How To: Study Theology
Some call theology the science of sciences as theology can be defined as the study of God Himself.
How can one make sure of correct doctrine? How does this relate to how I live my life? What does it really mean to study God?
These are all great questions I want to touch on as I share three things that are essential to studying theology:
A Genuine Desire
The first thing one needs to have in order to learn about God is a heartfelt desire to seek after Him. The hearts of too many of us are callous and unfeeling. We have eyes but do not see God inviting us to learn from Him. We have ears but cannot hear Him whispering great and mighty things which we do not know.
In today’s world, more people are familiar with professional athletes and their statistics than with the books and contents of the Holy Bible. Bishop Kallistos Ware says the following in his book, The Orthodox Church:
“Today, in an untheological age, it is all but impossible to realize how burning an interest was felt in religious questions by every part of society, by laity as well as clergy, by the poor and uneducated as well as the Court and the scholars. Gregory of Nyssa describes the unending theological arguments in Constantinople at the time of the second general council:
The whole city is full of it, the squares, the market places, the cross-roads, the alleyways; old-clothes men, money changers, food sellers: they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask ‘Is my bath ready?’ the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing.”
How great would it be to talk about the things of God and His kingdom on a daily basis?! How freeing would it be to not worrying about being politically correct or “offending” our neighbor by engaging in a conversation about things that matter! Instead of studying and learning about things that will pass away, “let us study while we are on earth that Reality which will stay in our minds also when we are in heaven” (St Jerome)
Another thing that is essential to studying theology is a proper method of knowing what is true and what is not. How can someone be sure that what they are learning is what Jesus Christ taught?
Jeremiah 6:16 says, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; Then you will find rest for your souls.'”
Said another way, what Christ taught, the Apostles preached, and the Church Fathers preserved
Correct dogma is that which stands the test of time and dates back to when Jesus Christ was on earth Himself. There have been all sorts of perversions and deviations from the faith since then, but again the true Orthodox faith is that which Christ taught, the Apostles preached, and the Church Fathers preserved.
Why is correct dogma important?
A sentence in a letter from a monk on Mount Athos to Fr. John Meyendorff answers this question:
When the church teaches the wrong theology it a church of activities at best, but when it teaches the right theology it is the church of being and becoming
That is a powerful statement! The difference between just doing spiritual activities and being conformed to the true image of God and becoming like Him is dependent on our theology!
An Experience with God
Theology can be defined as the “study of God” but true theology must be lived out.
The point of theology is not so much to learn about God as it is to know and experience Him intimately.
The last thing we want to do is be so consumed with a doctrine or ideology that we completely miss why we’re learning it in the first place.
Fr. John Romanides says it best in Empirical Dogmatics Volume I when he says salvation is not simply believing in Orthodox dogmas. If that is all it is for us then:
“We are like idolaters who take dogmas, put them in the cupboard and sit there prostrating ourselves before the dogmas, which we do not live in our lives.”
He goes on to say:
“Dogma is not to be believed but to be experienced. Dogma without experience is heresy. The worst heresy is for people to sit at their desks and assume that they can reflect deeply and think great thoughts about dogmatic issues. That is the greatest stupidity.”
Again, the point isn’t to know about God but rather to know Him personally by a living and dynamic relationship with Him founded on a solid understanding of who He is and how He relates to us.
In closing, here is a quote from Ware’s The Orthodox Church that really gets to the heart of the matter:
“Theology, mysticism, spirituality, moral rules, worship, art: these things must not be kept in separate compartments. Doctrine cannot be understood unless it is prayed: a theologian, said Evagrius, is one who knows how to pray, and he who prays in spirit and in truth is by that very act a theologian. And doctrine, if it is to be prayed, must also be lived: theology without action, as St Maximus put it, is the theology of demons. The Creed belongs only to those who live it. Faith and love, theology and life, are inseparable. In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Creed is introduced with the words, ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Trinity one in essence and undivided.”