I’m currently reading a book by Daniel Treier, associate professor of Theology at Wheaton College, and he quotes Jaroslav Pelikan on something I think everyone should hear:
During the years 100 to 600, most theologians were bishops; from 600 to 1500 in the West, they were monks; since 1500, they have been university professors. Gregory I, who died in 604, was a bishop who had been a monk; Martin Luther, who died in 1546, was a monk who became a university professor. Each of these life styles has left its mark on the job description of the theologian, but also on the way doctrine has continued to develop back and forth between believing, teaching, and confessing.
Now if you didn’t catch that, pay attention to this: throughout the history of the church, theology has mainly been done by people other than laity (the Christians in the pews, i.e. most Christians).
In the earliest Christian communities, doctrinal concerns were important but Christians were often concerned enough just to stay alive. In the middle ages, doctrinal reflection and development was taken up by the monasteries where men would commit their lives to studying God’s Word and living an ascetic lifestyle. Christian laity during this time were often without access to printed materials such as a Bible or theological works. But even if they had access to these things, it would not have done much good since the majority of people during that time were illiterate—including the priests of the Roman Catholic Church in the time leading up to the Reformation. As Pelikan notes, since then, the task of theology has been pushed out to the confines of the university and further from the pews where the majority of Christians can be found.
Let me be clear, this is not good. It’s also a bit embarrassing. Let me explain.
In our day and age, we have unprecedented excess of access to information and astonishing rates of literacy. Yet we are a theologically anemic church. We leave theology to the universities and seminaries.
Here is what I want to ask those of you who read this blog: how are you being a steward of the times you live in? Are you a steward with the mind that God has given you? Do you know the basics of the faith you profess? Do you have a competent grasp on the actual content of Scripture, not just various theological interests (e.g. end times stuff or divine sovereignty/free will)? Could you give someone an overview of the history of Israel in the OT quickly if asked? Could you tell someone the differences between Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians? On the flip side, how many of you could recount the plot developments of “Lost” or “The Office”?
I ask these basic questions because I firmly believe the tradition most of us grew up in was an impoverished version of Christianity for our specific context. Many of us grew up without any solid understanding of how the Old and New Testaments were related, other than surmising, “since Jesus fulfilled the law or something, I’ll read the New Testament and simply respect the Old.” Or we grew up fearing that the Antichrist would eminently take over the U.N., establish a world order and make us all get barcode tattoos. We have no reason to be so ignorant of Scripture and the doctrines found therein. We have incredible access to information, reliable translations of Scripture, capable teachers, and the freedom to practice our faith without the threat of death (in the West).
Don’t be content to leave theology to the academy. Do it yourself. Become competent and knowledgeable in these matters so that Scripture can affect every area of your being and life. Let it color and influence everything you do. Everyone is a theologian, it’s simply a matter of how good of one you are.
I’m confident our churches would be more vibrant and our piety more infectious were they to be more saturated in Scripture and a biblical worldview. This is attainable, and it merely takes the discipline to turn off your TV, get off Facebook, and simply read a little bit. With resources like the ESV Study Bible, our generation is equipped like few others have been to realize this vision.
And perhaps if we do, one day historians will look back and say, “from 1500 to 2000, the theologians were professors in universities, but from 2000 until now, the task of theology has been reclaimed by the ‘laity’ and returned to its ecclesial context.”