A Journey into God's World with God's Word
All believers should delight in being theological students. What could be more fulfilling than spending time getting to know more deeply our Triune God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Life? We could study all our life long and not get to the end of the wonders of his nature and his doings, and seeking to align our minds and hearts with his! But this brief paper is more particularly addressed to those of you studying theology at university or seminary or specialized college. For you, being a theology student is both a privilege and a challenge, and probably sometimes something of a dull trudge (just like any other degree!).
It's a privilege because, at least in theory, you are able to immerse yourself in Scripture, in the reflections of theologians of the past and of the present, and in the story of God's dealings with his people, the Church, in the centuries following the New Testament. Some of you will do that within the context of a believing community, where theological study is bathed in communal worship, and where opportunity abounds to live out your growing faith and discipleship.
For some of you, that probably sounds a hollow wish-list. You may be being taught on the whole by those who are skeptical about the Scriptures, more shaped by human philosophy than God's revealed truth, and keeping your love for God fresh and vibrant feels a bit like hanging on by your finger nails rather than joyous expansion.
Many of you will be somewhere in between those two. Sometimes your lecturers, and the books they require you to study, seem set on undermining your faith rather than nourishing it. Some of your fellow students will jeer at you as obscurantist for taking the Bible seriously. On the other hand, others will encourage you to face real questions honestly, but within the framework of faith, and to dare to trust in the Lord as utterly good and utterly reliable. They will encourage you to respond fearlessly but with humility when confronted with theology you believe to be wrong or defective in some respect. None of us see perfectly this side of Glory!
And then there is the nagging question facing some of you: what exactly do you do with a theology degree, other than becoming a minister or RE teacher? What do you do if you don't consider yourself called and gifted for either of those vocations?
Our western theological heritage and beyond
Until very recently, most theology generated in the west has assumed the framework of Christendom. That is, it has been more focused on debates within the church and historic arguments and less concerned with looking outwards to the wider world, and building bridges across which the truth of the one living God might run. Apologetics has often been anaemic. These theologians often did valuable work in their own day and context, and we need to know the story within which we now find our place and chapter, why they wrote and thought as they did, their wisdom and their blank spots. In the C.20th, many of the most universally influential theologians have been men and women who sit (or sat) loose to Scripture, but that was not usually the case with many of their predecessors.
Mercifully, that is not the whole story. The second half of the C.20th saw an increasing number of high caliber evangelical theologians, though our UK university theology departments have not always been very speedy to recognize the fact. There is now a wealth of good books and journal articles available, and a steadily growing community of evangelical scholars (including in our university departments) whose work is outstanding. In my adult lifetime, the picture has been transformed for the good, after a period of very little evangelical scholarship in the first half of thecentury.
UCCF – then Inter Varsity Fellowship – played a key role in this recovery in the UK and far beyond, with a strong vision for the potential under God for young students to mature into fine leaders in church, society, and the universities. By establishing IVP, it published books initially for students and then increasingly at every level of evangelical scholarship, including some of the best Bible commentaries available; many of those authors have themselves been nurtured through IVF/UCCF, from undergraduate days onwards. The Theological Students Fellowship, now metamorphosed into Theology Network, provided targeted support for theology students, and its journal Themelios helped address many current debates in the theological world. Tyndale House, with very modest beginnings but with a great vision from the start, has become one of the most significant centres of evangelical research and writing in the world, especially in the arena of Biblical Studies. It is hard to describe adequately how these initiatives have transformed the scene over the past 60 years. Today is a great and privileged day to be a theological student!
Further, especially in the last thirty years, there has been a growing body of excellent theology being written from outside the western world, reflecting the growth in confidence and maturity of the world church. IFES – that is, the Christian Union Movement in different parts of the world – has played a significant role in this. Sadly, because of our British linguistic insularity, much of it remains unknown here because it is not available in English (or French or German at a pinch!). But more is becoming available, and some mission agencies such as the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission, the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, the Church Mission Society, and OMF International, are among those who encourage non-English speaking authors to allow their work to be translated and made available.
One of the striking things about much of this non-western theology is that it is strongly missional. Often, especially that which comes from Asia and the Middle East, it is birthed in a setting which is dominated by another world faith. It can be disturbing to some westerners, in that familiar territory may take a back place: there may be considerable impatience in the global south in having been taught theology laden with past historic arguments important in the western churches, but then exported to places where the issues are far different. "Why should we be saddled with all that?" they say. Of course, church history has not been random, but has been under the sovereign hand of God, so we should never be hasty to discard the past, though we recognize that even the best of past theology (and of the present!) was impacted both by context and by human fallenness. But a great deal of the theology coming from the global south is profoundly biblically orthodox, fresh in its insights, often addressing questions we never thought much about, and has much to teach us as we find ourselves increasingly in a western context hostile to the gospel and post-Christian. In this setting, the old Christendom shaped theological discourse may be a barrier rather than a bridge for the gospel, or at the very least seriously inadequate.
