CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Putting Theos Back Into Theology

Apr 19, 2007

At the heart of theology, as the term implies, is God. Theology is simply the study of God. So God should be the focus of everything we do and think as believers. As such, theology should be at the centre of every Christian’s spiritual devotion. We should all aspire to be theologians. Yet sadly this is often lacking in much of the Christian church.

Many Christians are far too preoccupied with self and the things of this world to pay much attention to God or to seek to make him the serious object of our time and attention, let alone study.

Why is this so? Let me explain by way of a story. Often when I begin a course in theology I ask my students for a show of hands: how many of you just love theology? How many of you are crazy about theological studies? After a few seconds of bewildering looks, a few hesitant hands go up. It is almost as if I had asked, who here loves cod liver oil?

Immediately after that curly question, I ask another: Who here loves God? Who here is just crazy about their God? And of course – perhaps not wishing to feel embarrassed or left out – every hand instantly shoots up.

To which I ask a last set of questions: Why the discrepancy here? Why the disconnect? You all claim to love God, and rightly so. Yet very few of you admit to loving the study of God. How come? After all, if theology is simply the knowledge or study of God, shouldn’t we all want to know more about the object of our love? Shouldn’t we all want to spend as much time getting to know the God we claim to love?

If they still cannot see the point, I offer an analogy. I ask how many are engaged, or have a boyfriend or girlfriend. I ask them: don’t you just love to be with your beloved? Don’t you just want to spend as much time with that person as possible? To get to know them as thoroughly as you can? Don’t you just want to be totally familiar with the object of your affections?

The person in love wants to know everything about the beloved: the kind of food they like, the movies they see, the toothpaste they use – everything. When you are in love, that is the normal response. So if we love God, why don’t we want to know all about him? Why don’t we want to study and grow deeper in our understanding and knowledge about the very person we claim to love, adore and worship?

Of course, seen in that light, most Christians would agree. But one suspects that for many, theology leaves a different taste in the mouth. One thinks of dry, boring and over-the-head lectures and arguments that leave one cold. One thinks of debates over theological minutiae that seem totally irrelevant and disconnected with everyday life.

Fair enough: much theology has been in that vein. But it need not be. It shouldn’t be. It should be lively, dynamic, uplifting and exhilarating. Studying the creator of the universe and the redeemer of our soul: who could ask for more?

Yet even if the Christian church does regain the sorely needed love of, and appreciation for, theology, more will be needed. This is because much of what passes for theology these days is not really theology at all, but anthropology. That is, instead of focusing on God and his works, we tend to focus on ourselves.

We are reminded in the Westminster Shorter Catechism that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. For many believers today, this seems to be read as follows: the chief end of man is to glorify oneself and enjoy oneself forever.

Our gospel – both in terms of understanding and presentation – tends to be far too man-centred and way too devoid of Biblical content. Sadly, many Christians are woefully ignorant of even basic Christian doctrines and teaching. Numerous surveys have made this clear.

Many believers today simply do not know what they believe, or why they believe it. But many do know all about self. We live in a self-centred culture, and much of our Christianity is as focused on self as is the world. We want to lose weight for Jesus, improve our self-esteem, feel good about ourselves, and basically just be happy.

Now there is nothing wrong with such concerns. It is just that they will never be achieved if they are the sole focus of our attention. In truth, these are all by-products: focus on Jesus and serving him, and all these things may well follow. Or as Jesus taught us, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).

If we follow the Biblical model of denying self, dieing to self, and serving others, then true contentment and peace will be realised. But as long as we insist on making ourselves number one in the universe, and obsessively cling to our rights, our happiness, our wants and our desires, we will be ineffective as disciples of Christ, and we will be left feeling flat every time.

Christianity – from beginning to end – is about Christ, not us. As several recent Christian best-sellers have reminded us, “It is not about me”. Those words should be printed in large font and posted all over our homes. This whole Christian business is about Jesus, and what he did for us. It is not about ourselves. It is time we put God back into our lives, into our thinking, and into our theology. And it is also time we put self where it belongs: on the cross. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

Until theology becomes genuine theology, with God at the very centre, our Christianity will be weak and anaemic, and our witness to the world will be shallow and unfruitful.

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6 Responses to Putting Theos Back Into Theology

  • Perhaps the reason for the apparent discordance between those who profess a love for God whilst showing little or no interest in theology, is that they really don’t love God as much as they think they do. This would also explain the preoccupation with ‘self’.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  • Dear Bill, It is perhaps the theology of suffering we need to learn. Isobel Kuhn, in her book “By Searching” (1957) said the heathen around us have not much respect or interest in a smug, ordinary Christianity. “If is costs you nothing, what proof have you that it has any value?” is their indifferent, shrugging attitude. But when they see in any life the print of the nail (“Except I shall see in His hands the print of the nails and thrust my hand into His side, I will not believe” John 20:25), they are challenged; and like Thomas of old, if they can be made see Him at that moment, they will fall down and cry, My Lord and my God.
    Archbishop Venables of Argentina, recently gave an address which echoed this which can be found by copying, pasting, googling and scrolling down to Greg Venables:

    http://images.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://www.stjamesokc.org/Archbishop_Venables.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.stjamesokc.org/&h=447&w=400&sz=35&hl=en&start=9&um=1&tbnid=WBEc234mDzI23M:&tbnh=127&tbnw=114&prev=/images%3Fq%3Darchbishop%2Bgregory%2Bvenables%26svnum%3D10%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DG

    David Skinner

  • Thanks David
    I just told my apologetics students earlier this week that we need to develop a theology of suffering. After all, the servant is not above his master, and we follow a suffering servant, as in Isaiah 53.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Someone once said: ‘All genuine theology is doxology’.
    That is, it issues in praise.

    One can be an armchair theologian, almost as ‘a hobby’, but not be moved to worship. We all need to take care how we hear!

    Trevor Faggotter

  • I think Ewan is right in what he says.

    The other point is that many Christians profess love of God that is pure emotion, by-passing the head on its way to the heart. This is not really love of God at all, it is just a shallow emotionalism that will not achieve much for God at all.

    Damien Spillane

  • The declining Biblical values within the churches are a major concern. The Christian ethical views are barely upheld. There is a definite correlation between churched believers and Theology or Bible College students. Indeed, the purpose driven life is when God is given pre-eminence in all our plans. The desire to study about God is one matter, to follow Him is another! When Theology/Bible College students acknowledge God as the one who gives our breath, then to study about God will necessarily follow. As a consequence, the Christian doctrines and ethical views will be effectively presented and upheld within the church.
    Sergio Andriez

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