Thinking about studying Theology at Uni? (2)

Continuing from my first post on choosing a university Theology course I’ve had some more thoughts on choosing a university course as a Christian student.

Theology or Religious Studies?

In my previous post I outlined some of the differences between a course focused on Theology and one focused on Religious Studies (or between modules with these respective approaches). I’d like to make a case for why Christian students should strongly consider choosing Theology-focused course over a Religious Studies course. I do this as someone who actually finds Religious Studies options sometimes quite attractive because they feel “safer” than doing Theology because it does not put my own beliefs under scrutiny or call for me to make a choice or moral judgement in the same way as Theology does. My assumption is that Christian students want to study Theology to serve the church in its broadest sense (not necessarily by becoming a minister, but with the intention of being equipped to think theologically, understand and explain and apply the Bible better, and deal with questions of doctrine and practise from more than a merely practical level… all in a way which builds up, corrects and encourages the Church in her mission). Because of this, there are several reasons why studying Theology may be preferable to Religious Studies:

  1. The church needs people who are familiar with the Christian Scriptures; who know them and have spent time coming to a deep understanding of them. The church needs people with a historical awareness of those who were in Christ before us; who can learn from their faithfulness and from their failures. The church needs people with a deep understanding of Christian doctrine and who can handle disagreements faithfully, fairly and sensitively. Theology is going to help you to begin to study these things and develop the necessary attitudes and depths of knowledge to do this for the church – Religious Studies is not.
  2. In terms of mission and evangelism, Religious Studies is often said to be a useful thing to study so as to be able to speak about the gospel to Muslims, Jews, Hindus etc. I would question this – not that it isn’t true that an understanding of someone else’s faith can help us to communicate the gospel, but rather that the best preparation for mission and evangelism is to know the Christian gospel really well. As John Piper says in another connexion:

    If you want to be relevant, say, for prostitutes, don’t watch a movie with a lot of tumbles in a brothel. Immerse yourself in the gospel, which is tailor-made for prostitutes; then watch Jesus deal with them in the Bible; then go find a prostitute and talk to her. If you want to be relevant, say, for prostitutes, don’t watch a movie with a lot of tumbles in a brothel. Immerse yourself in the gospel, which is tailor-made for prostitutes; then watch Jesus deal with them in the Bible; then go find a prostitute and talk to her.

    Theological study can better equip you to do mission by growing your understanding of the gospel.

  3. Linked with this, I would argue that the most helpful and most insightful Christian studies of other religions are done by those who deeply understand their own Christian faith. Studying Religious Studies before getting a sufficient grounding in Theology might reduce your ability to do Religious Studies effectively in a way that might be helpful to the church.
  4. Finally, there is a reason why the discipline of Religious Studies did not really exist before the Enlightenment… it grows out of an approach to reality which Christians really ought to critique. So while it might seem easier than doing a Theology module with a lecturer from a different Christian tradition, you might end up disagreeing with the Religious Studies approach from a much more foundational level!
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