The missional heart of God
Even more to the point, and perhaps especially because of their context, many of these writers and thinkers in the global south grasp the deep truth that our God is a missionary, missional God, and that both Old and New Testaments are full of this at the heart of revelation. Right from the beginning of Genesis, we find God eager to have unclouded fellowship with the humans he had made. Despite the catastrophic impact of the Fall, and the banishment of human beings from his direct presence, the whole of the rest of Scripture reveals God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – ceaselessly taking the initiative to reach out to men and women and children.
So in the very maelstrom of cataclysmic judgment, God shows Noah how he can escape the coming flood and destruction. He comes to Abram, and tells him that the role of the people he is going to form from Abram's as yet unborn son will be to bless the whole world, and to draw the nations to the one and only God. God perseveres with the disobedient Jonah because it matters so much that Iraqis as well as Jews should have the opportunity to repent and then enjoy fellowship with the Lord. Hosea's life story is a dramatic visual aid to demonstrate how deeply God loves even unfaithful Israel. How many more Old Testament stories there are which illustrate over and over again that God's heart is to seek and to save. Some of the Psalms, for instance 96, tell us that worship without witness to the unbelieving world is hollow.
And then the New Testament, revolving completely around the Son, sent to save, and the Spirit sent to keep ever-present the life-bringing reconciliation accomplished through Cross and Resurrection. Many of the Lord Jesus' best-loved parables are about seeking and finding lost things or people. His teaching repeatedly emphasizes his missionary purpose., and the Gospels are full of grace-encounters with Jews and Gentiles alike. At Pentecost, the Spirit's immediate action is to empower the disciples to explain the saving work of Christ in the heart languages of the crowds gathered from all around the world of Jewish Dispersion. The Apostolic story post-Pentecost is one of reaching out with the Good News of a God who has come in Person to seek and to save, and who commissions all Christian disciples to be disciple-makers in their turn. The New Testament ends with the description of the almost indescribable: the new Creation, with those of every tribe and tongue and nation gathered round God's throne, in worship and joyful fulfillment in reconciled fellowship with God, the seeking and saving complete.
From start to finish, God is a missionary God, in character and activity. How can it be that we have devised theological systems from which this is sidelined?
Being made (and being re-made) in the image of God
We are made, and being re-made, in the image of the Triune God. So, if God is so profoundly missionary, with a heart yearning to have men and women and children (and indeed his whole Creation) reconciled to himself, our image-ness absolutely must include sharing that missionary heart. Mission is not primarily a task to be accomplished so much as reflecting – 'imaging' – the nature of God. That is why it is preposterous when any Christian, or any church, is not missionary at the core of our new Spirit-birthed DNA.
God in his seeking and saving combines words and deeds and character: he says what he does and does what he says; he acts as well as speaks; he is what he says and does. So our engagement in mission must likewise bring together in integrated manner our speech and proclamation of the gospel, our deeds that demonstrate the grace and love – and judgment – of God, and our character – both personal and communal – that display the gospel and the character of the One who inspires us.
This is one of the reasons that the tired polarization between proclamation and compassionate care is a total nonsense. They belong together and should be inseparable: neither being complete without the other, and both of them being authenticated by the character of the messenger and of the believing community. Because God is Creator, we should reflect that by a deep concern for the whole of his creation, and by being creative people. Because he is Judge, we should be passionate about justice here and now and urgent about the message of judgment to come. Because he is Saviour, we should be people of hope – for the gospel is Good News! – and show the reality of progressively transformed lives by the power of the Spirit, otherwise our claim to 'be saved' is hollow. Because he is holy – and that holiness is beautiful – we are to live positively beautiful and truthful lives. All this, and so much more, is because we are made in his image. And all these are part of being missionary, in every dimension of life. God's people are to be visual aids embodying the gospel, so that wherever we go, whoever we talk with or work with, whatever we are thinking about, we carry that lovely fragrance of Christ.
God's mission should be at the heart of our theology.
So how does this connect with being a theological student?
First, our study of theology should stretch our minds, our hearts, and our discipleship – and lead to worship. In a very real way, 'studying God' is treading on holy ground. So our study needs to be bathed in prayer, seeking wisdom and discernment as we read to separate God's truth from merely human speculation. We can (and are required to) study human reflections, but we will bow in humble submission before God's revelation.
Second, we will go back over and over again to refresh the foundations of our faith. We are forgetful people, which is why the Scripture frequently enjoins us to remember, recall, rehearse who God is and what he has done. It is also why we should celebrate the Lord's supper often, to remind ourselves of all that he has done and all that he will do. Evangelicals are sometimes rather wary of rituals, symbols and visual arts; but the Hebrew culture was strongly into festivals and symbols, because they can help forgetful people be reminded in visible as well as audible ways.
