The first day of the semester in my New Testament classes (a general education requirement), I am greeted by upwards of 25 pairs of deer-in-headlights gazes and dropped jaws. My best efforts to alleviate their fear of diving into deep theological waters about a faith many of them have grown up with fail miserably. Yet we trudge on.
The difficult journey over the course of the semester is worth it. Many preachers and theologians will talk and write about the value of studying theology as making sure we believe the right things. I also want my students to understand the Gospel.
Theology by definition means, “what is said about God.” Within Christianity, there are many theological systems: Reformed/Calvinism, Arminianism, Wesleyanism, Liberation, Orthodox, and Charismatic/Pentecostal are some of the main ones. Unfortunately, my students’ journey of theological study, like others’ is marked with obstacles put in place by well-meaning theologians and staunch adherents to any one of these theological systems. Preachers and authors will make significant efforts to draw distinctions between their position and the rest, often mischaracterizing them.
The theological discipline does help us distinguish what is true. In Paul’s day, there were what he calls “false teachers” who distorted the truth of the gospel. Knowing Christian theology—what Jesus and the eyewitnesses to his life, teaching, death, and resurrection say—is the gospel. It is the Good News of God’s love for us when we were far from him, as illustrated for us in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), demonstrated by Jesus, and explained in His and other New Testament writers’ teaching.
After years of studying theology formally and serving with people from several of the major traditions, I’ve discovered this: On major issues, they agree. They may use different language to interpret and explain them, but they believe the same thing. Unfortunately, we have allowed secondary issues to divide us.
In addition to helping us understand the gospel clearly, studying theology also provides a window into the holiness of God and the sinfulness of humanity. We like to focus on behavior when we talk about sin. According to the Bible, sin is born in the heart. When done well, studying theology takes us beyond simply learning new words and concepts. As a means of discipleship (following Christ), it has the potential to help us better reflect the image of Jesus in our attitude, choices, and actions toward each other.
The third benefit to studying theology is to discover how God desires us to live as the community of faith. The hard work of loving each other and staying focused on God’s mission of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world sounds like a grand adventure, and it is. However, it’s difficult and costly.
Theology matters not just for seminaries and pastors. It’s critical for the church—that all of us—may deeply know God who calls us according to his purpose (Romans 8:28), to learn his ways, and after counting the cost, to live by them. Get more articles to help you live out your faith, check out our free e-devotions, discover the NLT, and find just the right Bible at http://www.newlivingtranslation.com.
Jack Radcliffe is a husband and father of four, coach (www.redwoodcoach.com) ministry trainer and speaker, dean of the Youth Ministry Institute of the Tennessee Conference UMC, and adjunct professor of educational ministry at Martin Methodist College. He has an MDiv from Ashland Theological Seminary in Ohio and a DMin in Practical Theology, Adolescent Development, and Culture from Fuller Theological Seminary.