Philipp Spener wrote in his Pia Desideria (1675), “Students should unceasingly have it impressed upon them that holy life is not of less consequence than diligence and study, indeed that study without piety is worthless.” “Piety” may sound stuffy to 21st century ears but Spener means a devotion to God that issues forth in a holy life characterized by worship in all aspects. Spener’s point is grounded in the same argument as Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 8: so-called knowledge of God, apart from the holiness of a worshipful life, “puffs up.” On the other hand, if we love God, we are known by him, which results in the building up of ourselves and those around us.
As seminary students, my classmates and I are self-consciously engaged in theological studies on a regular basis. Whatever else Christian theology may be, it must be doxology. Theology rightly begins with doxology, is characteristically doxological and has doxology as its end.
Thomas F. Torrance entitled the first chapter of his exposition of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed “Faith and Godliness.” He argued that, in any sort of study, the object of inquiry ought to determine the method of inquiry. Since “God can only be apprehended through himself” (Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate), faith and godliness must characterize any approach to the cultivation of knowledge of God. God addresses humanity in the self-revelation of his Word. To do Christian theology is to hear and respond to God's revelation by the power of the Spirit, speaking words about the Word after him. Christian theology is taught by God and normed and formed by the Word. Likewise, Christian theologians must be normed and formed by that same Word. By absolute necessity, then, Christian theology is doxological. It is rooted in worship, and it is characteristically worshipful. It should not surprise us that Paul occasionally bursts forth in praise in the midst of his letters to the churches, as in Romans 11:33-36. He is communicating what he has learned about God. This revelation from God to Paul issues forth in more worship as he reflects upon this knowledge and passes it on.
This understanding of theology ought to control how we go about it. If theology is doxology, our studies must be characterized by humility and prayer. We are studying to know the one who alone can teach us about himself and is worthy of all honor and praise. He has created us as whole beings—physical, rational, emotional, spiritual—and his address comes to us as whole beings. He has given us rationality, and it honors him when we use that gift well. It is good to study diligently: to read doctrinal works, to practice parsing Greek and Hebrew, to write exegetical papers and to study preaching. Our study, though, must always be joined to piety, rooted in a life of faith and godliness because God can only be known truly through God himself. We can philosophize and make conjectures about God apart from his Word and Spirit, but that is not to know God personally, and the knowledge we acquire in that manner will not be powerful to effect healing, reconciliation and salvation. As God graciously condescends to us, let us look to him with eyes of faith and willing hearts cultivated by daily habits and a manner of life that is concerned first with his glory.
Eternal life is to know the God who has revealed himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (John 17:3). When we know him truly, worship springs forth out of our mouths and out of our lives insofar as we “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to the Father through him” (Col 3:17).
Emily Hall is currently an M.Div. student at Beeson Divinity School.