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Entries in Theology (12)

Wednesday
Jun282017

The temptation of the academic exercise

Many years ago, a friend and I spent some time at a summer camp teaching the Bible to women. The camp was held in early August, and we began preparing in the spring. We met often to pray about what we would be doing. One thing my friend prayed often was that our study would not become mere academic exercise. That is a prayer that I have to repeat to myself often since beginning seminary.

Last year, I took systematic theology over two semesters and each time we began a new topic, I took note of resources for further study so that I could go back and re-visit the topics. It is not hard to see how theologians ultimately focus on a specific area of study. Recently, I began my foray into the world of Logos software, and as I began browsing and compiling a wishlist, I saw how easy it is to investigate every fine of point of theology we want. It is tempting, however, to poke and prod at theological issues without ever addressing my own heart. 

No matter what kind of theologian we are -- the ordinary kind or the professional kind -- there is a responsibility before God to be holy because he is holy (I Pet 1:13-16). It is easy to think we are holy because we are engaged in deep study of theology, but pursuing holiness means we have to actually look away from the study and examine ourselves. I love the study. I love following the bunny trails. But if the end result is nothing but a head full of facts without any heart impact, I may as well study something other than theology.

Last semester, as we studied sanctification, it became apparent to me that there were holes in my understanding. When school was over and I had time, I started reading Sinclair Ferguson's book Devoted to God and then J.I. Packer's Re-Discovering Holiness. I'm glad I read those books. I'm glad I took the time to look at my own heart; to get to that place where the rubber meets the road. 

It's easy to become immersed in doctrine while checking my heart at the door. What good does a reading list of ten or twenty books on a subject if I'm not pursuing holiness? Does all of the doctrinal study I do lead me ultimately to praise God? To love his word more? It's actually quite easy to know a lot of theology, to read a lot of books on the subject, and maybe even write eloquently about it, but never actually spend a lot of time in the Bible itself. There are so many experts out there who have done the work for us that it's easy to just take their word for it and never engage scripture with any depth.

My mother used to say two contrasting, but complementary things: "A little knowledge is a light load to carry," and "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Knowledge can be a benefit, but used incorrectly, it can become a source of pride. Study is good, but if we're not paying attention to our own sanctification in the process, then all of that knowledge is a hollow accomplishment.

I want my studies to make a difference in the every day. I want them to make me more thankful, more prone to praising God, more yielded to God's will, more gracious, and more at peace. It is still my prayer that study will not be mere academic exercise.

Monday
May152017

Specialized theology

Since starting seminary, I have benefitted from theologians who are specialists in a particular area. One of the first profs I had specialized in war in the Old Testament. My prof last semester did his doctoral dissertation on baptism. In the books I have used to prepare papers, I have been introduced to other theologians who specialize. When I want to know about a particular subject, especially when looking for a commentary on a book of the Bible, I look for someone who has studied extensively in that area. 

We all have particular areas of interest in our own theological studies. I tend to gravitate to historical theology or systematic theology. How have we understood the Bible? How have we used it to work out doctrinal positions? How do those studies enlarge my view of God? I also like to study about Bible study and hermeneutics. I notice that fellow bloggers also have a favourite interest, and for many, it is the place of women in the Church. 

I tread lightly on this matter, because in all honesty, I am all too aware that one can say something seemingly inconsequential, and then find out later that it was the wrong thing to say. I may be going against my gender, but I sometimes sympathize with the men when they look perplexed: "What did I say wrong?" I don't discount the reality of the marginalization of women, but occasionally, I find myself reluctant to offer an opinion that is not 100% agreement for fear that I will be drummed out of womanhood. Even asking a clarifying question may generate confllict. That troubles me, and is an issue all its own. I have many thoughts on it, but I am a coward, and likely won't articulate many of them.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to study extensively issues such as women, racism, social justice, poverty, covenant theology, or the Trinity. We all have interests which drive us. I don't think we should feel guilty if things about which we feel strongly don't algin with the interests of others. I won't hold it against you if you don't care about how the doctrine of justification developed over time or whether you find your eyes glazing over in a discussion about hermeneutics. By the same token, I hope you would excuse me if I pass by an article about women in the Church or don't react with as much passion as you might. It doesn't mean I don't care, and it doesn't mean I'm not listening.

