“The Theologians”

NPG D24005; Leading Theologians of the Middle Ages published by John GarrettIn the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity to associate with more church people than usual who have never met someone who takes the academic study of theology seriously. As I’ve attended Bible study classes with these groups, I’ve noticed a phrase that comes up repeatedly – “The Theologians”. The phrase is always used as a dig against those who spend way too much time studying and thinking about theology, and as a result don’t “get it” the way normal people do. It’s a phrase that almost always refers to those academic types who would lead you astray from clear and common-sense teachings, and instead fill your minds will all kinds of things that muddy the water. It’s used in sentences like, “The theologians believe x, but we all know that’s not right.”

I find this really strange. You’d certainly not say that “the master electricians”  just “muddy the water” with all of their talk about “following code”, and doing things the proper way. You might think what your plumber or electrician is doing is overkill, but you’d certainly realize that their services are valuable. Similarly, academics who work in the field of medicine, or quantum physics, or molecular biology might be so technically inclined that they have a hard time talking to people outside of the field, but most people don’t just discount their work as leading people astray from common-sense teachings. Usually, people believe the work of academics has value, even if it doesn’t immediately apply to their day-to-day lives.

But when I sit in a church service or a bible study class and hear the phrase “The Theologians”, it’s almost universally in distrust. I’ve even encountered several Bible study teachers who refuse to consult commentaries or books about scripture that aren’t the Bible. Sometimes it’s because these teachers don’t know who to trust, but more often it’s because they fear that reading more than just scripture will just muddy the water. They believe that “The Theologians” might believe something different and lead away from clear Biblical teaching. “The Theologians” can’t always be trusted. “The Theologians” believe that everything is negotiable.

Good theology will often challenge long-held notions, which might create some mental chaos for a time – this is a GOOD thing. The goal of theology, just like with medicine or physics, is to get beyond the chaos to the truth of how things work. Just because you believe the same as your parents or grandparents or denomination about God or the Bible or Christianity doesn’t mean that each of you are correct. Similarly, just because you’ve landed on something different than your parents or denomination doesn’t make you right. Theologians, of various stripe, can help us consider things that make us better, more flexible, and more responsible people of faith. They might even affirm some long-held beliefs in ways that surprise you!

That’s not to say that there aren’t theologians who might lead astray; there certainly are. But there are also bad electricians. The good news is that your house won’t burn down if you read a book by a wrong-headed theologian. Thinking that your soul will burn just because you read some bad theology reveals just how fragile your personal beliefs might be. By reading theologians you can gain perspective, and weigh that perspective against your own. But this takes work. My fear is that “The Theologians” is a phrase that denotes laziness in the face of the daunting task of owning and understanding your faith. Instead of people of faith engaging their faith in deep ways, stretching themselves in the quest for truth and purpose, they just chalk up all additional work as “dangerous”. As a result, their faith becomes superstitious and fragile. It’s the “folk theology” that believes Russians dug a hole all the way to Hell. It’s the kind of theology that believes the Bible unambiguously says Satan is a fallen angel. And it’s just as dangerous, if not more so, than the academic stuff.

I think my point is that if you use “The Theologians” as a blanket term to describe something dangerous or irrelevant or muddies the water and don’t consider your own theological constructions the same way, then you might want to rethink how serious you are about your faith. If you surround yourself with people who all agree that “The Theologians” are bad, then you’ve stopped being iron sharpening iron. You’ve turned into a monolith – a block of stone that cannot be moved. People of faith should be living creatures.

Make no mistake, faith IS dangerous stuff. I want to treat it with the gravity it deserves, and am thankful to the theologians who have helped me along the way.

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