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There Are Only Two Kinds Of People: Good Theologians And Bad Ones

“No Christian can avoid theology. Every Christian is a theologian.” -R.C. Sproul

Have you ever thought of yourself that way? As a theologian? For many, the word theologian will conjure up images of old men wearing robes, studying the Bible for hours or days on end, gathering for debates and using words the rest of us can’t even pronounce. But is that an appropriate mental image; should we only associate theologians with the academic or scholarly? 

Properly defined, the word theology means “the study of God.” The prefix, theo- comes from the Greek word theos, which means “god.” The suffix, -ology, comes from the word logos, which means “idea” or “word.” It’s also where we get our English word logic. Since it means the “logic” of something, we use it to designate the idea of—or the study of—particular things; biology is the study of life (from the Greek word bios), anthropology is the study of humans (from the Greek word anthropos). Theology is the idea of—or the study of—God.

You are a theologian!

And since every person has ideas about God, every person has a theology. Every person formulates ideas and what they think God is like—or not like—based on things they’ve read or heard or experienced. In short, everyone is a theologian. You are a theologian!

But what about the old men in the robes? Although they don't have to be old, and they don't have to wear robes, there are (what we’ll call) “professional” theologians — people who make a career out of studying the Bible, writing books about God, lecturing at the academic level, et cetera. Maybe they are also in the pastorate, but through their writing and teaching they exert a great deal of influence over others and what they believe about God. Most people—most Christians—will never become a theologian of that sort. But does that lessen any Christian’s responsibility to be a good theologian?

Being a good theologian is about applying ourselves to an active study of God, and letting the Bible—God’s own revelation—shape our beliefs about him.

While it’s true that we are all theologians (since we all have beliefs about God), not everyone has correct (biblical) beliefs; not everyone is a good theologian! Sometimes we have incorrect beliefs about God because we’ve been misled by false teaching, sometimes we’ve just been lazy, or maybe other times we’ve simply failed to think deeply about something we heard or read, and compare it to the Bible's teaching. But being a good theologian is about applying ourselves to an active study of God, and letting the Bible—God’s own revelation—shape our beliefs about him. 

Being a good theologian can be hard work sometimes. But so is anything that’s worthwhile. Marriage can be hard. For that matter, all relationships can be hard. Getting a promotion, earning a Ph.D., making sacrifices to serve others — all hard things, but they’re all worth it. And it’s worth it to be a good theologian, because it means knowing God as he’s revealed in Jesus, and in the Bible.

That’s our aim, to know him as much as we are able. And that’s what happens as you study him — you get to know him better. You gain a greater understanding, appreciation, and awe for who God is and what he’s done. You learn how to spot false teaching, and you grow in your knowledge of his words. And who knows when, but it will come in handy one day when you get asked the question, "How can I [understand], unless someone guides me" (Acts 8:31)!

REFLECTION

Would you agree with the statement, “There are only two kinds of people in the world: good theologians and bad theologians”? Why or why not?

Have you ever considered yourself a theologian? Have you ever considered where most of your beliefs about God came from? Passed down from family? Friends at work? Popular books or television? The Bible?

How does it benefit those around you as you learn and grow and become a better theologian?

For further reflection, read Acts 8:26-35.

The Power of Parables

Whatever most people make of Jesus, there is one thing he is often not accused of -- being a bad teacher. It's widely accepted that Jesus is one of the greatest teachers that ever lived, even among people who reject him as the Son of God. Many who deny his divinity still acknowledge that he was a great teacher. No footnotes or citations even needed. So what was it that made this penniless preacher from Nazareth really capture people's attention--even people today who may or may not even follow him as the Teacher? 

The long answer is that he was (is), indeed, the Son of God. He was (is) the source of all knowledge, truth, and wisdom. He taught with all the authority of heaven--oh, and when you can do miracles, that helps. Trying to unpack his divinity as the source of his teaching skills is beyond the scope of this short attempt. So let's tackle the short answer instead.

Jesus knew how to tell a good story.

Jesus was able to take that for which we had no frame of reference, and make it clearly understandable.

He was an unparalleled teacher because he knew the power of a short story. The way it connects with people. The way it simply communicates. Jesus knew the power of parables, and he knew they were the perfect medium for making spiritual truth accessible. By casting the mysteries of the kingdom alongside everyday situations, Jesus was able to take that for which we had no frame of reference, and make it clearly understandable.

Since Jesus did this so often (he told 30-60 parables depending on how strictly one defines "parable"), it's important for his followers to know how to interact with the parables. Whether it's a one-sentence story like the parable of the hidden treasure in Matthew 13, or the story takes up almost an entire chapter, like the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15--it helps to know why parables are such a good teaching tool. And it helps to read them with a few guidelines in the back of our minds.

WHAT AND WHY?

Without getting into Jesus's motivation for teaching in parables ("seeing, they would not see, and hearing, they would not hear"), let's consider the parables and their usefulness as a teaching tool. A parable is simply a story that reveals a parallel truth. It starts out with something familiar, and moves the hearer toward the unfamiliar with a frame of reference--the perfect method for preaching the kingdom of heaven to a bunch of fisherman, farmers, carpenters, and the like. Try describing "beauty." Not beautiful things, but the essence of beauty, itself. It's easier to just point to something beautiful and say, "it's like that." It's easier to give an example, a reference. That's what parables do. That's why parables are great for describing the kingdom of heaven. "The kingdom of heaven is like...."

