How Old Must a Theologian Be? (or: Staying Young by Studying the Bible)

A few years ago, two acquaintances of mine each wrote a theology: one wrote a theology of the Old Testament, one wrote a theology of the New Testament. A friend who knew one of the authors said to me, “I didn’t think that author was old enough to write a theology.”

I was puzzled. What does age have to do with theology? Isn’t  everyone who organizes their thoughts and words about God a theologian?

My friend explained that for an author to dare to offer a thorough-going theology presupposes that the author has done extensive study.  And that task usually takes decades, not merely years. There is so much to learn about God—through Scripture, life, history, nature, other people, and more—that most people (there are exceptions!) can hardly be expected to provide an adequate theology until they have studied in all these domains.

During my two weeks at IBTS in Amsterdam last winter, I enjoyed a 2-day conference on the topic “Migration and Dislocation: Theological Reflections on the Global Movements of People and People Groups.” AmsterdamAfter many fascinating presentations, stimulating discussions, and guided explorations of Amsterdam, we broke into small groups to consider how we might think theologically about what we’d been discovering. Partway through my group’s discussions, we began opening our Bibles and inquiring more carefully about biblical stories and texts that spoke to and resonated with the issues we were discussing. It was at that point—when we began discussing and comparing Bible texts—that I experienced a surge of enthusiasm for our project. I felt the exhilaration that I used to experience as a young adult in groups that were studying and discovering the Bible’s stories and teachings—reading the Bible as if we were “tasting it again for the first time” (to misquote an ad for Kelloggs Corn Flakes).conference

It was at that point that I thought, “Studying the Bible feels like a young person’s activity.” Exploring, uncovering, testing, asking, learning—these are activities typically associated with being young. Whereas pondering, synthesizing, and reflecting back over one’s life in order to seek wisdom—these activities are typically associated with middle-aged and senior adults.

So, is studying the Bible the elusive fountain of perpetual youth? Is theologizing only for life’s seasoned veterans? That would be saying too much. Studying to know God, and thinking/speaking well about God both are suitable activities for every age of life. There is no point in delaying these tasks, since we are all aging just as quickly as each other. As C.S.  Lewis reportedly said, “The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.” Studying and theologizing befit everyone.

But my deeper concern is this: I am seeing more and more people taking shortcuts to theology. They are leapfrogging (1) over the long, accumulative, detailed work of studying the Bible on its own terms (what are authors actually saying? what were authors actually intending?); and (2) over the long, accumulative, detailed work of living, praying and being attentive to God in all of life; these people are jumping to conclusions by happily adopting others’ mental constructs and applying those constructs to the Bible, forcibly fitting texts into categories of thought like square pegs into round holes. I don’t  only see older folks with a lifetime of Bible reading and life experience doing this (and they might have justification for doing so); but I also younger folks latching onto a particular writer’s or preacher’s conclusions, without first doing their own digging into Bible and life.

For instance, some years ago I taught a class of about 20 young adults, all professing Christians, who held many convictions about salvation and the Gospel, but the majority of whom had never read the entire biblical book of Romans, in which Paul addresses these themes with particular clarity. Most of these students had memorized isolated verses from the epistle, but had not bothered to read it through, on the assumption that it was either too boring or too difficult. (In both cases, these students had missed seeing the narrative in the epistle!)

As a result, in my teaching for Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary and Canadian Mennonite University’s Graduate School, I am increasingly requiring my students both to read widely in the Bible, and to reflect carefully on their (and others’ ) human experiences, lest my students develop their convictions too hastily, without first doing careful, inductive study of what we’ve all been given.

Xocai-Fountain-of-YouthAnd maybe, as they and I take more time to study the Scriptures, we will find ourselves in a joy that feels a lot like being young again.

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