“Let us proclaim it boldly — the man who is not inflamed with divine love is an outsider to all theology! Let him toil long and hard in airing of thorny questions; let him be the most avid devourer of theological books in existence; if he has this and nothing else, it is but the stronger proof that the natural beauty of God's truth has never penetrated through even the smallest chink into his mind. He is not on fire with love of divine truth, nor carried away with admiration of her beauty.” —John Owen, Biblical Theology, “Epistle to the Reader”

When Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (v. 1), was he talking about theological debate on the internet? No. But “noisy gong” and “clanging cymbal” are appropriate descriptions at times. The internet can turn a mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll into a murderous Mr. Hyde. It has provided an outlet for people who have long felt powerless and voiceless, and many of those people apparently have a lot of pent-up frustration that comes out anytime they sit behind a keyboard. It has also provided a platform for people who seem to want everyone else to know how much more intelligent they are than the average Christian.

If theology becomes a substitute for love of God, it is nothing more or less than an idol.

I think most Christians begin to study theology with good motives. We begin to study Scripture and to read books by Christians who have been studying Scripture for many years. We want to understand the Word of God. But even something good, like the study of theology, can be twisted in an evil direction. We can begin to study theology as an end itself. It can then easily puff us up with pride and arrogance, causing us to exalt in ourselves rather than in God. And when we exalt ourselves, we want everyone else to exalt us as well. That can only be accomplished, so we think, by showing our brothers and sisters in Christ our superiority by showing them how great our store of theological knowledge is.

As one who has the incredible privilege of teaching theology at the college level, it is important for me to remind myself of this danger regularly. It is also important that I explain the danger of theological pride to my students. Every fall, I tell the freshmen students that they will be learning a lot of formal theology over the course of the semester. They will be digging into numerous issues that many of them have never thought about. I tell them that if they go back home for Christmas break and sit down next to some elderly person who has been a faithful and godly member of the church for decades and view that person with any level of patronizing condescension because they now know some new theological vocabulary words, then we need to talk when they return.

We are learning theology to grow in our knowledge of God, so that we might grow in our love of God and neighbor. In the quote above, Owen makes this basic point. Theology is not a substitute for love of God. If it does become a substitute for love of God, it is nothing more or less than an idol.


Editor’s Note: This post was first published on October 3, 2018.

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