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Theological Education as an Exercise in Limits

Theological Education as an Exercise in Limits

The study of theology is by nature an exercise in limits. I wrote briefly about limits in my last post — limits in our sphere of influence — but today I want to explore a new kind of limits in our lives — limits on our theological education.

The first such limit is relatively fundamental but not always obvious: we can’t know everything about God. This is basic to our understanding of God: he is infinite, we are finite, therefore we can only truly catch glimpses of him, and can only grasp those glimpses through our finite senses and human language. We affirm this truth repeatedly, most popularly with the phrase “God is God, and we are not,” but what I have to constantly remind myself is that I, by necessity of this truth, must be wrong about something.

I have what I consider to be a thorough and well-rounded theology about God and how he acts in the world, as do most of us, and we, by nature, assume ourselves to be correct. After all, if we thought ourselves to be incorrect, we would change our minds, wouldn’t we? So when I say I have a Reformed worldview, one which agrees with the Creeds and Confessions of our denomination as they interpret the teachings of Scripture, I am saying that I think I understand God; I am claiming to have wrapped my mind around him insofar as we can. But because God is God and I am not, I have to state here to you and also to myself that it is quite likely, even guaranteed, that something I believe about God is wrong, and that even what I have right is a very small part of the bigger picture. 

That first limit is a prerequisite to studying theology. We have to embrace this limit as we enter into study, otherwise we’ll put ourselves at risk of hubris — “God is God and so am I” — and lead ourselves (and our congregations should we have them!) down a dangerous path. We have to hold our theology loosely, with humility, or else risk building our foundation on sinking sand. The Living Word, Jesus, is our bedrock, not the interpretation of Scripture.

The second type of limit in the study of theology has more to do with our interpersonal relationships. If we are faithful in our theology, we can’t just tell other people that they’re wrong. This is perhaps best displayed in an example:

Suppose you’re having a discussion with a family member of yours. You’ve been studying theology for years now (at the very least, the time you’ve spent in Seminary, if not a full undergraduate degree). This family member has not studied theology, at least not formally; but they’ve been a faithful Christian their whole life, and they attend Bible studies from time to time. You’re engaging in a discussion about the book of Job, and your family member suggests that Job proves that dinosaurs and people coexisted at the same time — just look at Behemoth and Leviathan (see Job 40 and 41).

Now, you could try to have a talk with them about the nature of genre in interpretation, and suggest that Job’s genre doesn’t require modern zoological precision. You could mention that it’s quite probable that Behemoth and Leviathan are mythological creatures meant to display God’s power, not describe “real” animals. You could ask them what dinosaurs they know of that breath fire.

But at the end of the day, they are allowed to walk away believing that there are Dinosaurs in the Bible.

There is a limit here: because we believe that scripture is perspicuous (one of my favorite words ever), we acknowledge that you don’t need special knowledge to read and understand it — God can speak through his word to a 2nd grader just as effectively as a Calvin Grad. Anyone, whether formally trained or not, may approach scripture and receive the good news. As a side of effect of this doctrine, however, I think there is a belief by some that anyone may approach any passage and speak with authority to what it means. To an extent, I agree with this, but only insofar as those interpretations are beneficial to one’s relationship with God. When they extend into larger doctrine or policy, there is a lot more potential for shallow readings of the text to cause extensive harm. Placing oneself into Jeremiah 29:11 is relatively harmless, but staking international policy on an end time prophecy is not.

Hidden within this interpersonal limit is the suspicion of education: some people will hear your explanations about their Job-ian Dinosaurs and hear not years of careful study, but a dismissal of God’s word. If anyone can read the Bible — and they did read it! — than you telling them their interpretation is wrong is, in their own mind, an undermining of God’s word itself (rather than an undermining of their understanding of it)!

So, what’s the point? This sounds rather discouraging — how can ministry ever be effective if we can’t really know about God and everybody else thinks we’re undermining him? But this is why I described theology as an exercise in limits. It is hard work. Rejecting our own prideful lens that we’re completely correct isn’t easy, and working with people to demonstrate a proper approach to scripture can take years. I just have to remind myself that I wasn’t always a 3rd year MDiv student — heck, once upon a time I wasn’t even a Calvinist! — but through the incredible patience and exercise of professors, pastors, and staff much wiser than I, I’ve been working towards some semblance of theological humility that produces a Unity in the Spirit, rather than a division down educational lines.

When we students sign up to do what we do in Seminary, we are entering into a field that is impossible to master and a ministry where our education might make parishioners wary of us. But do the work anyway. As the next generation of church leaders, we have a unique opportunity to model a culture of humility that can shape our churches for years to come. It’s time to embrace our limits.

Noah Matthysse is a 3rd year MDiv student and 1st year Kerux Editor. He lives in Seminary housing with this beautiful wife, Julie, and their infant daughter, Alethea, who you can catch eating (or napping!) while she audits classes on his lap.