I’ll post over the next few days my presentation from yesterday to the new students at GRTS.
I want to talk with you today about biblical and theological study as worship.
In the minds of many wonderful Christian people, those two things don’t go together too well. Worship involves devotion and passion, losing ourselves in love and praise for the one true God who has saved us in and through his Son, Jesus Christ. Worship is about celebration and joy and exulting in the character of God and the wonders of salvation. Worship fuels the cultivation of character and virtue. It produces humility and fosters joy among the people of God. Those are things we all want.
The common assumption is that biblical and theological study, on the other hand, involves intense debates about big fancy words and obscure matters that no one really cares about. It propels us into dark and dingy libraries so we’re stuck digging through dusty old books. It is dry. It deadens the soul. It’s boring. It’s irrelevant. It’s for people who love to argue and hash through debates involving cranky old men who have been dead for hundreds of years. If anything, study is the enemy of worship. It’s an obstacle to the cultivation of virtue and doesn’t do anything to foster joy among the people of God.
That scenario may sound familiar to some of you—the pitting of worship on one hand, against focused theological study, on the other. We all know that God wants worship from us . . . , but study? We’re less confident about that.
The Christian tradition in which I was raised held to this opposition between study and worship. I don’t think it did so intentionally or as a matter of conviction, but it came out in comments that I would hear.
When I went away to seminary, friends expressed to me their concern. They warned me that too much study would produce a lack of love for God and for others. They reminded me that love builds up, but knowledge puffs up. It’s love for others that matters, but study produces arrogance and it fuels pride.
Some of you may be similarly worried about entering seminary, or perhaps you’ve had friends and family express to you their doubts that you’re doing the right thing. Is it going to be a stumbling block to your devotion to Jesus? Will you risk losing your first love in the educational process?
One of my friends thought so. While he was in Bible college, he kept two Bibles. He used one for his devotions and the other he kept for his course-work. He had the suspicion that in some way biblical study that had an academic orientation would ruin his passion for God. He wanted to avoid drying up while studying the Bible, so he kept these two pursuits separated—his pursuit of knowledge and his pursuit of worship.
I must admit that I’ve had experiences that seem to confirm this suspicion. I’ve known people in seminary who became arrogant. I’ve faced the temptation myself—and have probably given in to it more often than I’d like to admit—to become proud in my intellectual achievements. I’ve known people who use their knowledge as fuel for fights and debates, seeking to parade their understanding before others, or to dominate others with their theological convictions.
You may have had similar experiences. Do they prove that education is the enemy of edification? That study is an obstacle to worship?
I want to demonstrate to you that this is a wrong way of seeing things.
First, consider the cultural mandate given to humanity at creation. You’ll reflect much more on this during your course of study, but in the beginning God gave humanity the commission to fill the earth and subdue it. Theologians speak of this as the cultural mandate. Not only did God want humanity to multiply over the face of the earth, but he gave humanity the commission to oversee creation’s flourishing and to develop culture. In order to do this, humanity would need to study the many complexities and wonders of creation, to get a good grip on how creation functioned and how humanity could experience flourishing while also seeing to it that the creation itself would be enhanced.
All the fields of study that humanity undertakes have a biblical basis, therefore, and they need to be directed to the end of God’s glory, of humanity’s flourishing, and for the good of the creation itself.
Well, if research, study, and learning are good in themselves, then how much more the study of divine things—the study of Scripture and reflection on God and his ways with the world—the content of theology!
Of course, it’s not our aim to “master” God, or to finally nail him down. Rather, it’s our privilege to reflect on God and his character, his ways with his people, his desires for creation’s flourishing, and all his particular glories and goodnesses. In fact, we could say that the real danger is not that we’ll come to find out too much about God, but that we won’t reflect on him faithfully enough. According to Scripture, the loss of the knowledge of God always leads to oppression, discouragement, enslavement to sin, dehumanization, idolatry, degradation. Those who know God and whose knowledge of him informs their confidence in his character are those who do heroic deeds of faith and bring the blessing of God to his people.
According to God’s desire for humanity, therefore, research, study, and learning are pursuits that God intended for humanity to carry out. And the study of God, reflection upon Scripture, and the cultivation of theological skill are pursuits that enjoy God’s blessing. We can be confident that as we pursue these, we put ourselves in good position to be blessed by God in Christ.