Four Reasons to Study Theology Academically

As I write I am just about to embark on my sixth year of studying theology my-university-library-3-1442034academically. I have completed an undergraduate Bachelors of Divinity and I’m beginning work on my dissertation for a postgraduate Masters of Theology. Over the past five years I have learned a lot about God, His Word and myself – it has been a steep, but enjoyable (mostly), learning curve. As I reflect on those years of study I find four primary benefits that I have experienced, and so I offer them as reasons for studying theology academically.

  1. Studying theology academically opens up a whole new world of authors!

For those who enjoy reading this is an exciting prospect. Of course many readers in our local churches have come across authors like John Piper, Jerry Bridges, Kevin DeYoung, Christopher Wright, and Paul Tripp. However, in the academic world there is a vast array of new authors who have not published any ‘popular’ works. People such as Bruce Waltke, Gard Granerød, Carl Armerding, Gerard Van Groningen, Meredith Kline, Herman Ridderbos, and Millard Erickson.

Now some of the authors you’ll meet in academic circles are not hugely beneficial or edifying to the conservative evangelical Christian. But, many others have pertinent insights, alternative perspectives and unique experience and knowledge in their field of study. Personally, I have found scores of academic scholars not only informative but inspiring and a blessing as they have opened up a passage, an aspect of Christ’s work or an element of God’s character. Moreover, it is more than likely that if I had never studied theology academically I would never have come across many of these names.

Studying theology academically opens up a whole new world of authors!

  1. Studying theology academically aids the development of an ability to be analytical and critical in assessment.

Obviously this is a skill that is developed through academic study of any kind. Nevertheless, I believe it warrants specific mention in relation to theology due to the propensity of (perhaps even often blind) dogmatism in many Christian circles. Each of us is guilty of this to a greater or lesser degree – we pick our theological camp and argue all of their positions to the death!

Something I have learned quickly through my study of theology academically is that no one ‘camp’ has all of the answers. Certain scholars have particularly good insights on one of two areas, while certain schools of thought tend to be particularly strong on a small handful of doctrines, and so on. A healthy, well-rounded theology is one that has developed and grown by appreciating the good, beneficial and profitable aspects of a variety of contributors, while overlooking or challenging the errors.

The reality is that absolutely no-one has got absolutely everything right, and almost no-one has got absolutely everything wrong. It is important that as Christians we develop an ability to analyse and critique arguments to protect ourselves from error. Studying theology academically aids that development.

  1. Studying theology academically reveals theological issues which will hit the church in ten/fifteen/twenty years time.

Something that surprised me time and time again was to read prominent theological writers of the early twentieth century only to find some of the same doctrinal errors that appeared in many popular works in the 80s, 90s and 00s.

The reality is that many issues which are discussed and debated in academic theological circles often trickle down into popular thinking in several of decades. Those ideas or conclusions which are novel (and frequently compellingly argued) are soon embraced by talented authors and speakers who are seeking to set the church or Christianity on a new, brave course that will be more faithful to Jesus and relevant to the world. However, as the author of Ecclesiastes has so famously reminded us, there is nothing new under the sun.

If you have studied, read and dissected these arguments previously you are that little bit more prepared for the battle which lies ahead in the pews. This is surely one of the most beneficial reasons for pastors to have study theology academically, and one of the easiest applications of academic theological study to the life of a church.

  1. Studying theology academically requires time built into your schedule for studying God and His Word.

This is arguably the most profitable aspect of studying theology academically. Having paid a reasonable sum of money; having scheduled classes; having particular texts to read; having a deadline for assignments; all of this leads to time being devoted to studying God and His Word.

It has been a wonderful privilege to spend hours upon hours reading Greek texts and parsing Paul’s letters. It has been both difficult and illuminating to delve into the liberal scholars of the early/mid nineteenth century. It has been hugely exciting to open up the world of Old Testament studies with Wenham, Childs, Longmand and Goldingay. All of which I would never have had the opportunity (nor the inclination possibly) to do so if I was not studying theology academically.

As I finish allow me to be the first to state that this will not make you a better Christian. In fact it is quite possible to be immersed in the world of academic theology and not be a Christian. When Christ returns he will not look for the guys with PhD’s and MTh’s. However, that does not mean that everyone involved in academic study of theology is dry, boring, liberal (in the bad sense) and out of touch with ‘real life’. I would seek to argue quite the opposite. Academic study of theology, when carried out in the correct manner, is invigorating, edifying and to God’s glory.

It is not for everyone, but if some of the points above strike a chord with you perhaps you should consider studying theology academically.

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