“Every Marine is, first and foremost, a rifleman. All other conditions are secondary.”
This quote is printed on the last page of the rifle data books issued to every U.S. Marine for their annual marksmanship qualification. The source of the quote was General Alfred M. Gray, the 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps and the only commandant to have his official photograph taken in a camouflage utility uniform. The message was sent loud and clear: Every marine is a rifleman.
Since the War for Independence, the U.S. Marine Corps has been distinguished by its dedication to marksmanship. Every recruit is trained early and thoroughly. Regardless of their military occupational specialty (MOS), be it infantry, technician, food service, or music, every marine is expected to be proficient with a rifle.
Here’s the thing…
I believe Christians would do well to learn from this legacy. There are certain things that are so intrinsically tied to the Christian identity that no Christian should go without. There are certain subjects every Christian ought to learn early and thoroughly, namely theology.
Every Christian to one degree or another ought to be a theologian.
Christians often balk at the idea of personally studying theology. Personal devotions? Certainly. Personal evangelism? Of course. Personal theological study? Who am I, B.B. Warfield?
Perhaps the hesitation partially well-founded. After all, knowledge for the sake of knowledge “puffeth up” (1 Corinthians 8:1), and puffed up theologians have done some major damage to Christian thinking over the years. This is theology for sake of theology, and what is left in its wake is dry formalism at best and arrogant intellectualism at worst.
However, I am not prescribing theology for the sake of theology. Simply put, theology is the study of God. Biblical theology is the pursuit of the truth about God as found in God’s Word. The goal is not to know more about God; it is to know God more.
Why should every Christian study theology? Why should we all be a theologian?
1. To Obey Jesus
One of the most neglected aspects of the Great Commission is Christ’s command to teach believers “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:20)
What does it mean to teach what Jesus has commanded? Theologian Wayne Grudem suggests that this “includes the interpretation and application of his life and teachings….” He notes that this would extend to the rest of the New Testament since the inspired authors wrote “the commandments of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 14:37). Furthermore, Grudem explains that if we consider the way in which Jesus referred to the authority and consistency of the Old Testament, “then it becomes evident that we cannot teach ‘all that Jesus commanded’ without including all of the Old Testament.”
In other words, teaching a thoroughly Biblical, Christ-centered theology is very much bound up in the Great Commission, the final command given by Jesus to all who follow him.
Theology is only as good as it is missional.
2. To Think Well
Few things stretch the mind as theology, what the Scholastics referred to as “the Queen of the Sciences.” Oxford theologian and philosopher William Wood states that the theologian must be “a historian, a philosopher, a linguist, a skillful interpreter of texts both ancient and modern, and probably many other things besides.”
However, theology is not simply thinking for the sake of thinking. It is thinking with a purpose, namely the glory of God. Therefore, theological thinking should be—must be—bound to the Bible and by the Bible.
Studying theology protects us from current bad ideas. When we examine the major doctrines threaded throughout Scripture and weave them together into a cohesive system, we create a safety net, as it were, to protect us from “philosophy and vain deceit [that are] after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” (Colossians 2:8) To play off of C.S. Lewis’ famous quote, good theology must exist, if for no other reason, because bad theology needs to be answered.
Studying theology prepares us for future bad ideas. As time passes, we find that there is no new heresy under the sun. It is not so much that the threat is some never-been-seen-before idea that threatens Biblical doctrine. Rather, heresy has a way of finding new expressions and emphases, inroads that have yet to be exploited. Nevertheless, the deeper our theology runs, the more we are prepared for whatever innovative deviation comes next.
Theology is only as good as it is Biblical.
3. To Do Well
What we believe affects what we do. If it does not, what we say we believe is either not all that important or not all that believed.
As theologian Henry Thiessen explains, “[U]nfortunately, many people have nothing but an intellectual loyalty to the truth. But true belief, involving the intellect, the sensibilities, and the will, does have an effect on character and conduct.”
The Apostle Paul demonstrates in what is perhaps his most theology-laden epistle. Romans 1-11 plumbs the depths of the attributes of God, explores the caverns of the human condition, and scales the heights of the Gospel of Christ. By the end of chapter 11, Paul concludes:
O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)
Then Romans 12:1-2 becomes the fulcrum on which all the entire book pivots. “I beseech you therefore,” Paul says as he proceeds from ideas to action, from orthodoxy (right belief) to orthopraxy (right practice). It is as if Paul is saying, “On the basis of all that theology, here is how we as Christians ought to behave ourselves.”
What we know about God determines what we do for God. Theology fills our minds and hearts and spills out through our hands and feet. It fuels our work and our worship. Theology informs us of what to do and how to do it.
Theology is only as good as it is practical.
4. To Know God
Systematic theology professor Keith A. Mathison explains, “Love of God and knowledge of God go hand in hand.” He goes on to illustrate. When two people begin to fall in love, the next step after their initial attraction is to know more about each other. “Tell me about yourself,” they will say. They crave knowledge about each other, obviously not as some cold intellectual pursuit. The goal is to deepen the relationship. They want to know more about each other in order to know each other more.
When study theology, we are asking God to tell us about himself. We are seeking to know his story, his personality, his like and dislikes. In fact, we are asking what God thinks of us. This is no cold academic study, though it does often risk that danger. The goal is to deepen the relationship. Theology is the pursuit of knowledge about God with the purpose of knowledge of God.
In his classic work Knowing God, J.I. Packer states the purpose of theology plainly:
We must seek, in studying God, to be led to God. It was for this purpose that revelation was given, and it is to this use that we must put it.”
Theology is only as good as it is personal.
So how do we as Christians go about being theologians? Obviously, not everyone can enroll in a nearby seminary and get a degree. Besides, that is not what makes a theologian. Theology is simply those who want to know God seeking to know about God. So, how do we do this? Here are a few suggestions.
Tune in to the theology around you. When listening to sermons at church, Sunday school or small group lessons, and so on, don’t just look for personal application; look for the theological information. Take note of the theological terms and concepts that pastors and teachers use. Pick up on the theological substance of the worship music you hear at church and on your own. As you read your Bible, do not only ask, “What is God saying to me?” Also ask, “What is God saying about himself?”
This is the Christian discipline of meditation. In his classic work Knowing God, J.I. Packer wrote that meditation is “a matter of talking to oneself about God and oneself.” In other words, “we turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to pray and praise to God.” (emphasis his) This is how knowledge about God is turned into knowledge of God. When you discover some theological truth about God, rehearse it, rehash it, Selah it.
No one expects you to have vocabulary filled with theological jargon, or parse ancient documents, or trace historical developments. God has gifted the church with brilliant scholars to do the intellectual heavy lifting for the rest of us. That said, we would do well to collect some of the resources they have given us. Pick up a good systematic theology book. Ask your pastor for recommendations. A solid theological dictionary is always a good investment as well. (Baker Books makes a great one.)
In the end, Christians should want to know more about God because they want to know God more. Every Christian should be a theologian. As R.C. Sproul wrote:
No Christian can avoid theology. Every Christian is a theologian. Perhaps not a theologian in the technical or professional sense, but a theologian nevertheless. The issue for Christians is not whether we are going to be theologians but whether we are going to be good theologians or bad ones.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Zondervan, Kindle Edition), Kindle location 598.
 Grudem, Kindle locations 603-606.
 Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Erdmans, 2003), p. 5.
 J.I. Packer, Knowing God (InterVarsity Press, 2007), p. 23.
 Packer, p. 23.
 R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (InterVarsity Press, 2007), p. 22.
Thanks for reading!
What advice would you give to someone interested in studying theology?
What resources would you recommend?
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