether a Christian should get a tattoo or a piercing. But Paul argues that the whole gospel is nullified, invalid, if it becomes all about the issue. To add anything to the gospel is like messing around with the gas mixture in a diver's oxygen tank – it may seem insignificant but the end result is lethal. So theology is not just a matter of life and death, it is far more important than that, it's a matter of eternal life and eternal death.
5. Theology is the mathematics for solving the problems of Christian mission
One of my all time favourite movies is Apollo 13, which tells the true story of how a catastrophic oxygen tank explosion crippled the ship, ruling out the intended mission of NASA's second lunar landing. For Gene Kranz, the Flight Director at mission control in Houston this meant some quick thinking and strategic leadership.
It was the movie that made maths exciting for me. In the heat of the crisis Kranz's team had to solve large scale mathematical problems. They had to calculate trajectories, oxygen supply, how much fuel to burn to make course corrections and all with life-threatening consequences for three astronauts hurtling through space. Without mathematics there is no way the crew would have been saved. But I bet even Kranz had endured boring maths lessons at his Catholic High School in Toledo. Had he known then that the eyes of the world would be on him and his maths skills would decide the fate of three friends 205,000 miles away from the Earth, perhaps he would have found the lessons less tedious.
Similarly I can't promise that every attempt to study theology will be stimulating, but without the rigour of training, you will not be in position to call on the skills that are second nature to you in the time of crisis. Imagine that Kranz and his team had to try and learn their maths from scratch in the heat of the Apollo 13 crisis. Imagine they were only up to basic addition and subtraction when the oxygen tanks blew and they needed to get to advanced algebra, calculus and probability theory in order to be able to help.
In our rapidly changing culture we are constantly having to make decisions of consequence in our workplaces, school gates, families and local communities. In order to make these decisions in a way that honours God we need to have built up a mindset that is theologically sound. Thinking theologically needs to become our normal outlook on the world just as mathematics is second nature to an astrophysicist. On April 17, 1970, Gene Kranz and his team at mission control in Houston safely brought the Apollo 13 crew home to earth. With God's help we will play our part in bringing home safely all those that God has called us to help as his words inform and equip us to participate in his mission.
So how will you deepen your grip on theology? Through deeper reading? Or taking notes in sermons or serious preparation before house group? Is it being brave enough to ask those questions rattling around at the back of your brain? Is it joining a discussion group? Is it formal study? Whatever your next step is, you owe it to your soul, to the world we seek to reach and to the God we love, to invest in knowing our faith.