We know Jesus is not only talking about fishing nets and treasure; he’s talking about something bigger, something spiritual.

Not only do they communicate through the familiar, but precisely because they begin in the realm of the common, parables often hold our attention because we get it. Most of Jesus' parables are simple, and he uses elements we can identify with (soil and seeds, fishing nets, treasure). He doesn't lose us because we don't know what he's talking about. We get it, so we pay attention. But more importantly, we know he's not only talking about fishing nets and treasure; he's talking about something bigger, something spiritual. And thus we have one of the biggest benefits of teaching in parables -- the hearer discovers the truth of the teaching for himself! And which do you remember more: information that you were taught or truth that you discovered?

HOW AND WHY?

How then should we read Jesus' parables? Is there a right way and a wrong way? Is it possible to misread them or miss their meaning? Again, there's a long answer, but the short answer is 'yes.' That's one of the other benefits to teaching in parables -- Jesus was able to conceal truth from people too lazy, prejudiced, or hard-hearted to think about their meaning. So it is possible to read them wrongly, but if you'll seek the truth and let a few simple principles guide you, you'll find the parables to be rich and rewarding. 

  1. KEEP IT SIMPLE. Parables are not allegories. There's a difference, and the biggest is that in a parable, every detail doesn't mean something or stand for something else. In most (not all, but most) of the parables, there is one main truth, and the details are insignificant. Remember, parables were heard once, in many cases -- so they needed a simple meaning that could be easily understood and make an immediate impact upon hearing.
  2. WHEN POSSIBLE, LEARN ABOUT THE SETTING (geography, social circumstances, etc.). Many times, this one takes some research or a good commentary, but it often adds to the meaning if you know something about the setting or elements in the story. For example, how much more impactful is the story of the good samaritan when you know Jews and Samaritans hated each other? Jesus wasn't simply teaching that we should help our neighbors, but that our neighbor is even our worst enemy.
  3. PUT YOURSELF IN THE STORY. There are different kinds of parables: true parables and story parables. True parables are based on a truth that can't be argued with. When Jesus said the kingdom is like a mustard seed, no one will object to the properties of a mustard seed, that even though it's a small seed, it grows into a large plant or tree. Story parables have characters and actions, and the force of the parable comes not from whether the story is true or not, but from the characters and actions in the story. When you're reading a story parable, figure out which character you are, and which character Jesus says you should be. This helps make the next one easier.
  4. MAKE THE TEACHING PERSONAL AND ACTIONABLE. Now that you know what Jesus is teaching, what are you going to do about it? Because it doesn't mean much if you don't put it into action.

And finally, check the teaching against the rest of the Scriptures. If you walk away with something different that what's taught elsewhere in the Word -- reread the parable and start over.

What would you add? As you've read and studied the parables, what guidelines have you used to help discern their meaning?

Five Ways to Read Revelation

When was the last time you read Revelation? Beyond reading it, when was the last time you tried to study it? There’s a reason our churches are not doing Bible studies on Revelation all the time. The reason? It’s a hard book!

Saint John’s revelation is a hard letter to interpret. With all its bowls and trumpets and dragons, what are we to make of this book? It’s the last book of the New Testament canon and Jesus’s last message to His church. It can be very intimidating - but obviously it has use and value so we can’t neglect it in our study of the Scripture.

Without recommending one approach over the others, I’d like to offer five different approaches to interpreting Revelation. Maybe these five different “lenses” will help you see it as a layered and intricate book, but not a scary or intimidating one. Then you can read it and decide for yourself!

1. Preterist - The word “preterism” comes from the Latin for “past.” This approach interprets Revelation in the light of events that occurred in the past - most likely events that took place before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, or possibly events in the first few centuries before the destruction of the Roman Empire in the 400’s. In this approach, Revelation 1.1 tells us that the events will happen imminently, and have now since passed. Only chapters 21-22 (vision of new heaven and new earth) prophecy events to take place in the future.

2. Futurist - As the name implies, this approach takes the opposite stance from the Preterist. This approach interprets everything after chapter 3 to be events yet to take place. For the futurist, Revelation is a vision of events that will happen soon before Christ’s return and the end of the world.

3. Historicist - A bit of a mashup of the first two, this approach sees Revelation as symbolic of events that take place between the two advents of Christ. Revelation’s series of events began at Christ’s first coming, and stretch across the entire period of time until He returns. In this approach, the events correspond to actual events or people in God’s New Testament history of redemption.

4. Idealist - Reluctant to identify anything in Revelation with particular events or people, this approach is perhaps the most different. To the Idealist, John’s visions are symbolic of the all the struggles the church faces between Christ’s first and second comings. This approach allows the letter to have its impact on Christians struggling under political and religious persecution in the first century, but also holds that the visions describe circumstances the universal church will deal with until Jesus returns.

5. Eclectic - This last method is an incorporation of the strengths of the other four approaches. Acknowledging Revelation may be written about specific past and future events, but allowing that the interpretation of some events may apply to the church in all circumstances, this approach seems the easiest and most logical to take - however, the interpreter ends up being able to ascribe many different meanings to the same vision.

At the end of the day, one thing is for certain - Jesus wins! And if you don't get anything else out of this letter, be encouraged that victory belongs to God. The church is triumphant, and one day God will make everything perfect and new again. “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22.20)