I do care about how women are treated in the Church. I care deeply. But I care about other matters, too. Part of the beauty of finding our equality in our essence as opposed to our function means that we are free to pursue what we want without fearing that others, especially our sisters in Christ, will accuse us of being apathetic in other areas.

As I get older my poor brain needs focus, and that means that less is more. My greatest desire is to know God more, to be more yielded to him, to know his word better, and to love others better. I don't want to come across as argumentative with anyone whether the subject matter is women, the extent of the atonement, or whether or not I should eat gluten. I just want to keep fixing my eyes on Christ, and follow where he leads. And yes, that may mean I miss out on some reading. I will take that chance.

Friday
Mar032017

Do theology with humility

I don't remember exactly where, but within the tome that is my Systematic Theology textbook (albeit, an excellent tome!), a comment is made about doing theology with humility. One of the greatest lessons I have learned this past year is the need to hold knowledge with humility.

When one is in seminary, learning new things, it is often difficult to withhold one's excitement. It's a great experience to have frequent epiphanies as we learn. Why did I not see that? is a frequent question. Another question, as we discuss questionable doctrine is "how could I have believed that?" 

It's comforting to know that our understanding of doctrine and theology is a process. Sometimes, you have to believe something questionable, and see the consequences in all their misery, before you can find the patience to sit and work through things. Sometimes, when we are young Christians, we are so eager to learn that we grab on to something and hold it fiercely without asking ourselves why.

My theology professor has shared a few stories about his own developing theology as he was a student at Dallas Theological Seminary. The way he put it to me recently, he is a graduate of DTS, but he's not a "Dallas man." My hermeneutics professor, last year, shared many stories about his gradual change in various doctrines as he learned more. Both men hold their views with humility. There was no, "Man, how could I ever have believed that?" There was just gratitude for continuing to learn.

My theology prof is pretty brilliant. He thinks well on his feet. When someone in the class asks a question that leaves me wondering what they are actually asking, he seems to have figured it out right away. But there is no whiff of superiority from him. I can learn from someone like that. I don't suppose that I will ever have the level of knowledge that he does, but I don't get a feeling of inferiority being around him. The kind of people I can't learn from are those who present themselves as having attained some level of proficiency that makes them a little cut above others.

I have no idea where my seminary education will take me other than I plan to be teaching in my local church as long as they will have me. I want to be a teacher who holds her knowledge with humility. I know for sure that if older women want to minister effectively to younger women, coming across as if we know it all is not the best way to approach things. Showing others that we are still growing in our faith is a more excellent way.

Instead of thinking "how on earth could I have ever believed that?" I think a better response is, "I'm so thankful God continues to show me truth."

Saturday
Feb252017

Studious ones, beware!

I have cold. One of those knock-down-drag-out-get-the-license-number-of-the-truck-who-hit-me kind of cold. It's been a while since I was sick; probably more than two years. Thankfully, my son arrived home last weekend to remedy that fine record. It has slowed me down. Thankfully, I was able to finish this week's theology paper, and Lord willing I will finish my ethics case study for submission by Sunday at midnight. Next week is Reading Week, so I am free to be sick.

Yesterday was a do nothing day. Other than supervise the puppy, who decided it was fun to slip through the gap in the chain link fence and run into the neighbour's yard, I lay on the couch most of the day. I'm reading through the book of Romans, and it was my intent to read a number of translations. After reading in the ESV and the NSRV, I'm on to the NASB. I want to read in the NET bible next. It was nice to read in large chunks despite my runny nose and increasing pile of Kleenex on the coffee table, although it did prove to be too tempting to puppy to ignore. More running. Good news, after four weeks since my ankle fracture, I can run. A little. And inelegantly.

