Like virtually all students, there are some subjects that never fail to leave me yawning. Algebra, for instance, was loads of fun, but only because of the good-looking gal sitting in the desk beside me. Same goes for science and mechanics and a few other classes. Some subjects float my boat; others sink it. No doubt the kind reader can empathize with me. I did my work and made the grade, mind you, but the study was laborious and irksome.
When I fell in love with theology—for I know of no other way to express it—I thought I had finally discovered a subject which would always flood me with sheer delight. Never would the study of God and His Word seem monotonous; never would I tire of devouring page after page of dogmatics; never would I need my arm twisted to dive into such study. This Adam had found his Eden.
It wasn’t long, however, before I discovered that though I was in Eden, there was still work to be done—hard work. If I was to read the Scriptures in the languages in which God had given them, then there were Greek and Hebrew paradigms to memorize. To probe into the mysteries of Baptism or Christology, there were heresies to work through, arguments to untangle, and Latin terms to decipher. It turned out that in my Eden, I still had to live by the sweat of my brow.
Every seminary student figures this out right away. At the beginning of each quarter, his eyes scan the syllabus to see how much is required of him: a 10 or 20 page paper? one, two, or three tests? a single book review or more? Every assignment seems to de-Edenize Eden a little bit more. Some swallow hard and keep smiling. Some frown and fret. Most wonder how they’ll ever get it all done. (Most professors wonder if they will, too!)
At such times—indeed, at all times—a reality check is in order. We must remember that study of theology, first and foremost, is a divine gift. Nothing more and certainly nothing less. It is by grace that we study grace. No matter how laborious the task feels, no matter how seemingly tedious, it is always a privilege to sit at the feet of the Rabbi from heaven, to drink in His words and always and ever to thirst for more.
Indeed, the true study of theology is nothing else but worship. For the Triune God is not an object to be analyzed; He is not a theory, a system, or a philosophy. He is a Person to be confessed. Whether one is parsing Greek verbs or learning the ins and outs of church history, the true student of theology approaches this task as if he were in the presence of Christ. For, in fact, he is. His desk is his altar. He is the priest. And the holy thing he handles is the Word of truth. The early rabbis taught that a Gentile who studied Torah was like unto a high priest. And they hit the nail on the head. For engagement with the sacred text—in whatever form of study that takes—is engagement with Him who is the incarnate Temple in whose flesh we live and move and study.
The study of theology is thus a sort of liturgical action. In the Divine Service, God doles out His gifts and we, having received them in faith, respond with confession. So in the liturgy of theological study. The Word of Christ comes to us as a gift. It permeates our study of exegesis and dogmatics, homiletics and history. Having received it, we echo it back. We write our papers, deliver our sermons, translate our Hebrew. And these things we do in the presence of Him whose Word we confess.
Being a student of theology is not really about having your head stuffed with all sort of facts and figures and history and dogma and anything else necessary to make you a lean, mean theology machine. It is immersion into a way of life, of learning, of repeating back to God what He says to us. It is having formed in us at least the beginning of what St. Paul calls the “mind of Christ,” (1 Cor 2:16). It is what the Psalmist cannot seem to say enough about in Psalm 119, the hymn that just seems to go on and on about learning the ways of the Lord, walking in His paths, waiting on Him, hoping in Him even when foes are attacking, and finding in Him and His Word joy and light and life.
To study theology is thus to receive the truth and rejoice in the gift—and to do so until one enters the heavenly school. For in this life such study cannot be exhausted. With other teachers, the students who keep learning eventually equal and even surpass their instructors in knowledge. Likewise, with some subjects, one can learn virtually all there is to learn. Not so with theology. For our Teacher is never equaled, and certainly never surpassed. And what He imparts in His instruction can never be exhausted. There is always more over which to ruminate, to pray, to confess. The liturgy of theological study goes on, world without end. Blessed are those who are engaged in such a sacred work. And even more blessed are those who know it to be such. May it be so for you.
(Originally published in 2005, in “Thy Kingdom Come”, a newsletter of Concordia Theological Seminary.)