Why is Theological Education in the Church Important?
I should begin by writing that my answer, though hopefully thoughtful and encouraging, would be best answered by men such as J. T. English at The Village Church or Lance Kramer at The Bethlehem Institute. These men are trailblazers, setting the pace and charting a course for the church. Calvary Church Englewood, the church I call home, is in the early stages of creating and sustaining an institute where Christians can grow in their knowledge of Scripture and theology.
The importance of theological education in the church has to be more than a desire for theological knowledge, doesn’t it? We desire to know God, be known by him, know others, and be known by them, to know that day we will wake to find sin, ignorance, suffering – the incompleteness about everything we are – will give way to more than merely peace of mind; we will have the mind of Christ in his presence with his people. We will one day see him and be like him. We will be changed to be who we truly are. Theological education, then, is a question of identity.
And our identity as Christians is formed in the local church because that’s where Christ’s presence and people are. As a result, theology draws us into God’s presence, to understand his love and have our thinking changed so we might live out our role as disciples. Theology, then, does something to us (uniting us to Christ through the Spirit), because it does something for us (giving us revelation through the Word) – all through faith. So, here are several reasons, amongst many, of why theological education is important in the church.
Theology invokes the presence of God. The church is the place where true human fellowship originates and is sustained by God’s presence. Not the presence of a distant deity, but the closeness of a Father, a divine family, a kindred spirit uniting and renewing human potentiality in the face of worldly, demonic powers. The church is the place where sons and daughters are taught theology to live wisely, generously, and orderly in our Father’s house (1 Timothy 3:14). This household was built by the Son to be a place where our theological confidence and hope can flourish against our fears of sin, death, and exile (Hebrews 3:6). Access into this family, this household, is through the “one Spirit,” who’s made former enemies into adopted brothers and sisters (Ephesians 2:19). Theology’s invocation reminds us we are beloved children, an essential part of the family, drawn into an existing relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. Theology’s most comforting indicatives then become, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms” (John 14:1). And so Christ comes to us, and we are drawn to him only to learn the greatest of theological indicatives: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
Theology is a realm of divine love. This is true: “Love is the end of theological contemplation of the creator and his work” (John Webster, Trinity & Creation). Biblical concepts about God – theology – has an affective effect, as our Spirit-empowered desire takes us to God himself where love is found. Augustine believed that our minds should be engaged in theological thought so that God may be sought and loved (On the Trinity).
Theology is a beckoning for our hearts to be lifted higher about the banality and strife in our personal world, to a world where divine love exists and purifies us. And so we are able to say, “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Theology is the realm where we explore and experience the depths of God’s love for us, his grace, generosity, condescension, a love that swallowed up our sin and hatred toward him and others.
Theology is a way our reason is made holy. To quote John Webster again: “Theology is an aspect of the sanctification of reason, that is, of the process in which reason is put to death and made alive by the terrifying and merciful presence of the holy God” (Holiness). Both Isaiah and Jesus would say that without sanctified reason, we had spiritually deaf ears and blind eyes (Isaiah 6:9-10; Mark 4:12). We couldn’t hear or see God. Though less parabolic, but equally descriptive, Paul said that before we were Christians we had darkened understanding and hardened hearts (Ephesians 4;18-20). Theology gathers us at the highest and clearest peak, then tells us to look far and vast with spiritual eyes to see God’s redemptive work (biblical theology). It guides us, orderly through well-worn paths (systematic theology and historical theology), to discover deep truths. Theology rewires our thinking so we want to have the mind of Christ. As John Owen put it, “There is a great difference between understanding the doctrines of Scripture and truly knowing the mind of Christ” (Communion with God). Theology done in God’s presence, embraced in God’s love, is a way our reason is made holy.
Theology is the script where we learn our role in the drama. Lest we think theology is mental ascent, merely propositional truths, Kevin Vanhoozer reminds us, “Doctrine is a response to something beheld – beheld not theoretically but, as it were, theatrically: a lived performance” (The Drama of Doctrine). Our story of sin and suffering ends with a new chapter of finding new life in Christ. So we act the part of Christians and clothe ourselves with Christ (Romans 13:14), act like strong, loving men and women (1 Corinthians 16:13), march in triumphant procession (2 Corinthians 2;14), run (Galatians 5:7), submit to the good while fighting evil (Ephesians 5:22; 6:10), and ultimately and continually, press toward a prize of Christ himself (Philippians 3:14). Our participation in the theological theatricality continues throughout our life, as listen to and act out the words of the prophetic Scriptures (Revelation 22:9-10).
To conclude, theological education is important because through it we become a people who see, feel, and taste that the Lord is good. We learn to follow him in his purposes and ways. We become like Christ, Spirit-indwelt, Father-pleasing sons and daughters. We learn this through intense, deliberate, and devotional study of the Scriptures in community together with the instruction of pastors. This will take time to accomplish. Yet God’s redemptive purposes took “the fulness of time” (Galatians 4:4), and so theology takes time. But the local church is place where the timelessness of theological truth is learned and lived.
Adam Embry is a follower of Christ, husband to Charlotte, and father to six children. He has served in various churches and ministries. He is currently helping to lead the Calvary Institute at Calvary Church in Englewood, Colorado. He is a graduate of Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.