Yesterday I finally decided to pick up a copy of Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins.  Whatever you may think of the book, one thing is certain; it’s a hot item (no pun intended).  Several stores I went to had sold out and had the book on back order.  I would love to say that I’ve managed to stay above the fray, especially since I haven’t read the book yet, but its been difficult considering all that has been written in response to it’s release.  But before I continue, let me say that this post is actually not about Rob Bell or Love Wins. While I was out trying to find a copy, another book repeatedly came to mind; Helmut Thielicke’s, A little Exercise for Young Theologians, a book I first read while in Seminary, and one I realized I needed to read again before reading Bell’s book.  It’s a small book, but weighty in its message, and offers a nice antidote to the pride that can accompany theological study.  In his book, Thielicke reminds us of our need of humility when approaching theological study, and how such a virtue is necessary if we are to be spared from self-deception and spiritual pride.  When I first read this book several years ago, I remember thinking of all the problems I would have been spared, not to mention to trouble I would have avoided causing, had I read this years earlier. And now, several years after reading it, I’m reminded once again of its benefit. He says it’s, “…almost a devilish thing that even in the case of the theologian the joy of possession can kill love” (Thielicke, 1962, p.17).  Paul, the apostle, said something similar in his first letter to the Corinthians: “We know that we all possess knowledge.  Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1).  Knowledge may “puff” up a person with pride because knowledge is power.  Without love, what greater potential for pride is there than that which comes from the study or pursuit of knowledge pertaining to the things of God.  In my own life such study has too often produced in me the temptation to look down on those who did not understand certain things, or were not as knowledgeable of certain things as I felt they should be.  In Thielicke’s words, “This disdain is a real spiritual disease” (p.17).  Too often, especially while wrestling with some issue of controversy, I find myself puffed up with pride, but deficient in love.  Seeing the nature of my true condition is quite difficult at times.

“Theology makes the young theologian vain and so kindles in him something like a Gnostic pride. The chief reason for this is that in us men, truth and love are seldom combined” (p.16).  As theologians, since God is love, our study of God should make us more loving, otherwise it is a vain intellectual pursuit.  If we use knowledge to control and intimidate, or as a shield to mask our own insecurities, then we become nothing more than Pharisees seeking to justify ourselves at the expense of others.  It’s too easy to confuse intellectual understanding with actually walking in the Spirit.  “Possessing” knowledge about some spiritual truth does not of itself make one more spiritual.  It may in fact lead to self-deception.  If theological study does not cause one to live into the truth revealed to them, then his theology has failed him, or better yet, he has failed his theology.  It is a sobering warning Thielicke gives when he writes, “Whoever ceases to be a man of the spirit automatically furthers a false theology, even if in thought it is pure…death lurks in the kettle” (p.36).  Living the truth is what makes a man spiritual. Being a doer of the word is what brings life.

What has really encouraged me about theological study is that it has given me a vocabulary and a sense of direction as I think and talk about God.  In other words, I have more ideas with which to “Be” Christian with.  Thielicke affirms this when he says that theology can act as the “…conscience of the congregation of Christ, its compass and with it all a praise-song of ideas” (p.36).  Of course there are many who want the freedom of ideas, without the theological compass to direct them, and as a result they shipwreck their faith.  Though pride is certainly a danger, if one is careful to listen prayerfully and in honest dialogue with others, theology acts as a guide to the heart, mind, and will of the Father.

Theological study has also been a great aid to my devotional life.  There are those make the mistake of dismissing theological study as a purely intellectual exercise with little benefit to the soul or spiritual life of a believer, and will pridefully defend this (theological )position as vehemently as any Pharisee or Sadducee.  Some, in fact, see theological study as something not only unnecessary, but inherently detrimental to one’s spiritual life. Nevertheless, I have often found this observation from C.S. Lewis to be true when he says, “For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others.  I believe that many who find that `nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”

If what we share with others is to make the “heart sing”, bringing life and not death, it must first speak and minister life to us personally, making our own heart sing.  We must become the message.  God is not an abstraction.  Theological study is an invitation to enter into relationship with god and others.  Theology requires a response.  We must enter into dialogue with God and others because, “Every theological idea which makes an impression upon you must be regarded as a challenge to your faith” (p.13).  Not only a challenge as to whether to “believe” certain things or not, but also,  will we choose to love those who disagree with us.  The challenge is to build up, or remain puffed up.  In our theological pursuit to know God we must remember that, “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.  But the man who loves God is known by God” (1 Cor. 8:2-3).