By RONNI KURTZ
What is the matter with theology today? Far from being described by the string of virtues that make up the fruit of the Spirit, much of what is labeled “theology” is insecurity and fury disguised as dialogue or thoughtfulness. Even the most cursory scrolling of social media could lead you to the conclusion that you must be angry in order to do theology. In our day, it is not uncommon to see theology used as a weapon and not as a well of joy.
Maybe you’ve seen theology weaponized as an instrument of division. In this malpractice of theology, Christian truth is used to pit brothers and sisters against one another. Points of doctrine become the boundary lines in which an “us versus them” war plays out. And while there are indeed good and right times to draw lines in the sand, there are also those whose theological boundaries are so ever-shrinking that only they and a handful of their followers are seen as those who possess the truth.
Discord arises as theology is used to break unity with those fellow image bearers with whom we ought to be marching arm in arm toward the Promised Land.
Maybe you’ve seen theology weaponized as an instrument of pride. In this malpractice of theology, the accumulation of knowledge amounts to ever-inflating egos and the search for truth is but a grasp for self-importance. When the streams of arrogance flow from the source of ill-used theology, the goal becomes the applause of our neighbors instead of the good of our neighbors.
Instead of bending our intellectual life toward the pursuit of others, we bend others toward the observation of our intellectual capabilities in hopes of praise that ought to be rendered unto the Lord. In this way, theology can become a show; theologians are simply actors on the doctrinal stage hoping their articulation of a theological concept or their turn of phrase may entertain the audience.
Maybe you’ve seen theology weaponized as a replacement for sanctification and wisdom. There is a temptation to mistake theological clarity and confidence as Christian wisdom. However, a sincere devotion to the Lord is not measured by the memorization of theological lingo and logic.
God can use theology as a means of sanctification, and it seems he is often pleased to do so. Yet theological intelligence is not a valid reason to downplay or neglect the vital role of emotional intelligence, relational intelligence, cultural intelligence, and the like.
Christian sanctification is holistic, and while theology is a necessary ingredient, it is not in itself a sufficient ingredient. The Christian life calls for a multifaceted maturity and wisdom in which we are beckoned to love the Lord with not just all our mind but also all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength (Deut. 6:4–7; Matt. 22:37–40).
Scripture shows us that the life of the mind can actually lead to the life of the soul in the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit. The glorious task of Christian contemplation should indeed lead to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Theology as a means of cultivating Christian virtue, such as the fruit of the Spirit, is not a new idea.
Augustine once stated, “For this is the fullness of our joy, than which there is nothing greater: to enjoy God the Trinity in whose image we have been made.” We can go about stoking our joy in uncountable ways—family, food, vocations, vacations, materials, experiences, and so much more. Yet the greatest log in the fire of our joy is the triune God “in whose image we have been made.”
The enjoyment of the triune God is the purest of all enjoyments. For other joys will come and go. As the grass withers and the flowers fade, lesser joys are here today and gone tomorrow (Isa. 40:8). Yet our God is the same yesterday, today, and forevermore (Heb. 13:8), so the joy found in him is an unshakable and pure joy.
However, as Jen Wilkin so wonderfully stated in Women of the Word, “The heart cannot love what the mind does not know.” If we want to set our hearts free to live in the joy that comes from loving the triune God, we must set our minds on knowing him. Your mind and your affections are closer than you may recognize, and you will see that what you consistently contemplate you will grow to consistently appreciate.
Thomas Aquinas once declared, “The whole of our life bears fruit and comes to achievement in the knowledge of the Trinity.” Aquinas in this quote shows that there is “fruit” because of our achieving the knowledge of theology. There is a consequence to spending much time at the feet of the Lord in thought: The whole of your life will begin to bear fruit.
Contemplating the good, the true, the beautiful—all culminating in our Lord—has the ability to transform hate into love, despair to joy, division to peace, anxiety to patience, animosity to kindness, evil to goodness, disobedience to faithfulness, harshness to gentleness, and indulgence to self-control.
