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The Forgotten Purpose of Theology (Luke Stamps)

John Leadley Dagg, who was the first Southern Baptist to pen a complete systematic theology (Manual of Theology, 1857), wrote the following about the purpose of studying Christian doctrine:

The study of religious truth ought to be undertaken and prosecuted from a sense of duty, and with a view to the improvement of the heart. When learned, it ought not to be laid on the shelf, as an object of speculation; but it should be deposited deep in the heart, where its sanctifying power ought to be felt (13).

For those pastors, teachers, students, and laypeople who are serious about theology, there is always a temptation to fall into the trap that Dagg is describing here.  In other words, we can get so caught up in the minutiae of doctrine that we fail to grasp its larger purpose in service to the church of Jesus Christ. We can end up obscuring the truth rather than exposing, defending, and proclaiming it.

This point is not to be misconstrued as a polemic against rigorous theological reflection. There is a place for technical theological research and writing—even theological speculation, rightly understood.  There is place for academic theology that is not immediately accessible to every Christian believer.  Dagg himself understood the need for venturing into the more difficult and obscure territories of the doctrinal domain—provided the theologian understands his limitations and aims. Dagg argued that forming theological hypotheses and engaging in “abstruse” (that is, obscure or difficult) reasoning may be necessary in order to defend the truth against objections or to correct those who are lost within the “labyrinth” of speculation. But the “skillful theologian” understands that “there are subjects which extend far beyond the limits of his vision; and that, in laboring to explore them further than he is guided by revelation, he is in danger of mistaking hypothesis, and deductions of fallacious reasoning for the truth of God” (v).

So theology ought to know its limitations and understand its purpose. In a real sense, theology is an end in itself. It is an exercise of loving God with our minds that our hearts might be stirred to worship:

To study theology, for the purpose of gratifying curiosity, or preparing for a profession, is an abuse and profanation of what ought to be regarded as most holy. To learn things pertaining to God, merely for the sake of amusement, or secular advantage, or to gratify the mere love of knowledge, is to treat the Most High with contempt (13).

Dagg then gives some provocative illustrations of his point:

A farmer should study agriculture, with a view to the increase of his crop; but if, instead of this he exhausts himself in inquiring how plants propagate their like, and how the different soils were originally produced, his grounds will be overrun with briers and thorns, and his barns will be empty. Equally unprofitable will be that study of religious doctrine which is directed to the mere purpose of speculation. It is as if the food necessary for the sustenance of the body, instead of being eaten and digested, were merely set out in such order as to gratify the sight. In this case, the body would certainly perish with hunger; and, with equal certainty will the soul famish if it feed not on divine truth (13-14).

Theology is not about culinary presentation. It is about feasting on the truth of God in Christ so that we might be sustained in our pilgrim journey to the celestial city.  Speculation, within proper bounds and in the service of appropriate goals, may be necessary in order to defend the truth in some contexts. But God’s clear, revelatory word in Scripture is the source of our spiritual nourishment. And our goal, in all of our theological endeavors, remains the same: the “improvement” of our hearts through the sanctifying power of God’s truth.

Luke Stamps is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University (OPS). He is also a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in systematic theology. Luke is writing his dissertation in the field of Christology. Luke is married to Josie, and they have three children, Jack, Claire, and Henry. Luke is a regular contributor to the Credo Magazine blog.

This column is from the recent issue of Credo Magazine. Read others like it today:

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The Trinity and the Christian Life: Why a triune God makes all the difference

One of the dangers every church faces is slipping, slowly and quietly and perhaps unknowingly, into a routine where sermons are preached, songs are sung, and the Lord’s Supper is consumed, but all is done without a deep sense and awareness of the Trinity. In other words, if we are not careful our churches, in practice, can look remarkably Unitarian. And such a danger is not limited to the pews of the church. As we leave on Sunday morning and go back into the world, does the gospel we share with our coworker look decisively and explicitly Trinitarian in nature? Or when we pray in the privacy of our own home, do the three persons of the Trinity make any difference in how we petition God?

In this issue of Credo Magazine, we have brought together some of the sharpest thinkers in order to bring our minds back to the beauty, glory, and majesty of our triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But we do not merely want to see him as triune, but recognize why and how the Trinity makes all the difference in the Christian life. Therefore, in this issue Fred Sanders, Robert Letham, Michael Reeves, Scott Swain, Tim Challies, Stephen Holmes, and many others come together in order to help us think deeper thoughts about how God is one essence and three persons, and what impact the Trinity has on who we are and what we do as believers.

Matthew Barrett, Executive Editor

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