Last year I graduated with an undergraduate degree in theology. In preparation for the next phase of my life, I have spent the past two months reflecting on my journey over the past three years. Through these reflections I’ve realised that there are things I wish someone had told me before I started theological college. Beyond better utilising my time, these would have assisted my spiritual growth as a student, while also alerting me to the significant pitfalls in theological training.
I pray these directives will serve those starting their journey at theological college.
I have decided to share three of the things I wish I’d known starting theological college. Though I could list more, and elaborate further on the three below, I pray that these brief directives will serve those starting their journey this year or considering to do so in the near future. Of course experiences differ, even between mine and those of my classmates. However, I hope that my own experience might help prepare you for the years ahead, and decades beyond.
1. Don’t Forget Ordinary Church Ministry
Now, you might be asking: ‘How is it possible that anyone would need such a reminder? How can one forget their local church?’ Well, it is very possible! You probably won’t forget how people look or the building they meet in. No, the danger is that you forget how people in the local church think and speak.
For example, throughout my degree I noticed that each summer break, when I went home and got an opportunity to preach, my sermons were increasingly out of touch with my audience. My sermons had become baskets of theological ideas, odd and uninteresting for the ordinary person sitting in the pew. I convinced myself that I was doing important work, labouring to teach my local church the right questions and more profound answers. They needed to grow up in their faith, so I told myself. But this only meant that they were forced to abandon—while I avoided answering—questions arising from their daily lives.
I wasn’t aware that by engaging theological concepts my thought processes and even my voice had changed. And I forgot that theological concepts, however fascinating, are not ends in and of themselves. They were supposed to form and equip me so that I could equip the church to live faithful, gospel-centered lives, to the glory of God. Passionate theological thinking must be carried out in community and be committed to the local church. Thus you must be careful not to get stuck in the abstractions of lofty theology. For the task of theology is always the growth of God’s people.
Deep theology cannot stop in our heads. We must lovingly package it for the local church.
Deep theology cannot stop in our heads. We must lovingly package it for the local church. If those who are trained at theological college fail here, God’s truth will become a burden for the local church and a source of pride for the young theologian. So don’t set out to demonstrate how much theological knowledge you’ve acquired. Instead, desire and aim at helping people to know God and glorify him. In 1 Corinthians 13:2 Paul writes, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” You can be a walking systematic theology without drawing people to kneel before the throne of God. You can know everything and be nothing.
2. Theological College can Lead to Pride
This realisation only dawned on me halfway through my journey at theological college. The problem with this kind of pride is that it’s subtle. As I became more familiar with theological concepts and jargon, I became saturated by them. This is not wrong, but it was insufficient. For my growing knowledge needed to be matched with a growing love for God and his people. Just as Paul writes to the church at Corinth, “We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1b).
At theological college I was so determined to learn as much as I could that I fell into this imbalance: knowledge without love. And this was evident in my interactions with people back at my local church, where my Bible studies became lectures on theological concepts, which most laypeople were entirely unaware of. I felt joy explaining these concepts, using technical jargon and sprinkling my speech with the names of illustrious theologians. And as I spoke, people fell silent. No one followed up what I said, except to say: “That was profound.” Unfortunately it was primarily an exercise in becoming puffed up rather than building others up. My contributions left others feeling embarrassed at their own modest theological understanding. Ironically, instead of encouraging them to engage with the Bible, I was subtly teaching them to close their Bibles and listen to me.
Instead of encouraging Bible study, I was teaching them to close their Bibles and listen to me.
Though I thanked God for the opportunities to feed his sheep, I was actually just feeding my own ego. I wasn’t equipping them for ministry, but rather inviting them to stand in awe at mine. This pride on my part led to feelings of inadequacy among the people. For I was the only capable one in those settings. Theology, in all its beauty, had become a means of validating myself. It had kindled a kind of gnostic pride, for I regularly felt that I was the possessor of all knowledge and truth. My love for God’s people and the desire to see them growing up in their faith was overshadowed by my love of self, my desire to have people listen to me.
3. You can Grow Intellectually without Growing Spiritually
As I engaged with and learnt new ideas and theological concepts, as well as receiving good feedback on my assignments, I thought: ‘I must really be growing spiritually.’ But, upon reflection and over time, I saw that my personal spiritual journey was going downhill—rapidly. My quiet times were inconsistent. Bible reading was no longer for personal growth, but for assignments. I approached a few senior students to ask for help. They all said something along the lines of: “Do your studies devotionally.” This was great advice. Unfortunately, I never asked what that means or how to do it. So I hitched my spiritual maturity to my theological college marks. This was a total lie.
One thing I have come to learn is that intellectual growth does not automatically translate to spiritual growth. It is possible for a theological student to be thoroughly bewitched intellectually by the mighty thoughts of great theologians and then lapse into the illusion that a grasp of these thoughts automatically results in their spiritual growth. It’s possible that all the theological impressions one gets from different concepts can only make an intellectual impression, and beyond that amount to nothing.
It’s possible for theological learning to only make an intellectual impression.
Always remember Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:2. You can have all knowledge and all gifts but those are nothing on their own. They are not a sign that you are growing spiritually, they can actually be contributors to your spiritual deterioration. Our growing knowledge and giftings should lead us to love God more. This is expressed not only in our prayer and devotional life, but more so in our love for God’s people.
Theologian, Remember your Purpose
I will conclude with Helmut Thielicke’s plea to young theologians. He writes, “Every theological idea which makes an impression upon you must be regarded as a challenge to your faith. Do not assume as a matter of course that you believe whatever impresses you theologically and enlightens you intellectually. Otherwise, suddenly you are believing no longer in Jesus, but in Luther, or in one of your other theological teachers.”