My seminary professor had a penchant for shocking his students and challenging their assumptions with outrageous statements. One of the most shocking was this one:
"It is more important to know theology than the Bible."
Now, this was a seminary that stressed the authority of the Bible and the importance of teaching the Bible, so the idea that knowing a particular system of theology was more important than knowing one's Bible seemed absolutely blasphemous. Even more peculiar was the fact that this particular professor taught Biblical studies rather than theology, so why would he, of all people, say such a thing?
Of course, by this time we were familiar with his methods. He would say something shocking like this, let us go through a discussion fueled by outrage and protest, and then explain what he meant in a way that did not seem quite so blasphemous. In this case, he explained that it is more important to know theology than the Bible, because even if you misinterpret or misapply a particular passage of the Bible, you'll still be teaching sound Biblical doctrine.
Over the years I have thought often about my professor's dictum, and I've begun to see the importance of the point he was trying to make.
First, he was cautioning us not to be arrogant in our teaching of the Bible—not to fall into the trap of looking at a particular passage in isolation, coming up with some innovative interpretation, and then throwing out or modifying historic Christian teaching in the light of our new "Biblical" insight. He was reminding us not to despise centuries of work by careful theologians who sought to understand what the entire Bible teaches.
Second, he was reminding his class of mostly future pastors that their congregations need sound doctrine. The temptation of more academically-oriented preachers is to delve into all kinds of obscure and fascinating elements of the Biblical text. Yet their congregations are not seeking advanced degrees in Biblical studies; they're seeking to understand and apply the teaching of the Bible to their lives. My professor wasn't urging pastors to preach through a systematic theology, but to be reminded by the theologians how to communicate the great truths of the Bible.
In his new book, Everyone's a Theologian, R.C. Sproul explains that everyone engages in systematic theology—whether we realize it or not.
Many people believe that theological study holds little value. They say, “I don’t need theology; I just need to know Jesus.” Yet theology is unavoidable for every Christian. It is our attempt to understand the truth that God has revealed to us—something every Christian does. So it is not a question of whether we are going to engage in theology; it is a question of whether our theology is sound or unsound. It is important to study and learn because God has taken great pains to reveal Himself to His people. He gave us a book, one that is not meant to sit on a shelf pressing dried flowers, but to be read, searched, digested, studied, and chiefly to be understood.
Sproul goes on to present a brief overview of systematic theology from a broadly Reformed, evangelical perspective. His summary of each doctrine is quite brief, but it's enough for the busy pastor to brush up on a given theological subject. It's also a great primer for anyone who has never studied theology in a systematic way. Everyone's a Theologian is only $14.99.
While I still don't entirely agree with my professor's dictum that it is more important to know theology than the Bible, I certainly recognize the importance of studying theology. What about you? How has studying theology helped you better understand what the Bible teaches?