As odd as it may sound, theological studies – man’s study of God and how to relate to Him as human persons – is often thought of as a “faith killer”. This is the case within certain Christian circles at least. Elspeth Barnett, a theology graduate from Kings College London, tells of how she held this ironic fear. She recounts how, before embarking on her degree in theology, she received her “fair share of Evangelical warnings”, reminding her to be cautious of having her ‘faith’ undermined. Barnett goes on to tell of how, despite a good Christian grounding (a Christian upbringing, cross-cultural mission work, serving within her local church setup) and the forewarnings, studying theology ended up being the biggest trial her faith endured up to that point.
I have begun walking a similar journey a few years ago. My entrance into theological studies was not accompanied by a specific fear or list of warnings attached to it. I have, however, held this suspicion towards academic theological institutions and was aware of the notion that “the more advanced a person becomes as a theologian, the less eager evangelist he becomes”. I pursued these studies primarily because I had the hope of eventually studying philosophy. Theology would provide me with an academic qualification more conducive to philosophical studies than that of my qualifications in commerce at the time.
Regardless of my intentions for pursuing theological studies, the experience was in many ways similar to the one described by Barnett. Both of us had our personal faiths challenged, both experienced the process as frustrating at times and both concluded it (theology) to be a necessary part of growing as members of the Faith.
I believe the suspicion among both Evangelicals and evangelistic-minded Christians are mainly based on three theological positions. Yes, even those who may be suspicious of the ‘intellectual theological’ pursuit of God hold theological positions! Before we consider the first position, it is important that we acknowledge that all people are theologians in the broad sense of the word while Christians are all theologians in the narrow sense. All people interact with their experienced reality from a belief system which includes a view of ‘ultimate reality’ (God) and a doctrine of man. Christians too, define God in certain terms and consequently view themselves in light of that understanding of God, regardless of the source(s) for their interpretation of these.
The Christian mind
What is the role of intellect in one’s relational pathway to God? Can God be known through the mind? It is impossible to deny the contribution Christian thinkers made to theology and church tradition through the ages. Augustine of Hippo (AD354-430), arguably the most influential theologian to date and often referred to as “the second founder of the Christian faith”, was also renowned for his philosophical work, some of which dominated the intellectual life in Europe for more than a thousand years.
As a student of Greek philosophy, Augustine was familiar with the Aristotelian notion that knowing or agreeing happens not only on an intellectual (logos) level but simultaneously on psychological (pathos) and social/ethical (ethos) levels as well. He argued that the integrated person should practice integrated worship by means of his “head, heart and hands” along the biblical command to love God with one’s whole being, including mind, heart and strength (Matt. 22:34-39; Mk. 12:29-31; Lk. 10:26-28). His philosophy on music is the foundational reason behind much of the sophisticated music which was developed and written through the European church leading up to and beyond the Protestant reformations and is still evident in modern musical pursuits within Western culture. This is a good example of how heart worship, often associated with music and hymns, is dependent on head worship.
Another church father, John of Damascus (ca. AD 676-749), who continued in the tradition of Augustine and Boethius (AD 480-524) to integrate Greek insights into Biblical revelation (also visible in Paul addressing the Areopagus, Acts 17), taught that “to be spiritual is to cultivate the life of the mind”. The Greeks gave up on rationality while the Biblical teaching that “eternal life was to know (the rational) God and Jesus Christ” continued the case for it. The later mass-awakening of the European mind continued through the works of reformers such as Wycliffe, Tyndale, Luther and Calvin, who made it their business to make the Bible available to all people, that they may discover Truth for themselves. It is said that most every European alehouse and tavern at the time became a debating society as the people developed a critical mind, questioning traditions of the church and decisions of kings. They knew then that the Word of God was an authority higher than that of church and state combined. In the noble Berean spirit (Acts 17:11), studying and discerning the Word became a daily pursuit to many; the means to their liberation.
Not only were the people liberated from oppressive authorities, but in developing a Biblical worldview they became liberated from pre-Christian worldviews (pagan animism, Greco-Roman monism, and Islamic fatalism) still active within church culture at the time. History shows that Christian societies only develop a Biblical worldview and see its effects over time, as the minds of its people are transformed.
While the head is of no use apart from the heart and hands, it remains central and irreplaceable in the experience and on the journey of knowing God.
Salvation, faith, and doubt
What does Barnett mean when saying, “theological studies put my faith on trial”? She could mean one of two things.
First, she was in danger of “losing her salvation” and becoming an unbeliever. This will depend on how salvation is defined and the role worldview-altering ideas play in becoming ‘saved’. Important questions which follow are whether she is saved due to her beliefs or believes because of her salvation, and whether salvation is a process or an event?
