Book Review: The Trials of Theology, edited by Andrew J. B. Cameron and Brian S. Rosner
Is the study of theology dangerous? To anyone who has seriously studied theology, the first answer likely to pop into his mind may well come from a memory of some well-meaning old saint with an anti-intellectual bent, earnestly cautioning him about the deadening effects of seminary, which turns simple, impassioned believers into cold, â€œivory towerâ€ theologians. Yes, there is some possibility of that danger, as Gerald Bray reflects upon in his chapter on the trials of systematic theology: it is frighteningly possible to lose one's love for God amid theology's abstraction. But I like what John Piper said on the back cover: â€œIs studying theology perilous? Yes. But less perilous than ignoranceâ€. God is a God of unspeakable glory and immense terror; searching out the mysteries of his self-revelation is a sobering and weighty pursuit; but ignoring him, refusing to see in him sufficient worth to motivate one to abandon himself â€“ mind, heart, and soul â€“ to pursuing the personal knowledge that he has vouchsafed to unworthy creatures in his own image, is the most dangerous attitude of all.
I fear that much of Christianity today has lost any sense of fear and danger at all before the holy God â€“ whether among academics or blue collar workers, pastors or laity. That loss is a problem especially widespread in our own day; at other times in church history, it was much less so. Every age has its own peculiar difficulties and blind spots, and the casual, â€œtake-it-or-leave-itâ€ approach to theology is certainly one of our own. That is why I am thankful for two things about this book: first, that someone has seen the need to caution Christians in pursuit of a theological education concerning its many snares, trials, temptations, and dangers; and second, that in doing so, he has provided ample material from many periods of Church history besides our own. The â€œVoices Pastâ€ portion is approximately the same size as the â€œVoices Presentâ€. I think that is wise.
For all the differences current Protestant theologians may legitimately have with some of the Church Fathers, there is much that we have forgotten, which we would do well to relearn from them. That is why the brief selection from Augustine, the only representative of the early Church, was one of my favorite parts of the whole book. How he trembled at the thought of entering the high calling of the ministry, and with what earnest words he begged of his superior leave to pursue a greater understanding of the sacred scriptures! The work that he had to do was nothing to him if not frighteningly and eternally weighty, he had so great a fear of the Shepherd that he was terrified to feed his sheep with anything but the truth of the bible. â€œFor what shall I say to the Lord my Judge,â€ he wonders, if he should not be able to set aside time to pursue his theological education; â€œShall I say, 'I was not able to acquire what I needed, because I was engrossed wholly with the affairs of the Church'? What if he replies, 'You wicked servant! â€¦ How do you allege that you had no time to learn how to cultivate my field?'â€. If many pastors only had that same perspective today, I suspect that â€œfelt needs,â€ ten-step plans, how-to-be-successful-in-this-life strategies, self-esteem pep talks, etc. ad nauseum, would not dominate the pulpits of so many â€œministriesâ€ and churches. The sober, careful exegesis of the scriptures would not be viewed as irrelevant, boring, or inadequate, if the majesty of God and the fearful danger of acting presumptuously in his Name were as pressing a concern today as they have been at times in the past.
There is much more to be gleaned from the following chapters as well â€“ Luther's thoughtful (and always colorful!) treatment of the necessary role of suffering and trials in the formation of a true theologian, C. S. Lewis's poignant description of the psychological urge to belong to an â€œinner circle,â€ and the temptations that urge creates in particular for aspiring theologians and pastors, Don Carson's excellent cautions to anyone pursuing an academic career in theology, and many other helpful insights. Not all chapters will be equally meritorious, but there is much fodder for careful reflection, and I would recommend it to any Christian at all; to those who are not pursuing a profession in some theological domain (as a pastor, professor, etc.), so that they might not forget how important theological study is, even for him who pushes a plow or waits on tables, all to the glory of a fearful God who has made himself known and placed each in his own vocation; and certainly, for those who are pursuing some profession involving the study and teaching of the bible; it is a high calling fraught with many subtle and eternally-consequential temptations and dangers, and the one who is wise enough to think long and hard on these dangers from the outset will be in just that sort of humble, self-distrustful place of desperately needing to lean on God's condescending grace which will enable him to pursue a terrifying task in safety.
The Trials of Theology: Available at Monergism Books