I recently mentioned to my new boss that I was pursuing a masters degree in theology. “Oh, theology!” he said. “I met some people when I studied in Europe who were into theology. It must be nice to get to sit back and just ponder those big, impenetrable questions.”
It was probably meant as a compliment, but it made the field sound obscure and impractical. To an outsider, the doctrine of the Trinity, the homoousion (or sacramental theology) can seem opaque. Yet I’m increasingly convinced that if your theological study results only in esoteric musings, completely detached from your Christian life, then you’re probably getting some things wrong.
Suspicion of theology was a common theme during my decades in Protestantism. The head pastor at my megachurch warned the congregation about getting too focused on theology. Another evangelical pastor told a friend that, on the one hand, there was all the esoteric stuff he learned in seminary; on the other hand, there was the actual knowledge required to be a good pastor and Christian.
A Baptist relative of a girl I once dated, discovering I was then in a Presbyterian seminary, remarked, “Oh, theology, I used to be into that. But then I decided to just focus on following Christ.” The presumption in all of this is that theological study is an obstruction, if not antithetical, to practical Christian life.
There are several reasons why both Christians and non-Christians view theology as impractical. The material can indeed seem hopelessly abstract – does it really matter whether Christ had one will or two, which the Third Council of Constantinople ruled upon in 681 A.D.? Sometimes conflicts over seemingly obscure religious topics have resulted in bloodshed. In seventeenth-century Russia, the question over making the sign of the cross with two (emphasizing Christ’s human and divine nature) or three fingers (emphasizing the Trinity), led to uprisings and violent persecution.
But in spite of bad press, there are good reasons why theology was historically considered the “queen of the sciences.” Theology seeks answers to the greatest questions: “Who am I? Where am I going? How do I live a fulfilling life?” In truth, all other streams of thought should make space for theology, which has things to say about philosophy and politics, economics and culture, and even physics. It helps us determine what it means to be not only human but a good human.
Theology can – and should – inform law, medical ethics, economic policy, and just about every other practical consideration. Moreover, even the seemingly most esoteric theological topics have consequences. Here are just three examples:
#1-One of the earliest heresies the early Church encountered was Gnosticism. Gnostics, then and now, are essentially dualistic, viewing the material world as inherently evil (some Gnostics proposing it was created by the “evil” God of the Old Testament). The spiritual world, by contrast, is good. This naturally breeds a perception that the corporeal, including the human body, is fundamentally separate from the human spirit.
The First Council of Nicaea in 325, 16th century [Sistine Chapel]
This had serious implications for Christianity – the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection are physical actions, and affirm the inherent goodness of the body and God’s Creation. St. John the Apostle and St. Irenaeus, the second-century bishop of Lyon, made great efforts to combat Gnostic tendencies in the early Church. As St. John declared, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God.” (1 John 4:2-3) Interestingly, Bishop Robert Barron and many others have seen a connection between ancient Gnosticism and the rise of the transgender movement – which also claims that the physical body can be entirely separated from one’s “true self.”
#2-Another heresy of the early Church was iconoclasm, which rejected the veneration of images. Especially vicious in the East, the controversy tore apart the eighth-century Church, and resulted in the destruction of much beautiful ancient Christian art. Even after the Second Council of Nicaea (787 A.D.), battles between the iconoclasts and the Orthodox continued for decades.
Several currents in the Protestant Reformation, with its aversion to imagery and statues, can be seen as a resurgence of the iconoclast heresy. The veneration of images is still a very real question in ecumenical conversations between Protestants and Catholics. And similar iconoclastic tendencies are visible in Islam, which disdains any physical or corporeal representation of God as blasphemous. Yet if Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), then God the Father Himself seems guilty of such blasphemy.
#3-Finally, and perhaps most dangerous to the vitality of the early Church, was the heresy of Arianism. Arius, a prominent Egyptian cleric in fourth-century Alexandria, taught that Jesus was not of the same essence as God the Father, which in effect created an infinite gulf between Christ and God. For a time, Arianism became a dominant force across the Christian world, embraced by both a majority of bishops and a number of Germanic tribes on the fringes of the Roman Empire. Even after the First Council of Nicaea condemned Arianism (325 A.D.), it took several generations to eradicate it.
Arianism has once again become a force in some Christian churches – as well as in Western culture at large. Many people concede that Jesus was a great man. Yet surely, they argue, he couldn’t be God. Several religious sects today, such as Mormonism (and Islam, again), are effectively Arian in theology.
Many other intellectual and social movements today have roots in ancient heresies condemned by the earliest Church councils. We often see their social consequences, but also need to understand their roots in theological errors in order to effectively counter them. Theological study, though sometimes abstract and difficult, is an essential tool to accomplish this task. As the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us, “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrines of Christ and go on to maturity.” (Hebrews 6:1) Christ Himself has called us to the glorious mission of theology.
Casey Chalk is an editor for the ecumenical website Called to Communion and a graduate student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.