I saw someone re-tweet something recently. I can't remember where, but it was to the effect that studying theology all day long is never enough because God is great. I agree with that, but I have discovered (a fact about which I was cautioned as a new seminary student) that studying theology, while giving me joy, can easily lead to apathy toward personal devotions. Many years ago, when I began homeschooling, I made it my habit to rise early and read the Bible and pray. At that time, early morning offered the best opportunity for peace and quiet. Now that my chicks have flown the coop, I don't have that difficulty, and there are mornings when I have a lot of reading to do, or am preparing a paper, and it's easy to skip my Bible reading and prayer because I can put it off until later. And there are days when I forget because I've put it off.

It's easy to comfort myself that after, all, I am studying theology. Isn't that the same as Bible reading and prayer? Not really. I gain a great deal of spiritual insight from my theology class. Some of the most deep spiritual lessons have come my way through our textbook. But to sit before God, ready to communicate with him, to go before the throne of grace to pray and offer praise, is not what I'm doing when I'm studying.

As I study the relevant Scripture passages for this current unit on justification, the Holy Spirit can speak to me, and I can utter a praise to God as I see what I've been given, but a purposed time out for communion with God is more, and ought to be sought with priority. I've found myself more and more feeling pressed in the early mornings to get homework done so I can get on to other things. I need to resist that. 

The study of theology has to be for more than giving one the tools to object to someone else. It has to be more than equipping someone to support her pre-suppositions. It should be an extension of our relationship with Christ. It should fortify it, strengthen it. It should make us want to commune with him more. Most of us have the time. Lately, I have found myself being sucked into the vortex of online drama. Yesterday morning, I happened to catch a whiff of a furor over an article that a certain famous Christian wrote, and I realized afterward that I'd wasted about thirty minutes on it. Thankfully, I had no pressing plans, but that cannot continue. I would have been better off sleeping.

The study is not the end. It is merely the vehicle for knowledge to come, and with knowledge comes understanding, and with understanding, gratitude and praise. That should be the goal whether we're self-educating or attending seminary.

Monday
Jan022017

Women, know your limits!

That is the title of a very funny video. You should watch it. That's not exactly what this post is about, though.

One of the doctrines we discussed in my theology class last semester was the doctrine of humanity. We are not God. We are not immanent nor are we transcendent. We are neither all-powerful nor self-sustaining. That is who we are by design.

In the context of the doctrine of humanity, our textbook talked about the reality of our limitations. Erickson says:

Limitation is not inherently bad. There is a tendency to bemaon the fact of human finiteness. Some, indeed, maintain that this is the cause of human sin. If we were not limited, we would always know what is right and would do it. Were humans not encumbered by finiteness, they could do better. But the Bible indicates that having made the human with the limitations that go with creaturehood, God looked at the creation and pronounced it "very good" (Gen. 1:31). Finiteness may well lead to sin if we fail to accept our limitation and live accordingly.

Later, Erickson adds: "Proper adjustment in life can be achieved only on the basis of acceptance of one's own finiteness." 

I found that principle very thought-provoking. The implications of this are significant. Accepting our own finiteness means we need not feel the pressure to be perfect. We don't need to feel the pressure to always be right. We women talk a lot about not needing to be perfect. Will we ever understand that fully without a complete understanding of our finiteness?

Tis the season for resolution making. Goals are good things, but as we make them, we do need to recognize our limitations. One of my closest and oldest friends lost her son in November. This woman is one of the most godly women I know; truly a woman saturated in Scripture; truly a woman who consciously participates in her own sanctification, always desiring to grow in the Lord. She did not plan to grow in the ways which lie ahead, and which are a direct result of this loss. I may want to become better organized in 2017, but God may have other plans for me. I may want to read X number of books in 2017, but God, being unlimited in his knowledge, may know that something else is far better for me. Our plans are not always God's plans.

I wonder if some of the frustration we often feel at our circumstances is because we resist the limitations which are part of our own nature. It is not part of our current culture to suggest that one is limited. We can "do anything." Humans can do many things, but they are not God. Scripture reminds us: 

Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite (Ps. 147:5).
Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable (Ps. 145:3).

God is infinite and unsearchable, but we are not. And that is okay.

I am not really a resolution-maker. The goals I have are fairly general. What I do want to focus on, though, is the implications of my finiteness. It seems to me that being able to rest in God is intimately connected to accepting that reality. It doesn't mean I must be passive, but it does mean I need to know my limits.