Theology and Devotion: Friends or Foes?

by Sam Parkison August 1, 2018

Let’s talk about theology.

Let’s begin by stating the obvious: it is entirely possible to read, think, and talk about theology in such a way that one dislocates head from heart. This is the exact phenomenon that occasions many of Jesus’ bouts with the Pharisees throughout his earthly ministry (Jn. 5:30-47). These fellows were passionate students of the Scriptures, but they missed the end for which their study was intended. In this regard, the Pharisees are not exceptional. We can point to many intellectual game-players—“Christian academia” is chock-full of them—who, like these Pharisees, for all their theological pursuits, miss Jesus. To be sure, such figures have their affections stirred by their theological pursuits. But their affections are stirred by the process of discovery, and not be the person discovered. So yes, it’s possible to “study theology” and miss God—even to build a career around talking of God, the foundation for which is no sturdier than man’s approval (Jn. 5:44; 12:42-43)—which, if you were wondering, is not very sturdy. This is obvious and frightening.

Doxology = Theology Consummated

However, let’s hasten now to state the less obvious (or at least, less acknowledged): it is entirely impossible to have loving communion with God absent theology. You can’t do it. This is true of all relationships, really. Try having a meaningful friendship without knowledge of the person. It cannot be done. This means that the common assumption that pursuing theology is tantamount to rejecting an intimate relationship with Jesus is not just wrong, it’s completely backward. As with any relationship, increasing intimacy with God actually requires increased knowledge of him. Deeper affections for him require deeper knowledge of him. These two things go hand in hand as the beginning of a work and its completion. Theological meditations produce doxological expression (i.e., worship of God—our expression of love for him). Doxology is theology consummated.

Not only do we experience this principle in our daily lives, it is explicitly laid out in Scripture. For example, when Paul prays for the growing Christian church in Colossae (Col. 1:9-14), he asks God that they “may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” But this prayer is not in the abstract, as if he wanted them to have increased knowledge for increased knowledge’s sake. The intended end of this filling of “knowledge” and “wisdom” and “understanding” is that they might “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.” And, according to Paul, this manner of living that is “fully pleasing” to God, which is produced by having been “filled with knowledge,” will look a particular way. It will bear fruit. What is this fruit? Paul mentions two: “every good work” and “increasing knowledge of God.” Don’t miss how interwoven these two things are for Paul! Right knowledge produces right living before God, right living before God produces godly fruit, godly fruit includes right knowledge, and around we go.

This example from Colossians is not some outlier; it’s the norm in Scripture. The principle is why Paul naturally breaks off into praise after long, sustained theological arguments (Rom. 11:33-36), it’s why his most ethically-driven letters equal in doctrinal-drivenness (Titus, Eph., 1 & 2 Tim.), and why the New Testament letter that speaks perhaps most affectionately and highly about the Person of Jesus is also the heftiest work of biblical theology around (Heb.). This all means that if we were to ask the biblical authors, “Which matters more, theological study, communion with God, or godly living toward others?” they would scratch their heads. According to the biblical perspective, the question doesn’t even make sense. Theological study, communion with God, and godly living comprehend one another. Like the Persons of the Trinity, they may be distinguished, but they cannot be separated.

Systematic Theology: The Ghost That Haunts Everyone

The person who seeks to have devotional intimacy with God without being bogged down with a theological system nevertheless operates with a theological system. It’s just a system that they have either tried to draw from Scripture in isolation from other Christians (not a recommended strategy since it most often yields theological novelty, which is not a virtue) or it’s a system they have dreamed up on their own. The latter typically looks something like this: “God responds to your conjuring, so if you sing the same line of a song enough times, or ramble the same prayer long enough, intimacy will be achieved.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard this theological system articulated, mind you, but I have seen it in operation, most frequently by those who assume they have rejected an intellectual theology for a relational one.

But not only is it impossible to have a relationship without knowledge, as we have already seen, it is an insult to try. Do we really think God is honored if we predicate our relationship with him on attributes that are not true of him? Would my wife be honored if I insist that she loves hot tea every morning when in fact she loves iced coffee every morning? You could perhaps chock this example up to an innocent misunderstanding at first, but what if she told me she preferred iced coffee, and I still insisted that she’s the kind of wife that doesn’t care about iced coffee? Likewise, God is not honored if we don’t bother to get to know the truth about him, and rather insist on communion with him based on properties he may or may not have. That is like trying to have a relationship with someone based on the person you wish they were, without bothering to get to know the person they actually are. In the end, theology actually safeguards intimate worship, because it makes sure our worship is worship of God, and not our own imagined, self-fashioned idea of “God.”

Reading the Words of Mere Men

This much may be readily acknowledged by many. But, some might say, even if a theological system is inescapable (and even good and helpful), does this really necessitate reading and interacting with other people and their theological systems? Why read scholars and pastors and theologians, past and present? If we have the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, do we really need to bother with books written by mere men? The answer to that question really depends on what we mean by “need.” If we mean, “do you need theology books written by men in order to be saved?”—i.e., to grasp the basic structure of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, which God brings about by supernaturally enabling one to grasp and understand the objective gospel elements of Jesus’ perfect sacrificial life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension—the answer is: not necessarily.

But I would suggest that hinging the decision of reading theologians on the bare minimum for salvation (i.e., “I’ll only read it if I have to in order to become a Christian”) is a mistake. Though you could get to heaven without their work, you don’t have to! The real question is if their words stand to help you to know and love God more, why would you not want to read them? It’s a question of stewardship. God has been ministering to his people from the creation of the world, and his people have been processing his ministry and contemplating his self-revelation since then. It is the height of hubris to think that other Christians have nothing worthwhile to offer for our ongoing effort to know God more deeply. And by the way, it goes against the grain of God’s economy to close ourselves off from other Christians in our pursuit of knowledge. God has always taught his people through his people (1 Pet. 10-12; 2 Cor. 1:3-7; 6:6-9; Eph. 4:11-16; Heb. 13:7).

Further, contrary to the common belief that Scriptural authority implies that we ought to disregard extra-biblical writings, it actually gives us the freedom to read them without fear! Scriptural authority means we can gut the books of other people without feeling bad. Whereas Scripture is our unshakable, unquestionable theological authority, other works are helpful insofar as they help us understand (or systematically organize) biblical truth. This means where they fail to do this, we have the freedom to let them fall. Of course, we should sift through the works of theologians with charity and humility, and we shouldn’t lightly disregard the arguments of pious men and women who devote their lives’ work to them (especially if the people of God have long maintained those arguments). But the point is this: Scriptural authority opens wide the doors for all sorts of potential gleaning from extra-biblical sources. Orienting your heart and mind toward the Scripture means you don’t have to be afraid of reading hefty, intellectually stimulating theology.

The flipside error to the one we’ve been discussing is the one that heeds no significant attention to the Scripture, and instead leans entirely on extra-biblical works. But that’s another error for another post. For now, our point is simply this: intellectual rigor is not at odds with an intimate relationship with God. The opposite is in fact true. Sweet communion with God and an active thought-life are not contradictory. So don’t be afraid that cracking open big theology books will distract you from God. You may just get to know him even better by doing so. And don’t be surprised if reading those big theology books get you chocked up with overwhelming affection for Jesus—if they are worth their salt as theologians, that’s precisely why the authors wrote those books.