Studying ... Theology?
When you stop to think about it, the opportunities given in studying theology at university are amazing. The time to study the Scriptures, doctrines, church history and many other areas is an immense privilege. To be exposed to the heavyweights and their insights whilst being sharpened, challenged and matured in the knowledge and love of God is wonderful. To be a blessing to His people is the spin off for many years to come.
With great privilege comes great responsibility (to paraphrase Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben). Often the study of theology quickly turns into a game of wanting to win arguments whether with lecturers, fellow students, church members and even church leaders! Too often we can use our theology as a hammer to stress our point and put people in their place. Instead our desire ought to be to see how studying theology can be used fruitfully in the service of God’s people and to see people come to know the Lord as an increasingly Christ-like character is formed in us.
This ultimately means, to quote J.I. Packer, that “theology is for doxology and devotion” and as such sees the whole person engaged, both head and heart, in their studies.
Challenges and opportunities
We need to be realistic in our approach to studying theology at university and to honestly recognise the challenges and opportunities the subject presents. For some it strengthens and deepens conviction, love and knowledge of Christ whilst others crash into a stumbling block and shipwreck their faith.
We need to have our eyes open to the challenges of an environment where people seek to undermine areas such as the historical accuracy of the Gospels, the dating of books in the Hebrew Bible, and the denial of a supernatural worldview and the arguments at both an academic and popular level regarding the composition of the canon. Students are very familiar with the difficulties of disagreeing with a lecturer who is five times smarter, and more familiar with the subject, but perhaps the more subtle areas are more dangerous. When God is looked at as an object to be studied rather than a subject to be worshipped we end up in dangerous territory. When that is mixed with arrogance toward our brothers and sisters in Christ who do not study theology, we have lost our vision for the subject.
When God is looked at as an object to be studied rather than a subject to be worshipped
we end up in dangerous territory
Conversely, the opportunities mean we can get to know the real God as opposed to the gods of other religions and philosophies. Whilst needing to work harder than others, we can grow in confidence and sharper in our faith having wrestled with the critical issues and finding there are answers out there. The chance to grow in humility is one that should be recognised as well when realising the magnitude of the subject at hand.
There are many helpful bits of advice and tips for studying theology which can be gleaned from advisors, websites, books and articles. Perhaps the most important advice we found was from John Frame: You will influence more people from your life than your theology (1 Timothy 4:16). So cultivate an intense devotional life; be teachable before you start teaching others; maintain a proper theological perspective through the support of other believers and be sceptical of the sceptics. Being part of a vibrant church for spiritual growth is crucial and it is a good idea to find someone who can point you towards helpful articles and books. In everything trust God to help, strengthen and guide you in the midst of the difficult lectures, arguments and essays. He will not let you down.
Sharing Christ with course mates
Studying theology is a wonderful opportunity to help our friends on our courses get to know Jesus. They read the Bible in class, talk about Jesus openly and think about who God is each day. This is pretty much an open invitation to talk to them about Christianity. However, it can be hard to push beyond the intellectual debate and academic bravado. theology students perhaps more than others are good at holding Jesus at arm’s length.
That said, there are three key elements in sharing Jesus with our friends. These apply to any situation, but the way theology students go about doing them might look different in practice.
- Get to know people
- Love people
- Speak to people
Of course all of these things are interrelated. They are like the three lines that make up a triangle. All three are essential, and wherever you start each side ends up joined to the others. The same is true here; getting to know people, loving people and speaking to people form a whole which can introduce someone to Christ. It is not a linear thing, but it is helpful to consider the distinctives of each. In order to do that we will think about them separately.
Get to know people
This may sound obvious, but it can be a challenge. University life is busy with lots of different opportunities; spending time with people can be hard. If you want to introduce your course mates to Jesus it will take more than an argument across a lecture theatre.
But maybe busyness is not your problem. Maybe you have a nice group of friends in theology who all think like you and it is easier to spend time with them. It is important to spend time with good Christian friends; they will spur you on and help you to keep going. But if all your time is spent with them you will not introduce others to Christ.
If this is a challenge for you in your context here are some ideas:
- If there is a group of Christians on your course, split up and go to different seminar groups so you can get to know people.
- Is there a theology society? Go to some events, maybe even get on the committee (do this with a Christian friend).
- Suggest going for lunch or to the pub after a seminar each week and continue chatting about what you have been learning.
- Organise a social for your course mates, have them over for dinner, organise a pub night
Once we have started to get to know people we need to show them that they matter to us. They are not just a project we have adopted so that we have someone to take to CU events. Nor are they just someone to fight with and show our superior knowledge. Rather they are a person made in the image of God who has dignity and who we long will come to know Jesus as their saviour, lord and friend.
We need to be interested in people, to get to know them and come to understand them. This in itself has the potential to speak volumes in a theology context.
As we get to know people we need to think hard about how to love them and to show them that we love them. Could you:
- Go for coffee and chat, ask them questions about their lives. Where did they grow up? How did they come to be interested in theology? What makes them tick?
- Take an interest in what they are interested in. We don’t want to turn our noses up at the stuff that gets them excited: read a chapter of the book they are very excited about, try and grapple with the bit of theology that makes them tick, understand why they think what they think (don’t write it off as stupid).
- Have them over for a meal, talk to them about the things you love and what interests you. Give them your time.
- Work hard at your academics; show them that Christians can do theology well.
Speak to people
We need to get to know people and to show them that we care about them, but for someone to come to know Jesus we also need to speak to them about Him.
When you love people, and they see the difference Jesus makes to you and your studies, speaking about Him takes on a whole new significance
In a context where people are speaking about Jesus most days in class it is less difficult for us to mention Jesus and to talk about matters of faith. However, as we thought about in the challenges earlier it can be hard to take this conversation beyond the academic level.
This is why getting to know people and loving people is so key. When people see that you love them and they see the difference following Jesus makes to you and your studies, speaking about Christ takes on a whole new significance. It is now no longer something people can just argue down.
When you speak about Christ in the context of a friendship you will have integrity. They may well think you are stupid or disagree with you, but if you are friends with them they will have to engage with you.
This is still hard; how do you get these conversations going? Some ideas:
- Get a discussion group going which you lead. For example, once a month invite a group of theology friends over, pick something you will talk about and perhaps give people something to read before (maybe a section in John’s Gospel). Lead a discussion about what you have read.
- Ask a friend to look at a source document with you. You might not want to use Uncover with theology students, but could you ask a friend to read through a Bible source and chat about it together. Then pray, pray, pray!
- Follow up conversations from seminars. Pick up in one to one conversation comments made in seminars as a way in to speaking about Jesus.
Theology Network is a UCCF ministry committed to equipping theology students at university with resources and training to speak well of the gospel to their peers.
 J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, Tyndale, 1993, page xii
© Connie Keep and Andrew Larkin