Sep

10

2012

Matt Smethurst|10:00 PM CT

New Theologian, May I Have a Word?

As a wise man once said, "Desire without knowledge is not good" (Prov. 19:2; cf. Rom. 10:2). And knowledge without love? Utterly nothing (1 Cor. 13:2).

"Theology is about life," Kelly Kapic says. "It is not a conversation our souls can afford to avoid." Written to help curb the divide between theology and spirituality, thought and life---what Kapic calls "theological detachment"---A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (InterVarsity) introduces readers to the why of theology as well as to various marks of faithfulness in the theologian. Divorcing theology and spirituality is neither honoring to Scripture nor faithful to vast swaths of church history. The two are designed to go together, and what God has joined together, let no theologian separate.

I corresponded with Kapic, professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, about common pitfalls for young theologians, how theology relates to pilgrimage, tips for pursuing devotional warmth amid academic rigor, and more.

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What's the most common problem you perceive among young theologians? 

I have seen God use good theology to liberate lives. But I have also seen people misuse theology, resulting in abuse, hard hearts, and pain. I have become concerned in theological studies about the temptation to make overly strong divisions: between academics and the church, between theology and life, between truth and love. In the past, the task of theological reflection was often intertwined with the experience and character of the theologian, so that the result was an organic connection between the act of "doing" theology and themes like prayer, humility, suffering, and community.

Many of us have unintentionally cultivated what might be called theological detachment: a divide between spirituality and theology, life and thought, faith and agency. Theological detachment creates a deep misunderstanding that negatively affects not only our lives but also our theology, our churches, our relationships, and ultimately the world in which we witness and serve. My prayer is that this book might, in some small way, help beginning theologians avoid the strong dichotomies of theological detachment.

What's the significance of viewing theology as a pilgrimage?

Our different personalities and experiences often shape --- in one way or another ---how we approach and understand theology. Among other things, this background tends to mean each of us will face different temptations, blind spots, and struggles as we come to theological conclusions. While we certainly need to be cautious and concerned about radical relativism, we should not let such fears cause us to ignore the fact that we remain both finite and sinful. Theology is best done in community.

It's in light of this truth that the imagery of pilgrimage can be so helpful. Not only is this imagery used at different points in Scripture, but it is also picked up in various ways throughout the Christian tradition, from Augustine to the Reformers. While confident in God's self-revelation, Christians also remain mindful of our weaknesses, and thus this side of glory we engage in the imperfect theology of pilgrims (theologia viatorum). We are on a pilgrimage together, but we haven't yet arrived at the end of the journey. The challenge for us, I believe, is to navigate these realities in such a way that we maintain both conviction and humility. Before God and others we always need to be willing to revise our theological misunderstandings and misapplications.

How can one better integrate study and worship, pursuing devotional warmth amid the rigors of learning?

Studying more does not, by necessity, make you a better theologian. Although we must guard against belittling study (it is, after all, my calling and job!), it is not the lone path to knowledge of God. Funny how we do this: some of us romanticize reading and study so much that you might imagine we view test scores as the most trusty barometer of spirituality, as if people who cannot read or didn't complete school cannot be excellent theologians. On the other hand, some of us speak as if study and careful reflection are inherently poisonous, as if one cannot be both a devout Christian and a serious-minded thinker, as if as the heart shrinks as one's library grows. Let us avoid these false dichotomies that divide Christians who desperately need each other.

It is God who gave us minds, bodies, wills, and affections. Let us not choose, then, between thinking and living, between our head and our hearts. In practice---whether we realize it or not---our thinking affects our lives, but our lives also affect our thinking. It's not a one-way street.

Having said that, I do believe there are core disciplines and traits that help shape us as theologians. I don't think the list will surprise you: prayer and study, humility and repentance, tradition and community, love of Scripture, and a concern for justice and suffering. Attention to these areas provides a healthier context for our lived theology.

How do the realities of idolatry and worship shape our understanding of what the theological enterprise is all about?

God created us as creatures who worship. That's just who we are and what we do. The question is not if we will worship, but to whom (or what) our worship will be directed. Will we worship ourselves, creation, sex, money, security, knowledge, sports, or even our families? Or will our worship be faithful to the God who has revealed himself fully in his Son Jesus Christ, the compassionate and powerful God who sustains his church by his Spirit? Will that worship be grounded and guided by the gift of sacred Scripture?

Simply put, theology is about communion with God. We need to make sure that our worship is directed to the God who is, rather than the deity we imagine. This isn't simply a problem that "liberals" or non-Christians face; it is a challenge for all people. This is why "theology" isn't done simply by academics, but by all of God's people.

We need each other, the living and the departed, the local and the universal, the academics and the self-educated. And in this way, theology becomes a joy rather than a boring labor: partaking in this journey together we are meant to cultivate genuine worship as we glory in the wisdom and work of God. The question is never if you're a theologian, but whether or not you're a good one.

Matt Smethurst serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition and lives in Louisville, Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter.

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