If salvation is obtained through human effort or belief, it follows that exposure to and engagement with ideas is the ultimate basis from which salvation is obtained or lost. We are left to face a multitude of ideas on a daily basis and destined to believe the most convincing ones. The ‘gift’ of salvation is thus only for those able to obtain and hold on to it. From this perspective it would make sense to engage only with those ideas which lead to one’s salvation in the first place and avoid any alternative which may result in the loss of salvation. If salvation is in fact the gift from God which resulted in Barnett’s belief in Christ as the Messiah, contradictory ideas could be engaged in more freely without the fear of losing her salvation because of it.
Salvation ‘obtained’ allows us with the possibility of one to multiple salvific events and a process of moving towards a possible, eventual obtaining of salvation. Salvation ‘bestowed’ by God would argue for an initial event which is inevitably brought to fruition through a process.
Second, it may very well be that, instead, Barnett’s personal faith was challenged – her view of who God is and how she relates to Him was challenged by the Bible. If salvation does indeed contain a procedural aspect, misunderstandings about God, one’s salvation, and relationship with Him are to be expected along the way. Waves of doubt and belief are part of the salvation process as much as attraction and the desire to love are part of a marriage union. The covenant determines the status, not the beliefs, feelings or actions of those bound by the covenant.
Looking into the effect of theological studies on evangelistic tendencies, evangelism should first be defined. All would agree that the expected fruit of evangelism is people professing their belief in Christ as Lord and being added to the Church. But is evangelism primarily the proclamation of Good News or rather an invitation to respond to Good News? One may argue that it is both but should one emphasise either one, evangelistic zeal and success are likely to be measured differently. The former may argue evangelism is successful as long as the Good News is accurately proclaimed while the latter is more likely to measure evangelistic success based on the response to the Good News.
Theological studies may lead to the proclamation of a false gospel but may also help churches reach more people more effectively with the Gospel. I am familiar with organisations that are very committed to an intellectual pursuit of God through the study of the Word while being very committed to operating among unbelievers in order to share the Good News with them. How would one measure whether such organisations act as effective evangelists?
A personal journey
Many of my personal beliefs were challenged as I began to engage not only with current theological debates but also with Church history and the contexts in which many of our modern beliefs developed. I found that, as is the case with societies, even though I was a Christian operating within a predominantly Christian culture, my worldview contained animistic, fatalistic and also Gnostic elements. Theological studies helped me develop a more Biblical worldview and thus had a positive impact on my faith life.
Much of this began with a move away from the postmodern notion that we are individuals detached from community, history and a grand narrative. In a humbling way I rediscovered the fact that we are called to be custodians of the Gospel handed down to us by communities of faith who lived in contextually different cultures. Grasping the covenantal Biblical narrative and understanding the Old and New Testaments in light of this story made the Bible more readable to me than before. My faith became more logical and liveable as I understood more clearly how I fit into history and related to God and the world as someone saved by His grace. I am now able to read the Bible in order to come to terms with my salvation and have God work in me both to will and to do for His good pleasure.
Theological studies liberated me from a mind prone to strive for God’s favour, an animistic one that tried to control God’s hand, but also one that often led me to passivity as I resigned to fatalism. God is sovereign and I cannot control him but He created us to imitate him in community, fulfilling our creative mandate of shaping and sanctifying space and time that His Glory may dwell among us.
In light of Barnett’s conclusive quote by Sir Francis Bacon, “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion”, I conclude that it is only improper, half-hearted, or dishonest theology that paves the road to faithlessness.
Vishal Mangalwadi tells of the Indian mystic, Osho Rajneesh, whose teachings are peppered with phrases such as “Intellect is the chief villain” and “Do not use your mind” while his religious philosophy aims to achieve “a point in (one’s) mind where there is no thinking at all”. He encourages his followers with a sign which reads, “Please keep your shoes and your mind outside the temple”.
May Christians ever involve their minds and feet as they engage with God and share that experience with others. Whether it is for the sake of personal mind renewal, deeper relationship with my Church community, or to better proclaim the Gospel to others, I intend to continue engaging seriously with the Word and other people’s understanding of it. I do this knowing that my salvation is secure in the hands of Him whose perfect, finished works I have been called to walk in.
 McGrath AE 2011. Christian Theology: an introduction. Oxford, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.
 City of God and Confessions.
 Mangalwadi V 2011. The Book that made your World: how the Bible created the soul of Western civilization. Nashville, TN.: Thomas Nelson.