Why Study Theology?

A friend from the blogosphere emailed yesterday to ask a very personal question: “Why should anyone study theology?”

For my friend this is a personal question because she already has the bug. She loves reading and studying and writing.

But you have to admit, theology doesn’t land one a good job or build bridges or win wars. It’s so . . . theoretical. Maybe it’s just a selfish pastime for people who have too much curiosity.

If a family member questions you, “Why do you spend money and time studying this useless theory and how many angels fit on the head of a pin?” what will you say?

A lot of religious people are not convinced theology is very useful. And in many cases they are right. Many people study theology and do nothing useful with it. Some devotees of faith and worship are of the opinion that all we need is simple understanding and the Holy Spirit, they say, gives us all plenty. Others are more negative: if you study theology you will lose your faith.

I responded to the question this way: I study theology because knowing it enables me to help people.

The most real issues, the ones people thing about with cold dread at night, the ones that come to us lying on the hospital bed, are about God, afterlife, and whether there is meaning to it all.

Once, while on a business trip, I was in a bar with some colleagues. I had to go up to the bar to order a second round and overheard a group of half a dozen guys talking about the “Jesus tomb” which allegedly had just been found with bones in it proving Yeshua did not rise from the dead.

I said to them, “Hi, guys, I from Atlanta and I overheard your conversation. I am a student of theology from Atlanta. I know about this Jesus tomb thing. Would you guys like to hear more about it?”

The point of the story is only this: the fact that knew what I was talking about made them interested in hearing what I had to say. It’s akin to a discussion of politics and a history student walks into the conversation. Let’s all quit pretending we know anything and hear what the person who actually studies American history and sociology has to say.

People email me with questions. People call me with questions. Family and friends ask questions.

A lot of people wish they had someone to talk to from time to time about these things. And it would be nice if there were more people who studied theology.

I am skimming through a very bad book right now. It was written by some well-meaning, young, hip, emergent Christian types. They keep making statements about what this or that text means. They speak with a tone of authority. But it is patently obvious they have not wrestled with the background of the texts they are talking about. Their authority rings hollow.

Too much theological conversation is like that: the blind leading the blind.

You don’t have to be a pastor or rabbi to study theology. You have to put in time and work and keep reading and/or taking classes. You need mentors and friends who can discuss these things with you.

In Messianic Judaism we have a fairly new program (you have to be in the UMJC to fully participate, but you can take the coursework even if you are not in the UMJC) called the Madrikh program. It is about raising up more teachers and guides in our movement.

I told someone the other day that they should pursue ordination as a rabbi. This will involve about six years of hard work and study. My friend wondered, “Why would I do that?” He was thinking maybe he would not lead a congregation so why be a rabbi. He has a good job already.

I told him that at the biggest Orthodox synagogue here in Atlanta there are more than forty rabbis. Most of them do not get paid even part-time by the synagogue. But people do come to them with questions. They are leaders in the community. They are part of the reason this synagogue touches so many lives. Who wouldn’t want to belong to a place with so many teachers?

Why shouldn’t Messianic Judaism have thousands of Madrikhim, Madrikhot, and rabbis? If you are not Messianic Jewish, why shouldn’t your community have more theologians and teachers?

Of course, studying theology will mean a struggle. I don’t know anyone who has studied theology and not had their faith shaken at times. You can’t really wrestle with ideas and not be uncomfortable at times with the possibilities.

I have sometimes wanted to have part of my memory erased or have the divine chariot come down with the answers to the questions I am considering. The turmoil now and then has been difficult. I have walked with colleagues at conferences and told them I was struggling. I have seen my calm assurance shattered on many issues and become stronger for it. I would never say the gains were not worth the tears and fears.

Why study theology? Well, there are two reasons really. The first is like the Jewish doctrine of Torah lishma (Torah for its own sake) or the Christian doctrine of lecto divina (divine reading). The reading and the journey is a form of worship. I am with God even when I am studying the archaeological signs of Israel’s early history or the geographical issues of the Patriarchal narratives. I suppose even thinking about how many angels fit on the head of a pin can bring me closer to God in the process of study and reading.

The second is that it helps people. I see that all the time. I admire doctors. Doctors can’t help in some areas that I can, just as I can’t help in areas where a doctor is needed. Life and death are ultimately divine issues and our control over them is frighteningly small.

And the people I admire, the prophets and dreamers and apostles who brought the Biblical texts to us, they thought deeply about theology. They wrestled with death and disappointment and delayed promise. They were not simple preachers. Yeshua most likely could read and he knew the texts and traditions. Paul was a Harvard grad, eminently received wherever he went. Isaiah, Ezekiel, and the unknown authors of much of the wisdom literature impress me as geniuses. Moses and the final editors of the Torah are amazing literary artists.

So I say, if you are foolishly brave enough to study theology, do it and never stop.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Theology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Why Study Theology?

  1. ckinbar says:

    “the Jewish doctrine of Torah lishma (Torah for its own sake) or the Christian doctrine of lecto divina (divine reading).”

    I agree, Derek. The issue is worshiping God.

    The Shema reads, “You shall love Hashem your God with all your heart, soul, and strength. Yeshua interpreted the Shema as follows: “heart, mind, soul and strength.” A maturing worship involves using all our capacity to love God, both individually and in community, involves the mind as much as the heart.

  2. peterygwendyta says:

    All believers should be involved in some type of study of theology. As the saying goes that when times are hard you know who your real friends are. In the same way it is only when your faith and beliefs are shaken that you know how strong your faith and beliefs are. At the end of the day as ckinbar said the issue is worshipping God. Why wouldn’t people want to know more about Him through studying Him ie Theology.

  3. tnnonline says:

    I appreciate what Derek has said here. Not everybody is called to what we might call “full time ministry,” but being a part of some kind of theological studies should be encouraged. I was fortunate to go to a university that offered classes in Hebrew, Greek, and relevant histories to the Biblical period all at the undergraduate level. (And wouldn’t you know it, the University of Oklahoma inaugurated a religious studies department the year after I left!)

    So, if there are people who are not called to be main leaders in the assembly, but can be used in various other capacities, those attending college should be able to take classes (as electives?) that can help them.

  4. cjlid says:

    Thx Derek, this is encouraging. When I was 19, I read all the way through the Bible in a year, and I almost lost my faith. Before that, I said “my beloved Bible.” After that, I said “the Bible is weird.” But I have come around again to realizing that it is “A tree of life for those who take hold of it.” When I went through that crisis of faith, I didn’t share with many people because I thought I would come across as weak. Thx again, Jeannie

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