“As One Who Had Authority”: A Reminder to Theology Lovers

I am a theology lover. It all began the fall of my senior year of college, when I enrolled in a class titled History of Christian Thought. The class was an introductory historical theology course taught by the inimitable Doug Weaver. We read a fine survey of historical theology by Roger Olson and an anthology of primary source readings. Dr. Weaver deftly combined informative lectures with insightful class discussions. That course was my second favorite class in all of college and my favorite class related to Christian Studies. While I had been very appreciative of theology prior to that time, after History of Christian Thought, appreciation had blossomed into romance.

I have remained a theology lover to the present. I love reading classic works of theology, which, of course, is part of the job description for a historical theology professor. But I also love reading recent theology as well, especially constructive evangelical and/or Baptist theology. Since 2010, I have convened a Theology Reading Group with some handpicked Southeastern students; we work through (mostly) recent theology together, making application for doctrine, ministry and spirituality. The fires of my romance with theology have never gone cold. But like every love relationship, there is always room for growth.

In recent months, I have been focusing my devotional Bible reading on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7. Recently, I was drawn to the words of Matthew 7:28–29, which Matthew uses to close Jesus’s teaching: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (ESV).” Though I have read these verses hundreds of times—and dozens of times in the past couple of months—I was struck by the words “as one who had authority.” And I was convicted.

It is tempting for theology lovers, and perhaps especially seminary students and professors, to so love theology that they inadvertently delight in theological “scribes” more than the One who has authority—indeed, who “has all authority in heaven and on earth,” as Matthew reminds us in the Great Commission. I know that I am tempted sometimes to spend far more time reflecting upon the writings of uninspired theologians while implicitly shortchanging the writings of the theologians who wrote the Scriptures under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. My Augustinian colleagues would point out that this reflects a disordered love. After all, while many uninspired theologians are immensely helpful doctors of the church, they do not possess authority in and of themselves. As the Abstract of Principles reminds us, “The Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God, and are the only sufficient, certain and authoritative rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience.”

Matthew 7:28–29 remind lovers of theology that Scripture trumps uninspired theological writings because only the Bible is a sure and authoritative revelation of Jesus Christ. Theology is wonderful, and frankly, more pastors and other ministry leaders should carve out the time to intentionally read works of theology. (That is a topic for another day.) But theology is not an end unto itself; theology is a tool to help us think rightly about God and live rightly before God. And if that theology is not tethered to the Scriptures and does not drive us deeper into the Scriptures, it is not a very useful tool. In fact, it might just be a distraction.

So for all of those folks out there who, like me, are theology lovers, let’s be careful to love the Bible more than non-canonical works of theology. Aquinas is great, but a half hour with Paul is infinitely more important for life and ministry than a week with Aquinas. Barth is informative, but fifteen minutes with Isaiah is more helpful to our souls than fifteen years with Barth. Vanhoozer is always theologically stimulating, but a quiet time with John is infinitely more authoritative than a quiet evening with Vanhoozer. I strongly suspect Aquinas, Barth and Vanhoozer would agree.

The One who has all the authority in the universe speaks to us from the pages of his written Word. May we love it more than we love works of theology that, even at their very best, are but pale reflections of the Holy Scriptures.