We’ve seen in Part 1 that biblical and theological studies are needed for the health of the church and that they’re a way of loving the Lord with all our minds. Then, in Part 2 we looked at how effective training intertwines the theological and the practical. Practical ministry training rests upon the foundation of the theology and biblical studies side of training, and so if you take away that foundation, you end up with training that isn’t really doing its job. Now let’s learn some lessons from one of history’s great theologians.
Gregory of Nazianzus (aka ‘the Theologian’) pointed out that:
‘Discussion of theology is not for everyone … It is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study … We need actually to “be still” in order to know God, and when we receive the opportunity, “to judge uprightly” in theology. Who should listen to discussions of theology? Those for whom it is a serious undertaking, not just another subject like any other for entertaining small-talk, after the races, the theatre, songs, food, and sex. … What aspects of theology should be investigated, and to what limit? Only aspects within our grasp, and only to the limit of the experience and capacity of our audience.’ (Or. 27.3)
Gregory tells us that the church needs people who have given time to studying theology, to being tested, to finding a sure theological footing, to being still in order to grow in the knowledge of God, to making upright theological judgements. Time and space is needed for this theological learning, reflection, and growth, so that we don’t end up trying to pontificate on things which are beyond our grasp and stepping outside of the limits of our capacity and experience. Otherwise we’re in danger of pulling our discussion of the knowledge of God down to the level of any other amusing pastime, like talk about the theatre, songs or food.
There isn’t much danger in talking at length about a meal in a restaurant even if we don’t know how to cook. Or voicing our opinions on a play, even if we’ve no idea what’s involved in actually putting one on. That type of talk doesn’t do much harm; but it can be prideful talk – placing our inexpert opinion over the hard work of those who actually know what they’re doing!
When it comes to theology, however, our careless talk and debates simply for the sake of amusement don’t rise up in pride against some expert, but against the Lord. For He has revealed Himself and His ways to us, and so we should humbly submit ourselves to His self-revelation by reading, studying, reflecting, and praying: by doing the hard work of theological studies!
Gregory is pointing us to the need of the church for time and space set aside for serious theological study and reflection. So that, rather than attempts at theological answers being given off the top of one’s head when a serious issue emerges over a cup of tea at the end of the Sunday service, those answers can come from a mind which has already reflected at length, and been formed to think in a biblical and theological manner (even when the issue isn’t one that’s come up before).
So, Gregory shows us that the Church needs to make that space for theological study, growth and reflection. The Church needs serious theological study.
But serious theological study also needs the church. I deliberately left out part of what Gregory of Nazianzus said:
‘Discussion of theology is not for everyone … It is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul.’
When Gregory says ‘discussion of theology is not for everyone’, he’s not saying ‘this is a super intellectual subject only for eminently learned academics!’ – Not at all! Yes, he says, the church needs people who have taken the time to study and reflect on these matters. But, more importantly even, he says, theology should be discussed by people whose lives are being transformed by that theology.
In other words, this isn’t some purely academic discipline. Gregory has no time for those who turn theology into nothing more than a mere academic theory utterly divorced from life. No! Theology is a speaking of God by those who have encountered the true and living God in Christ by the Spirit, and who are now being conformed day by day to the image of the Son.
So, the academic study of theology needs to be rooted in the church and the Christian community, as one aspect of a wider Christian life. Theological study and reflection takes place in Christian community as those who ‘are undergoing, purification of body and soul’ read, discuss, reflect, and pray over these matters together.