How to Find Joy in Theological Study

By Brian Key    |    March 27, 2023

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“Seminary is cemetery.”

My jaw must’ve dropped. As a young aspiring minister, I loved to talk with older pastors about ministry, about the Word of God, and about what they had learned that would be valuable to me as a young man who sensed God’s call to the pastorate. I was hungry and looking to grow, so I sat down with my uncle, who served as a pastor for several decades until his death.

I was excited about the fact that I had been accepted into seminary, and wanted to tell him all about it. But his statement sucked all of the excitement out of the room. What was worse is that, like a good preacher, he let that heavy statement hang in the air, creating an uncomfortable tension that he was not quick to resolve. He wanted me to see something, to feel the warning of his words.

“Seminary is cemetery.”

Familiarity Destroys Awe

It took me a long time to understand what my uncle meant. Why would he say such a discouraging thing to an aspiring student and pastor? Did I need to avoid seminary altogether?

But a few years later, it all began to make sense. When you get a few semesters of Greek, Hebrew, and theology under your belt, there is a subtle temptation to begin to study God as if he is a specimen in a petri dish. It is easy to study to learn things about God and forget that he is personal. He is to be known, loved, adored, worshipped, and delighted in, not just talked about as if he is an idea.

B. B. Warfield warned his students, saying that “the great danger of the theological student lies precisely in his constant contact with divine things.” In Dangerous Calling, Paul Tripp calls this “visual lethargy,” a loss of wonder and awe due to our familiarity with what we observe. Once that happens, we are in spiritual danger because it becomes too easy to get caught up in awe of our ideas, our ministry, or our reputation while having a cold, joyless heart that can spout intellectual and theological facts about God without letting those truths catch fire in our souls.

“Seminary is cemetery.”

I came to understand that my uncle was simply warning me that knowing God and knowing about God are not the same thing. You can major on the intellectual reality and never experience the awe, wonder, and joy of the relational reality. And it is that relational knowledge of God that Christ has welcomed us into. When we keep that in view, theological study serves as a pathway to relational and doxological joy.

Knowing God

The good news for all of humanity is that in Christ, God has made it possible for us to know and experience his love. That is what Jesus refers to as “eternal life” in his prayer in John 17. After saying it was the Father’s will to grant eternal life through the Son, he defines eternal life, saying, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

I remember as a kid that I had filed eternal life as something to be experienced in the sweet by-and-by. But Jesus is inviting us to see that through him, we are invited into the loving relationship that our souls desperately long for—eternal union and communion with the triune God. Eternal life is a reality that we can experience right here, right now. Jesus has come to bring us into a knowledge of God that involves fellowship, trust, and personal experience with his eternal love. That is overwhelmingly good news.

Brennan Manning describes this good news, saying, “The Gospel can be summed up by saying that it is the tremendous, tender, compassionate, gentle, extraordinary, explosive, revolutionary revelation of Christ’s love.” I love the stack of descriptors in that statement. It is easy for me to quote something like, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” as rote theological fact only (Romans 5:8). But in that dense theological statement we are invited into an exciting new reality—”the tremendous, tender, compassionate, gentle, extraordinary, explosive, revolutionary revelation of Christ’s love.”

What God has done in securing our redemption and restoring relationship with us is something that is worth eternal theological study, and effusive, joyful worship. You could read passages like Ephesians 1, for instance, as a systematic explanation of the trinitarian work in our redemption. But if we only do that, we are in danger of knowing about God rather than responding to the fact that God has made himself known and joyfully made a way for us to relationally know and experience him forever, “to the praise of his glory!”

God the Father chose us in Christ and predestined us for adoption as sons and daughters before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3–5). That’s not just a theological point to argue; that is a relational reality to enjoy. Our creator set his affection on us in Christ before he spoke the world into existence. He remembered you before there was a you to remember or a setting in which to remember you. He declared, “MINE!” over your life.

Theology is meant to produce doxology.”

—Brian Key

Then, in the flow of history, Christ came to secure our redemption through the shedding of his blood. The Son was so committed to the plan that there was no cost too rich to pay for our redemption (Eph. 1:7), and his work was so sufficient that God is able to lavish us with his grace and love (Eph. 1:8). And not only that, the Spirit has marked us off as God’s own and sealed us for the day of redemption (Eph. 1:13–14).

And all that was done, Paul says, not to give us tidy theological categories to learn about but to welcome us into relationship with him so that we can know and worship him. The Trinity acted decisively and powerfully to secure our redemption to welcome us into their own eternal, interpersonal experience of love.

When I forgot this reality, theological study became dry and lifeless. In other words, seminary became cemetery. But when I was engaged in theological study for the sake of being drawn up into the relational realities that it points to, my soul was stirred to awe, wonder, and worship. Delighting in that relational reality is critical for the life of any Christian, and that is especially true for the pastor and seminary student.

Giving Away Awe

Far too often, aspiring pastors and theologians study to fill our minds so that we can turn around to fill the minds of others. That is important, but it is insufficient. The greatest gift we can give our people is a heart filled with awe and wonder at the “tremendous, tender, compassionate, gentle, extraordinary, explosive, revolutionary revelation of Christ’s love.”

The chief reason to study theology is to enjoy and marvel at the relational realities that God has drawn us into through Christ and then to let that draw us up in worship. That’s what happens to Paul at the end of Romans 11. After 11 chapters of breathtaking vistas of theological reflection, Paul just can’t help but break out in worship.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33–36)

I believe this kind of wonder and worship should be the end goal of our theological reflection and study. The study of theology is meant to produce doxology. Furthermore, one of the critical elements of our ministry is to not just impart knowledge but to model and give away awe. In Dangerous Calling, Paul Tripp says,

Awe of God must dominate my ministry, because one of the central missional gifts of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to give people back their awe off God. . . . Awe of God puts theology in its place. Theology is vitally important, but whatever awe of theology we have is dangerous if it doesn’t produce in us a practical awe of God . . . It is very difficult to give away what you do not possess yourself.

Conclusion

In the end, my uncle was right. Seminary can be cemetery if you don’t allow your theological study to do what it is meant to do. If we pursue theological study for any other end, it will deaden our soul through familiarity. However, if you let it draw you deeper into the relational realities of our redemption in Christ and cultivate worship in your soul, the gift of theological study will be an infectious joy that invites others to delight in Christ with you.

Brian Key

Brian Key previously served as a professor of urban ministry at Grimké Seminary.

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