Third, we will find ways of keeping our study of Scripture fresh and prayerful, both on our own and in company with other believers, whether in student Bible study groups or within the context of the public worship of our church. Sadly, sometimes theology students find it hard to persist in personal Bible study because they feel that their 'day job' is all about religious texts and they want to switch off. But instead we need to be coming back all the time to evaluate in the light of Scripture what our lecturers are teaching and what the books we read are saying. Theologians not deeply rooted in God's revelation are a menace. They readily deceive people.
Fourth, we will read Scripture with global eyes and a heart for the world, because God himself has a longing heart for the whole world. It is his by right; we should be jealous for his reputation everywhere. It is sadly possible to read Scripture in an entirely egocentric way: "What does thismean for me?" or "I need a comforting promise."! – Chris Wright's The Mission of God (IVP,2006) is a great introduction to reading the Bible with missional eyes. Get in the habit of reading your Bible alongside the newspaper ("What does God's Word have to say about this situation? What questions and concerns does this local or international situation bring back to the Bible?") and with something like Operation World (which is regularly updated and reprinted, usually published by Operation Mobilisation and Paternoster) which will help you understand the world, the world church, and the challenges to the gospel. When I was a student we used to say to one another, "Know something about everywhere and everything about somewhere". That would be backed up by getting to know international students (there were many fewer then!) and by prayer groups focused on a particular part of the world. Today it is very easy for a student to get to know people from other parts of the world, or from other faiths. As a theology student, concerned for God and his world, you should be blazing a trail in this!
Fifth, recognize that mission is not something just for the future, or for the other side of the world. All Christians are charged with being both disciples and disciple-makers, wherever we are as we go about our daily business. Who are the people you are intentionally discipling? In a theology department it may be (though not necessarily so) that most of the students you rub shoulders withevery day are already Christians. What about the people in the refectory/canteen, or in your flat, or in the sports club, or that you meet in the bar? Actually, being a theology student is sometimes in and of itself a wonderful opening, because when you meet other students they will probably ask what you study – and then say "Why in the world are you studying that?" Don't chicken out! But also work hard at being a translator, from the often technical language of the theological world into the everyday language of those around you.
Sixth, think and pray hard about where your theology studies might take you, where the Lord wants you to be, doing what. Churches need pastors/ministers, and schools need RE teachers; those are the obvious things. But we also need people with good theological training in the professions, and at every level of church membership and leadership. Worldwide, one of the greatest challenges facing the church is the Biblical illiteracy and shallowness in understanding and discipleship amongst those who profess to be Christian. That makes the church very vulnerable, and provides an easy doorway for heresy and trouble. It is sobering that the New Testament Epistles, written to very young churches and very new Christians, are yet full of profound theology. How will you use the privilege of your study to encourage others to go far deeper into God's truth than they might otherwise have done? In our professions, many of the most pressing current issues are ethical in nature: we most urgently need those with a deep grasp of biblical ethics and apologetics who can serve in those spheres. For those who have the gifts to do so, in each new generation we need fresh runners to take up the baton of biblical and theological scholarship and/or writing. Could that be you?
And the wider world?
And then there's God's wider world! Despite the phenomenal growth in the world church during the past 50 years, there are still many communities – especially in the Middle East and Asia – where there is either no gospel witness as yet or only a tiny percentage of the population professes Christian faith. Effective cross-cultural ministry in almost any role demands a thorough training in Bible and theology before you start on anything else. How else can you engage in Bible translation (still needed in numerous languages), informal or formal? How else can you translate and contextualize gospel truth into another culture, against the background of another religion, working out how to build trustworthy bridges so that the message can be understood? How else can you disciple people well, across the gulf between belief and unbelief? How else will you have the tools to discern what is truly biblical, and what is simply cultural accretions and presuppositions from our own background? How else can you be a catalyst to establish a community of believers that incarnates the gospel in its setting, and is both biblically faithful and culturally sensitive? How else can you discern some of the contours of societal transformation that would honour the God who made us, saved us, indwells us as his agents in his world?
Many UK churches have lost the conviction of global mission, either because they say there is too much to do here, or because of post-imperial guilt, or (awfully) because of loss of belief in the uniqueness of Christ and his saving work, and in God as the one and only true God. There is indeed a great deal to do in the UK, and the church needs to learn to be truly missionary here rather than a therapeutic community focused on making its members feel better. Yes, there are many things in the past that should not have happened, but that does not absolve us from responsibility to make disciples of all nations today: we need of course to do that in humility and in weakness and vulnerability rather than out of arrogance and power. And, whatever the world, or tragically some parts of the church, may say, reconciliation with the God who made us is only possible (but it is gloriously possible!) through Jesus Christ. Other religions and philosophies do not save.
Ask the Lord to give you vision and love for his world. He has shaped you thus far, and continues to shape you. What is he shaping you for? Worship and mission — Don't separate what God keeps together!
Enjoy being a theology student!