The diagnostic question, then, is simple: Does the way you think about theology, the way you do theology, or the way you talk about theology typically lead to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Or does the way you think about theology, the way you do theology, or the way you talk about theology typically lead to moral impurity, idolatry, hatred, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, factions, and envy?
As theologians rage, their zeal is aimed at one another. Instead of linking arms to pursue the Great Commission as fellow laborers, they engage in friendly fire, participating in a made-up war in which no one wins.
Theology done in the works of the flesh is characterized by strife, fits of anger, dissension, and divisions. Theology done in this way will lead to devouring one another. On the contrary, theology done in the fruit of the Spirit—which is characterized by love, kindness, gentleness, and joy—will lead to bearing one another’s burdens and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
The drastic difference in outcomes demonstrates the importance of the task at hand: Theology used poorly can indeed have sad outcomes, yet theology done well can drive the virtues that make up the fruit of the Spirit deep in our soul such that we become Christians marked by wisdom and stability.
Three passages from the apostle Paul (Phil. 4:8; Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18) can be summarized together in one sentence: Contemplate the good, the true, and the beautiful in Christ, and in so doing be transformed by the renewing of your mind by beholding Christ from one degree of glory to another. Or, to use Paul’s words: Think about these things, and be transformed by beholding.
Think about these things (Phil. 4:8). You possess something of immense value—your attention. The world wants it, and it will throw much at you to get it. There are folks whose primary job is to continually maintain and upgrade sophisticated algorithms to guarantee that your attention will stay fixed on your phone. Neil Postman was correct in his incredibly insightful book Amusing Ourselves to Death when he warned that we are people in danger of simply becoming an audience. The world is a stage where your gaze and attention are the commodity.
For this reason and countless others, Paul’s conclusion to his letter to the Philippians is just as relevant today as it was in first-century Philippi. Concluding his letter, Paul instructs the saints at Philippi, saying, “Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things” (Phil. 4:8, CSB, emphasis added).
What Paul understood, and what we must understand, is that whatever we give our attention to will form us as people. If our minds stay on the ever-changing and increasingly shallow events of our culture, we will continue to decline in our wisdom and reasonableness as followers of Christ. However, if we let Paul’s command sink into our lives and have the self-control to look up and out of the dizzying array of distractions surrounding us, giving instead a hard, sustained look at that which is good, true, and beautiful, we may be transformed into wise and stable men and women.
Be transformed (Rom. 12:2). In his epistle to the Romans, Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2, CSB, emphasis added).
Contemplating God in Christian theology is no mere intellectualism. On the contrary, setting our mind on God and all things in relation to God allows us to gaze at him who is love. In so doing, we will be transformed by the renewal of our minds. A mind full of truth should lead to a heart full of love and hands full of care.
Behold the glory of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18). In this glorious chapter, Paul contrasts the saints of the old covenant and those of the new. He recalls the scene in which Moses, after seeing the goodness of the Lord in Exodus 33, comes down from Mount Sinai with his face veiled so that he might not startle the other Israelites. Paul says that reading the old covenant is like attempting to look at God through a veil, like Moses. On the contrary, seeing God in the face of Jesus Christ is like seeing God with the veil removed so that we can behold his beauty and splendor uninhibited.
Paul writes, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed in the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18, ESV, emphasis added).
This passage is brimming with beauty. While Christian theology has a considerable number of practical benefits, one of the greatest is simply beholding the glory of God. One of the most practical things you can do in your life—counter to the idea that theology is an irrelevant,
ivory-tower pastime—is catch an eyeful of God’s grandeur and grace.
While we should always attempt to work out our theology and ask important questions like “How can I live this truth out today?” we should not forget that there is immense wisdom in simply beholding this great God of ours. When we behold him, we begin to look like him, as we are transformed from one degree of glory to another.
Originally posted at Christianity Today
Ronni Kurtz is an author and assistant professor of theology at Cedarville University. This is adapted from Fruitful Theology: How the Life of the Mind Leads to the Life of the Soul (B&H Publishing, ©2022). Used with permission.