Loving God and Studying Theology
One of the questions I face as a professor of systematic theology at the undergraduate level is whether theology is compatible with a passionate love for God. Some young (and older) Christians are fearful that studying theology will dampen their love for God. Of course, it is fair to say that this concern is not completely unwarranted. There are many Christians who began their study of theology with a passionate love for God and replaced that love with a love for the study of theology as an end in itself. I will return to this problem below. First, I want to address the alleged discrepancy between theology and loving God.
Look first at the basic meaning of the word “theology.” Theology at its heart is knowledge of God. Let us keep that basic idea in mind as we think about this. Now, Christians agree that we are to love God. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). But what is necessary for us to truly love God? Knowledge of God. It’s difficult to love someone about whom you have absolutely no knowledge.
This is where theology comes in. Theology is knowledge of God. If knowledge of God is necessary for us to love God, and if theology is knowledge of God, then theology is necessary for us to love God. Does this mean that a person who has never formally studied theology cannot love God? No. Because if you are a believer, you know something of God. You have at least some "theology," some knowledge of God. Your love of God flows from that knowledge of Him, from that theology.
If you truly love God, however, there should be a corresponding desire to know Him more, to grow in your knowledge of God, your “theology.” This is what happens when two people first meet and fall in love. They meet and perhaps speak briefly. Based on this initial knowledge, there is an attraction. But when one person is attracted to another, what do they want? They want to know more about the person. Thus, all the questions over coffee or dinner. Tell me about yourself? Where were you born? What was your childhood like? Where did you go to school? What are your favorite pastimes, books, movies, foods, etc.? What are your hopes for the future? And we listen intently to their story in order to know them better. As we grow in our knowledge of who they are, our love deepens and grows, and as our love grows, our desire to know them more grows.
In a sense, formal theology is asking questions of God. He answers through His revelation. When we start to categorize His answers and attempt to grasp their relations, we are systematizing our theology, our knowledge of God.
It is also important to note that as our knowledge of God deepens, our love for God deepens, and as our love for God deepens, we cannot help but seek to please Him, to praise Him, and tell others about Him. Theology and holiness are inseparable. Theology and doxology are inseparable. Theology and proclamation are inseparable. Or, at least, they should be, and that brings us to those who lose their first love as they study theology.
B. B. Warfield addressed this problem a century ago when he said to his theology students:
“It is sometimes said that some people love theology more than they love God. Do not let it be possible to say that of you. Love theology of course; but love theology for no other reason than this: Theology is the knowledge of God—and it is your meat and drink to know God, to know Him truly, and, as far as it is given to mortals, to know Him wholly.” (Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings, Vol. 2, p. 480)
I think part of the problem that Warfield picks up on here is that students of theology often confuse knowledge of God with knowledge about God. There is a significant difference between the two. Let me try to explain.
Imagine you are in a classroom and I ask you to name the person you love more than anyone else in the world. It might be a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a child, a friend. For the sake of illustration, let’s say it is your spouse. Now imagine I ask you tell me the things you love about your spouse. I will be writing them on the board as you list them. Okay. That's quite a few things. Now, tell me what this list is. Correct. It is a list of your spouse’s attributes, Now imagine that I tell the class to go home and memorize these attributes of your spouse because next week we are going to have a quiz. Now here is the important question: If a student makes a perfect score on the quiz, does that mean that he or she knows your spouse?
Knowing about and knowing are not the same thing.
I think many students whose love of God dims as they study theology are confusing knowing about God with knowing God. Students who do this can easily start to treat theology like any other academic field of study and God becomes an object to be dissected, a list to be memorized. Students can easily start to treat the holy as common. They can stop praying before, during, and after their theological study. They can neglect the prayerful reading of Scripture. They can sever theology from doxology. They can think that because they’ve made a perfect score on the quiz, they know your spouse. They can become puffed up and arrogant.
There are dangers to the study of theology, but the first step to avoiding dangers is to be aware they exist and to take the necessary precautions. First and foremost, this involves continual prayer. If we are not praying, if we are not seeking to become more and more conformed to Christ, if we are not putting to death the deeds of the flesh and cultivating the fruit of the Spirit, then no matter what scores we make on the quizzes, we are not theologians.
The knowledge of God, not merely knowledge about God, is necessary for all believers. But God is holy and cannot be treated lightly. IF we are to grow in our knowledge of God, our theology, we must do so on our knees.