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Why teach theology?

[The Christian religion] teaches men both these truths: that there is a God of whom we are capable, and that a corruption in our nature makes us unworthy of Him. It is equally important for us to know both these points; for it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness, and to know his wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer who can cure him of it. Knowledge of only one of these points leads either to the arrogance of the philosophers, who have known God and not their own wretchedness, or to the despair of the atheists, who know their wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer. — Blaise Pascal, Pensees.

ACCORDING to Pascal, two truths lie at the foundation of all knowledge: the possibility of the knowledge of God and the corruption that thwarts its full attainment.

This does not deny the possibility of any knowledge apart from knowing God through revelation, but without an appreciation of our moral condition. With knowledge comes the temptation of pride and overreach that once proved vain gives birth to doubt and despair. In contrast, Christianity teaches that true wisdom and knowledge are found in Jesus Christ … the end of all and to which all tends.

This refutes the misconception that theology is necessarily impractical and focused on irrelevant topics. As Pascal wisely points out, proper understanding of God and our moral nature help us to avoid the pitfalls of pride and unbelief that affect all of life.

Why then are theology and doctrine so often dismissed in favour of emotion, desire and immediate spiritual sensation? The answer, I believe, is all around us. In spiritual matters, most believe that faith is personal, private and emotional with little to do with knowledge, reason and practical wisdom.

Our popular spiritual attitude is like Luke Skywalker of Star Wars. An orphan cut off from his spiritual heritage, Luke fights the dark forces around him by looking within. His technical expertise alone is insufficient to overcome the dark powers arrayed against him. As Luke streaks towards the Deathstar “head knowledge” is not enough. Thus, the sage voice reminds him, “trust your feelings Luke”, as Luke turns off the targeting mechanism just in time to release the missile that blows the Deathstar to smithereens.

This scene resonates with current views of spirituality. If the natural world is understood and manipulated by knowledge, reason and expertise, spiritual matters are seen as extraordinary engaged at a personal, emotional and experiential level. Charismatic individuals and teachers may provide techniques to get in touch with our spiritual inner realm, but interest in a reasoned faith and practical wisdom has few takers. Thus, in the scene with Luke, not only are reason and feeling put at odds with each other, but his feelings must overrule reason if he is to succeed.

Emphasis on feeling over reason is common in Christian and non-Christian circles today. Nonetheless, the root of this emphasis stretches back to the 18th century. The appeal to feelings and experience was a reaction against materialist and mechanical worldviews that would reduce all life to physical or biological causes. In the minds of many, mere mechanicalism could not grasp the spiritual richness of creation and human existence.

Nonetheless, the appeal to emotion and experience retained the Materialists’ rejection of Scripture and sound doctrine as sources of true knowledge. Instead of the truth of God and of our moral nature, they viewed the Bible as merely a record and source of human experience of the divine. Current emphases in worship and teaching owe much to this stress on the immediate experience of God.

In the same way, Scripture is to be read as though it were a direct conversation between God and the reader of the text.
In many ways, this turn to the emotional and experiential is to be welcomed. Emphasis upon intimate experience of God is a needed corrective to dry doctrinal discussions about God at the expense of a real relationship with God through faith in the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, all the doctrine in the world cannot replace the Spirit’s personal input and guidance in our lives.

Further, emphasis on the supernatural has led Christians to be open to God’s active intervention in their lives to heal them, guide them, and give them strength, courage, faith, hope and love.

On the other hand, like most reactions, overemphasis on feelings, experiences, emotions and the miraculous can lead to problems down the line. As Paul admonishes in I Timothy, sound doctrine understood in its own right as the truth of God helps us to avoid making a shipwreck of our faith. There are times when we should not “trust our feelings”, but rather trust the truth of God discovered through careful study of the Bible and the application of sound doctrine whether it feels good or not at the time.

Theology teaches us that we are composite beings and that God gave us minds and reason as well as emotions and feelings. Knowledge of God’s will found in sound doctrine serves as a guide to direct our desires towards their rightful end of worshipping and glorifying God. Therefore, the most spiritual and godly decision is usually the one that is the most reasonable and wise. This does not deny the fact that God may at times direct us away from what seems “common sense” or directly intervene in a miraculous manner to bring about His will apart from our rational deliberation; nonetheless, it does presuppose that such instances are by definition rare and that the most of our ordinary existence should be governed by faith informed by knowledge and practical wisdom.

This is why we teach theology. Understanding God, creation and humankind better provides the information necessary to glorify God and to flourish according to His will. Accordingly, theology and sound doctrine are to the spiritual life what a good recipe is to good cooking. The recipe is not the food itself, but followed properly it certainly enhances the final product. In the same way, theology is not the end of the Christian life, but wisely applied, it facilitates our ability to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.


The Rev Dr Thomas Harvey is a lecturer at Trinity Theological College and works with the Singapore Presbyterian Church as a Partner in Mission from the Presbyterian Church (USA).

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