Mastery of Theology?

I was very pleased to find out recently that I had done enough to be awarded a Masters of Theology (MTh) degree. A significant amount of work has gone into it, but it has been a privilege to have been able to undertake the study required to achieve it, and I would not have been able to have done it without the support of family, friends (old and new), and staff at Edinburgh. I believe it was also a God-given opportunity to spend a year studying the Bible in its original languages from an academic perspective at this point of my life, and that the Lord had a plan in taking me to Scotland this past year.

I have quite often, however, stopped to pause about studying for the title of being a Master of Theology: what it means and what it does not mean. It has often occurred to me that being an active Christian means being called to some form of ministry, which is the opposite of mastery. Here, then, are a few caveats about being a Master of Theology that I hope will keep me – and many others who could call themselves masters of theology or other disciplines with or without formal qualifications – humble.

1)      It certainly does not imply total mastery; there is always more to know!

I am very aware of this. I started the Masters in Biblical Studies with no formal theology qualifications; I got onto the course by virtue of a part degree in Classics (although, admittedly, very useful training in itself), some independent Greek learning, and because I had attended a few terms of theology lectures. For most of the year, I thought of myself as a “thug theologian” – someone who had entered the theological world somewhat rudely and haphazardly! Yet, after one year’s study, I can claim the MTh title. Moreover, most of my work was on Paul’s Letter to the Romans; I barely touched the Old Testament, apart from some ab initio study of Hebrew, and a few quotes from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament and Apocrypha) in various essays. Although I have had a fair scratch of the surface of Romans now, there are so many areas of the Bible that I know little about. It truly is the case that the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. If you want to be an expert in the New Testament, you still need to be very familiar with the Old Testament and the intertestamental literature (Apocrypha, and ideally Dead Sea Scrolls), as well as with other Jewish literature (rabbinic writings, as well as Philo and Josephus) and the Graeco-Roman world for starters. While there are, of course, many levels beyond a Masters (doctorate, professor…), the idea that you can master a discipline is an illusion. I am sure this holds for practically any discipline – not just Biblical Studies.

2)      Christians are called to be ministers of the gospel before masters of theology.

Biblical Studies is an academic discipline like any other in which knowledge and erudition are prized. As in most fields, new ideas and theories are brought to the table and scrutinized. People sometimes find it surprising that not all biblical scholars believe that the Bible is God’s divinely inspired Word; some, for varying reasons, do not believe that Jesus was really God’s Son. For the Christian scholar, it can be quite a disorientating and frustrating space to spend time, as many engage in Biblical Studies purely as an academic exercise. While such exercise can be fascinating and illuminating, it can become a game of trying to become a master of the subject, amassing knowledge for little more than its own sake. Paul’s saying that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1) is certainly a helpful reminder here. A follower of Christ is called to love by being a minister of the gospel, which ultimately means being less than Jesus Christ. As John the Baptist says in John’s Gospel: “that man [Christ] must increase, I am to become less” (John 3:30). Again, in his letters, Paul often introduces himself as an “apostle” but never as “a master of theology” or similar; sometimes he even just introduces himself as “Paul, slave of Christ” (Romans 1:1); and deflates his status and learning (e.g., Philippians 3:4ff.).

Studying the Bible is a highly honourable pursuit and for those who believe that it talks about Christ, we would do well to use any understanding or expertise that we have gained to minister to others. This will take humility and gentleness: not overwhelming people with knowledge and coming across as superior masters, but imparting such knowledge graciously and lovingly. Moreover, we should expect to be ministered to and blessed by what the Bible inspires in anyone in our fellowship – particularly those who are younger than us in age or “faith years” – God does not only speak to and through masters of theology, but speaks to and through all who believe in different ways.

3)      The idea of mastery, particularly self-mastery, is dangerous; we are still bound to feel weak and vulnerable at times.

There is an innate human desire to be self-sufficient, masters of our own destiny. In his study of Romans, Stanley Stowers reasons that a central theme of the letter is Paul’s challenge on the idea of self-mastery of the day: the sort of Stoicism, which was popular among Graeco-Romans and many Jews, that saw self-mastery as the greatest human virtue. Stowers perhaps takes this view a little too far, but it is a helpful consideration for our purposes. Elsewhere, Paul talks of the benefit of self-control as one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23); but he also talks about his own weaknesses. Having done some study on Pauline rhetoric, I believe that this is likely genuine and sincere, rather than purely persuasive strategy. Paul knew self-mastery was an illusion, and while he sought to be as self-controlled as possible, he was fully aware of his areas of weakness and vulnerability. This is famously apparent in 2 Corinthians 12:5-10, where the apostle talks about his weaknesses and the much-debated thorn in his flesh, and records what God said to him, when he asked for it to be removed: “My grace is enough for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v.9). Our weaknesses remind us that we are not God and that we need to rest in his power and grace, seen most fully in the death and resurrection of Christ.

Despite supposedly being a master of theology, I know that I am still weak and vulnerable. I am currently trying to discern what is next; but as I do that, I sometimes feel weak and somewhat trapped. For a variety of reasons, my anxiety and stress levels seem to have been increasing rather than decreasing lately; I am feeling led to a season of going a bit slower and waiting, as I try to process some of these issues, and see what’s next. I am always struck by how God always forms people in the waiting in the Scriptures. His timing is always perfect, even if it is often unexpected and rather last-minute.

I have recently rediscovered a song by Willy Mason called “We Can Be Strong” (you can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmQ-YKGRU-E). In my view, it is both catchy and profound. I am not sure how autobiographical the song is, but it seems to follow a journey of someone deciding university wasn’t for them, taking some time back at home, being joined by others, forming a band, and heading back out on the road. Some of these initial steps might appear weak, but they are actually a sign of strength, as reflected by the refrain: “we can be strong”.

Thankfully, my time studying for a Masters of Theology wasn’t like that portrayed in the song: “I couldn’t take that sterile place / in those rooms I lost my face / and in the end, they couldn’t sell me grace.” I am considering some further theological study in the future, but I am now more aware that any idea of personal mastery is dangerous, and that there is no shame in feeling weak and vulnerable. It is here where, very often, we are closest to God, and have to rely on His strength – on Him as our true Lord and Master, but not in a despotic sense; instead, as a God who is faithful and gracious, especially when we are weak.

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