I’d be the first person to tell you that sound theology is not only a good thing, it is vital for the health of the Christian and the life of the local Church. You can’t talk about any aspect of Biblical truth without theology. As soon as you try to answer the question, “Who is Jesus?”, you are talking about an aspect of theology.
However, it is possible to disconnect theology from its source and destination and to study it as an end in and of itself. Learning theology ought to come from a heart that loves God and wants to know him more. And good theology ought to lead us to love God more, to worship him, and to love others. Theology has practical implications. However, there are times when people get so absorbed in the intellectual aspects of theology that the bare gaining of theological knowledge becomes the ultimate goal. I want to suggest a few things that happen when a person makes theological inquiry and learning the end game.
First of all, a person can become conceited. What happens when you disconnect the learning of theology from the source of theology? What happens when you study theology so you’ll be more learned and not because you love God and want to learn more about him? Pride. You may begin to think that you know all that you do because you are smarter than others. You may begin to look down on others who do not have this knowledge. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Paul is not condemning theological learning. But the gaining of knowledge apart from any reference to love for God and others can fill a person with pride. Author David Mathis writes, “One of the great ironies of indwelling sin is that learning about God’s absolute sovereignty could, in any way, make us arrogant.”1
Secondly, a person can become hyper-critical. While Christians ought to be discerning and be willing to speak the truth in love, we are also not to have a critical spirit towards other believers. Recognizing poor theology is not the same as bad-mouthing every Christian that doesn’t go to your church. And when theology is studied as an end in itself, it can lead to a critical attitude towards anyone that doesn’t see eye-to-eye with you, even on secondary or tertiary issues. Mathis writes, “It’s good to be discerning, and pay attention to details. But a critical eye does not necessitate a quarrelsome spirit.”2 The apostle Paul exhorts church leaders in 1 Timothy 2:24-25, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.”
Thirdly, a person can be distracted. As I’ve said already, learning theology is a good thing. But an intellectual excitement about it can potentially lead to such an intense focus on it that all a person is ever doing in their spare time is reading theological books, journals, articles, blog posts, watching videos, debates, etc. But at the same time, the person is neglecting the practical aspects of the Christian life, such as ministry in the church, serving others, caring for the needy, evangelism, and spending quality time with their wives and families. Author Tony Reinke writes, “True distractions include anything (even a good thing) that veils our spiritual eyes from the shortness of time and from the urgency of the season of heightened expectation as we await the summing up of all history.”3
I really don’t want you to come away from this article thinking that learning theology is bad. It’s not. It’s really a very good thing. But good theology should be more than just an intellectual pursuit to make sure all of our theological ducks are in a row and we can logically work out how everything in the Bible fits together. It shouldn’t be just an attempt to make sure we can win every theological debate we engage in. We ought to study theology because, in Christ, we have new hearts that love God and want to know him more. And theology ought always to lead us to love him more and to worship him. Theology should lead to doxology. And then that same theology ought to lead us to serve the Lord in practical ways, which includes serving those around us. To paraphrase Dr. David Murray, theology should go from our heads to our hearts to our hands. We learn, which leads to love and worship, which leads to labor. The key to theology not becoming a source of pride, or hyper-criticism, or distraction is not to get rid of theology. It’s to meditate on the source of theology (God) and then to seek the practical destination of theology (love, worship, service).
- David Mathis, The Doctrines of Graciousness: five more points for young calvinists, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-doctrines-of-graciousness
- Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, pg. 49