Advice for Theology Students

The most bizarre piece of advice anyone gave me when I was thinking about studying Theology at uni was this:

Don’t give up your drawing.

The most frustrating advice I was given was don’t.

Doing a degree is hard on so many levels. Doing a Theology degree may be the hardest of all because it covers so many subjects. Besides that, on top of all the other challenges of doing any other degree, it is difficult because it is here that the spiritual and the academic collide.

There are many reasons that people will warn you against this path. I listened to and thought about them all, spoken and unspoken, and prayed my way to a decision. Let me share a few so that it might help you think more clearly if you are trying to decide whether to study too.

It will destroy your faith. I’m well aware that my insatiable curiosity will one day be my downfall but this was nothing to do with my flaws and everything to do with a strong distrust between evangelicals and the academy. The advantage of being saved and pretty well grounded was not taken into account, it seemed.

To be fair, we’ve lost a few in the time I was there and I have felt myself drowning on a number of occasions but I’ve never really doubted, only been intimidated by the superior intellect (so it seemed to me) of liberalism. Yes, people ‘lose’ their faith when they study Theology but God keeps his own so there’s no need to fear on that count.

It’s a useless degree. Philosophy, art, history, linguistics, ethics, politics, sociology, psychology, logic, literature, art, culture, science, to name a few of the areas that we have covered over the last four years. People are often surprised by how well-rounded an education it is if you put the work in. Admittedly if you go on into secular work, you’ll find that a lot of people don’t know what it is, and if they do, they often treat it with suspicion or contempt. On top of all that, you’ll learn good diplomacy and argumentation because the faith element of your studies, you will have to defend your work far more vigorously than if you were doing a secular degree.

There are a few other objections I can think of, some of them gender based but the main one that concerns you may be why, if you aren’t going into The Ministry?

The ministry, though important is a ministry. I would like to be a translator so it’d be great to have a good grasp of Theology so that I understand what it is that I am translating.

You will face a lot of questions and that’s no bad thing but do think carefully and prayerfully about your decision before you make it, and for those of you who decide to go ahead, here are nine pieces of advice for every Theology student.

Pray

Yes, I know that’s obvious but trust me when I tell you that there are some who learn so much that they forget the very basics.

You talk to the people you love as often as you can. If you don’t you start to drift apart, how much more your heavenly Father?

Of all the things you could study, Theology may be the most spiritually risky so keep your feet on the ground. Remember to talk to the One you are studying otherwise your studies are pointless.

 

Study

The privilege of having several years set aside to devote to learning about God is no small thing. The time will fly so use as much of it as you can. If you’re doing a degree you’ll have access to people and resources that you might not have had otherwise. Do not do what so many of my fellow students did and try to get by on the absolute minimum (or less in some cases). If you have that attitude you should seriously question your calling. Do all to his glory.

You have all of this time and all of these resources, it is such a privilege and I wish with all my heart that I could make you fully understand that. Immerse yourself in Scripture. Converse with the Church Fathers. Wonder at the incredible tale, the impossibility that is church history (my church history professor was the best). Don’t waste this opportunity. I used to have 1 Corinthians 10.31 taped above my desk to remind me when I was tempted to be lazy. Do it if it helps.

 

Eat

Lap it up like ice cream. Study above and beyond requirement but I would also strongly encourage you that if the place where you study has worship or chapel or devotions, go to them. It’s not a substitute for church but it is both good for you and encouraging for those teaching you. Who passes up an opportunity to hear the Word preached and enjoy fellowship anyway?

On the other hand, you need to be a member of a local church. All Christians do and it should really go without saying but it doesn’t. I studied alongside people who didn’t see why they needed to go to church on Sunday when they were studying Theology during the rest of the week anyway.

You need your local church more than ever because the preaching of the word will refresh your soul amidst the dryness which permeates academia. It will hold you firm through the tumultuous tides of intellectual trends. It will remind you that God is a practical God and it will remind you why you are putting yourself through this in the times you want to give up. Trust me.

So go, do not neglect to meet with God’s people. Academics will wear you down and suck you in but the local church will feed and strengthen your soul and help you to keep your feet on the ground.

