How to Avoid Becoming a Graceless Theological Thug

Monday, 24th January 2022
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How to avoid becoming a Graceless Theological Thug

By Davy Ellison

In his excellent book Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord Michael Reeves aids his reader in navigating the arena of fear. It is frequently considered a negative emotion to evade and yet Scripture teaches that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). Reeves summarises, ever-so-helpfully, the way in which the fear of the Lord can 9988bring us to both rejoice and tremble:

In the fear of the Lord is found a true knowledge of God, as Creator and as Redeemer, as majestic and as merciful. Any “knowledge of God” that is devoid of such fearful and overwhelmed wonder is actually blind and barren. The living God is so wonderful that he is not truly known where he is not worshiped heartily and adored. (p. 135)

Reeves then proceeds to apply this truth to theological students:

There is a particular challenge here for those of us who love theology. All too easily our theological studies can become exercises in puffing ourselves up and lording it over others. Thus Helmut Thielicke warned his theological students of the vain stage of “theological puberty” many go through after a year or two of study. In that stage, infatuated with new theological concepts, the young theologian is filled with a gnostic pride. His love dies in the devilish thrill of acquiring a knowledge that means power. Then this skewed knowledge proves its own perversity in his character as he becomes a graceless theological thug, ever itching for a chance to show off his prowess. And it is hardly as if older theologians are immune to this disease. We who love theology need to remember that there is no true knowledge of God where there is no right fear of him. The fear of God is the only possible foundation upon which true knowledge is built: all knowledge acquired elsewhere is counterfeit and will eventually prove itself as such. (pp. 135–136)

The danger that Reeves highlights in this passage is very real. Far too many of us have met far too many graceless theological students. It is therefore imperative that theological students guard themselves against such malicious knowledge. More, it requires theological colleges to take seriously their duty of care to their students.

At the Irish Baptist College we love theology. We also love the church, and by that we mean the people. But above all staff and students desire to love God. We do not want to become or train those who lack grace and humility. We guard against this danger in a number of ways:

  1. Prioritise the local church—The Irish Baptist College exists because of the local church and for the local church. This reality affects how we operate. In the application process, for example, the church reference for any prospective student carries a lot of weight. Students are expected to maintain an active participation in their local church or the local church they are sent to on placement. This connection between study and people is vital in preserving a gracious character. The College community does not replace but rather supplements the local church community. We prioritise the local church.

  2. Daily devotions and prayers—The College timetable is daily punctuated with times of devotions and prayers. Two days a week we pause to sing, pray and hear a devotional from either a staff member or a student. On the other two days that classes operate time is taken to pray in smaller groups. These moments in which we rest from study, learning, teaching and work remind us that far more important than gaining a degree is growing in godliness and fervour for our Saviour.

  3. Engage in evangelism—Theory is important, but so is experience. For this reason the College programme contains placements for students in which they are exposed to ministry in “real life”. One element of this exposure is an annual evangelism team. Each year students are sent to work alongside a local church or Baptist outreach in a week of concentrated evangelism. We expect our students not simply to know the gospel, but to share it.

  4. Teachers are practitioners—Linked to the above point, faculty and visiting tutors are all practitioners. The current faculty, for example, possess almost a century of ministry experience (and that is not including their time teaching at the College). Visiting tutors are invited to teach in light of their experience in particular fields in addition to their ability to teach certain subjects. The consequence of this approach to teaching staff is that they care about people. If the teachers care about people, perhaps this is something that the students might likewise learn.

  5. Warn the students—In addition to all of the above, students are warned about this danger as they begin their studies at the College. Time is taken during Induction Week to help students think through protecting their daily devotions, resisting the lure of ivory tower theology and putting into practice all that they learn. The College is frank about the danger of becoming puffed up with knowledge (1 Cor. 8:1), and so the students are warned.

Obviously, none of this is capable of protecting students in and of itself. Only the work of the Spirit through the word of God can transform hearts. Nevertheless, the Irish Baptist College takes seriously the responsibility to guard hearts and minds. Our prayer is that we would be engaged with the living God in such a way that he is worshipped heartily and adored above all else. In doing so, our desire is that we will avoid becoming graceless theological thugs.

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