Answering an ancient question

Answering an ancient question

Thomas of Kempen, in about 1410, asked the following question in book one of his classic work The Imitation of Christ;

“Of what use is it to discourse learnedly on the Trinity if you lack humility and so displease the Trinity?”

It would take a book to give an adequate answer but let me make a brief attempt at an outline, as a theological educator.

  1. There seems to be a questionable assumption embedded in the question. Theology does not ultimately need to have a “use”. True, there is too much theology which is not useful, and it is our job to being out the usefulness of theology to our students, but one can study to learn the truth about God and his ways without any direct application to life and ministry, just that it is worthy, right and good to know. I hope Thomas was not questioning that.
  2. There is a fundamental link between our studies and ourselves. A Kempis was speaking against mediaeval scholastic theology but we have our own version today; theology as a dis-interested science that can be done by someone trained in study but not in a lively relationship with God. But godliness is the only adequate foundation for God talk. One answer to the question is “no use to us in our desire to please God which is a greater desire than to know more”.
  3. The question also suggests a lack of usefulness to our students. To teach theology or biblical studies without a humble heart harms our students because they have an example to follow as they go out into ministry and do the same. Students leaving college or seminary proud of their intellectual achievements rather than humble is a failure of theological education. It is a scary thought, but we can set people up for displeasing God in ministry by the way we teach.
  4. There is great use in discoursing learnedly about the trinity if your heart if right. Schleiermacher was wrong to put it as a postscript to his systematic theology, Barth was right to start with it. It is at the base of so much, of our redemption, our mission, our prayer life, the way we do church, as numerous post-Barth studies have shown.
  5. Pride is one of the occupational hazards of the biblical or theological studies lecturer which we need to continually address in ourselves. Knowledge can easily be seen as conferring status, in church or college, before students. Here, it is put starkly. You can actually displease God by speaking truly about God with pride in your intellectual power and knowledge.

For some years now, I have used this question, asked six hundred years ago, to begin lectures on theology with my students. Ultimately it puts theological studies in the context of our spiritual life, which is where it should be.

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