 

Work

Work hard in your studies and any paid work you may have but do not neglect to work in your local church. No matter how much head-knowledge you have, you are not above pouring coffee and hoovering floors.

For all your learning, you are part of the body of Christ so act like it. Work hard but don’t let that detract from serving in the local church so that the gospel may go forth. The local church is the bride, the university is not.

 

Fight

No matter how good your teachers are, your fellow students will always be what we so fondly came to joke ‘a mixed bunch of heretics’. So debate, reason, question, challenge but be willing to listen and be challenged too. Have humility and be ready to accept that you will never change their minds.

Don’t even be afraid to challenge your teachers. They may shred you at first but you’ll learn to form strong arguments and defend them pretty quickly. I discovered that my teachers actually enjoyed it to the point of provoking me so that I would think more deeply about things. It’s good for you.

Just remember to be as gracious, gentle, and humble as possible. Don’t just fight for the sake of it, no one likes that person. Defend the faith by all means, but pick your battles wisely (hint: eschatology is not one of them).

 

Trust

There are so many things that you will just have to accept. Like the fact that you will never be able to change the people around you never mind changing the world. Your teachers may (and probably will) have some dodgy views. Your life plans may change dramatically. You will have to read people like Bruegemann and Moltmann and engage with them as though they are actually credible.

Just keep your eyes on Christ, especially when you are struggling and you will struggle. Remember that the academy really doesn’t matter in the end. The Joyce Meyer book that guy in your class recommends you read and the passage from the Quran that your lecturer suggests you pray from next time you lead worship at church, they’ll all burn away in the end.

Trust Christ. It’s all about him.

 

Remember

The best sermon any visiting preacher ever gave us when I was studying was given by Derek Tidball (whose work you’ll probably come across). A lot of preachers like to show off for theology students with deep, complicated truths but Derek Tidball took us back to the beginning, he gave us a simple gospel message and told us not to forget it. And I love him for it. The guy is a genius but he reminded us that no matter how clever we are, we never get past the gospel. Everything revolves around it.

Remember the gospel. Glory in it. Do not despise its simplicity. Hold it close but never hold it cheaply. You will never outgrow it no matter how much you grow.

You know this already, of course you do but don’t let your confidence put you in danger. You will be tempted to look down on its simplicity and you will be tempted to put it aside because of its simplicity. Don’t.

Preach Christ crucified. Remember the Gospel. That’s what this is all about.

 

Rest

Theology is a mentally and spiritually taxing discipline. It’s a lot of reading and a high level of writing. It’s a lot of work and you will probably find that dealing with other students can be draining if you are constantly having to hold your ground (this is coming from a Grace Baptist who studied in a predominantly Church of Scotland context). Remember to rest.

I journal, blog, and draw. Occasionally we’d do beach trips or days out hill walking and doing touristy things or just going for coffee with other students and church friends. It is not sinful to take a day off or watch a movie or hang out together and talk about superheroes and football. Even God rested on the seventh day. Rest is a gift and it will make you more productive and less stressed. Make time just to relax or you will burn out.

 

Enjoy

It’s going to be challenging, it’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be painful at times. But for the most part, it’s great so enjoy it!

Enjoy how it will stretch and challenge you and help you to grow in ways you never expected. To study Theology academically is a huge privilege and it is a great joy.

Bask in the wisdom of the Early Church Fathers. Delight in the fact that you will never understand the Trinity. Wrestle with how God can allow evil if he is inherently good. Ask questions, seek answers, learn Greek, delight in this time that you have been able to set aside to study your God. Enjoy seeing how what you learn impacts how your faith works itself out in daily life. Find joy in the truth that the gospel never loses its mystery and in knowing God more, love how your wonder at him is never dulled but only deepened.

x     x     x

Studying Theology in an academic setting is not without its struggles. It is not for the faint of heart. Consider your decision and the advice of others carefully and prayerfully before committing – and choose where you will study very carefully.

It is hard but it is more than worth it. May God bless you as you learn, whether academically or otherwise. Remember to hold fast to the truth which you have been taught, for without the gospel everything is useless and vain.

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