Letter to a Young Theologian
JANUARY 26, 2016
A mother recently wrote and told me of her son’s interest in theology after stumbling onto my lectures on YouTube. She asked if I would send a note for his birthday, since he has expressed an interest in studying theology in the hope of becoming a teacher. Above all, the need is to understand grace—a truth we all need—and for that I share the letter with you.
First of all, let me wish you a happy birthday! Turning fifteen is an important milestone and I can only hope your family is letting you be king for a day. Eat what you want. Boss people around. Make them carry you on their shoulders…the good stuff.
Your mother sent a note about your love of theology. Mothers are the greatest things in the world, and never let being fifteen allow you to forget this noble truth. You may be tempted to respond to her in grunts and nods—boys are essentially cavemen—but mothers deserve more than our nature is inclined to give. Any mother will hover over your life: that’s their job. But don’t let the urge to grow up strain you to the point that you forget to be tender with your mother. I have my own kids now, so I now see the crushing energy it takes to be a mother—no sleep with a baby, the endless needs of a toddler, and then as young adults they push away to seek their own path. Just never forget to keep her close to the core of your life as the path carries on…
I hear you are eager to become a theology professor. Let me be the first to welcome you to the guild. If you are wondering what this life is like, I can share a view from the other side. The most important thing to know about being a theology teacher is that we are normal people. We are not elite or better than other Christians. We are not superior because we have advanced degrees and love large books. We are not closer to Jesus than anyone else, and we are still imperfect sinners. It is a calling—a calling to teach. You have sensed the call of God, and if he has given you a direction at this stage in your life, and I wager some talent for the discipline, then you are pursuing your calling with faithfulness.
Still, maybe I can share some thoughts on the journey—at least some thoughts I wish I knew at fifteen. (Of course, when I was fifteen, I had long hair—I had all my hair then—and I wanted to be in a band.)
Be curious about everything.
The first misstep of students is to shut themselves up in a closet, taking interest only in one subject. This is the sign of a weak theologian and a near-sighted Christian. I am 37 now and I have found myself recently returning to subjects I had avoided all my life. When I was young I assumed the less I committed to anything else, the more I was committed to theology. But the longer I teach, the more I realize how curious it makes me about everything in this world. When you are curious about everything, you find the world is suddenly an explosion of interesting topics, books, ideas, and people.
A Christian realizes that God made this world and its people. So explore everything—even subjects you may never teach on—so that it opens you to become a curious and thoughtful person. The worst kind of professor is one who, being limited to one small genre, appears to suck the life out of it. The more curious you are, the more you can enjoy the journey—and it can be a long road to becoming a teacher. What you are striving for is to find joy in all things so that you are stunned at how much there is to explore. Learn things for their own sake—for the sake that they exist in God’s world—not because they will make you sound intelligent or make you confident. Again, being a teacher is a calling, but being curious is about being the image of God.
This one can be tricky, but the energy to do this comes from being curious. When we are curious we are not snobs. A snob is born of fear and inadequacy once it grows up and gains power. If you spend years hating how small you feel, how little you know, you will take vengeance on students once you get to a position where you are a teacher. But if you are called to teach, then learn the craft of a teacher. Learn to love being wrong, even in those cases where it is embarrassing. These moments are not meant to expose you as a fraud but to teach you. And besides, embarrassment is the same problem: we think too highly of ourselves and hate it when we are exposed as imperfect. Thankfully if we are good theologians, we know that the cross has already shown us how wrong we can be, and so we don’t hide from it.
My deepest regrets involve times when I spoke quickly—barreling over people with my ideas—especially if I managed to close someone to ever discussing theology again. Never embarrass anyone because they know less than you on a topic. Every student is a novice on a subject when they start until a teacher can inspire them to the depths of the subject—but that does not make us superior, it makes us servants.
Stick to the text.
One of the great mysteries in theological education is the occasional divide between biblical and theological disciplines. A lot of this is due to the separation of guilds. Bible and theology teachers at times explore different issues and have different jargon and books. At its worst, though, they are involved in a cold war. Biblical scholars quietly believe theologians are misreading the text—trust me, they have a pile of Greek and Hebrew notes to prove it. Meanwhile theologians often remind biblical scholars that, just because the Bible is inspired, doesn’t mean their teaching is. Meanwhile the practical theologians think we’re all nuts.
But this caricature is teachers at their worst. The point in this is that we all exist—in each of the disciplines—in order to understand the Word and apply it to our lives. Exploring the Bible is one of the unique joys of the job, and no matter how much we feel we have learned the scriptures, we will never learn it utterly, as if there is nothing left to explore. The Bible has an almost limitless ability to surprise us if we remain students of the text throughout our lives.
Love the church.
This slogan can sound pious—especially when said by pastors who confuse it with everyone loving them instead. But you exist for the church, not the other way round. And you exist for the church at one of its vital points: the training of its leaders. The position is one of incredible honor, and I still marvel at how willingly churches entrust us with their future leaders. My first year teaching I would lie awake wondering if I did enough to help students in my classes—not for fear of failure but because I honor their work.
Loving the church, of course, does not mean we are blissfully happy with everything we see. Your education will serve a lot of purposes, but the biggest one is to hone your critical thinking. A result of your study will be that you find yourself, at times, overly critical of everything. The sermon was weak, the Sunday school class missed three obvious points, and I wish my pastor would read these fifty books on the subject. This critical reflex is natural and will come and go, but you have to resist its subtlety, because fundamentally it leads to pride. I can speak from experience, though: the more you study and remain humble, the more the need to be critical of everything grows dim. Instead, you begin to see how God will use you to help your students avoid the same pitfalls in our day.
It can be hard to see problems in the church and not lose heart—or worse start firing off angry blogs about the problems you see. Christian theologians should never do this. The church is infested with sinners, including ourselves, so we should expect to see sin. But our role is to serve the church, and if that means we offer critique, then we do so with patience and a gentle spirit. Jesus did not say that hell’s gates would fall to a band of grumpy seminary professors.
Always return to the Gospel.
The Gospel is fundamentally about our weakness and the grace of God. We are at our weakest when we strive to be perfect, at our strongest when we embrace our weakness and rest on God’s mercy. At times people forget this and strive to be heroes in this life. Do not fall into the trap of believing that you are so important—your theology so polished—that the Kingdom is being held together by your work. We are only heralds of the King. So wage peace on a world that has forgotten how to speak kindly with each other. Learn how to disagree with someone without declaring total war. For most of your life, ask more questions than you give answers. But above all rest on the fact that God has called you for a purpose and shed abroad his love for you. If this is the root of your identity, then prepare for a life of surprises as you explore God’s calling for you.
Yours in Christ,