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Can You Study Theology and Forget Jesus?

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I heard an Orthodox Bishop make an interesting confession.

Hilarion Alfeyev is a world-renown scholar with two doctoral degrees in theology, including one from Oxford, the author of numerous theology books (several of which I own and enjoy), and also a talented classical composer.

But after a long career in the church and the academy, Alfeyev realized he had never studied the life of Christ—not directly—and he wanted to fill in the gap:

“For many years, I studied Greek and Syriac patristic theology. If I approached Jesus in my writings, I did it almost exclusively from the perspective of traditional patristic Christology. The vast field of New Testament studies was largely left aside by me. Nor did I have any chance to examine the historical aspect of Jesus' life and teaching, being concentrated almost exclusively on the theological interpretation of the gospels” (see here, 3:04).

In other words, while Alfeyev had studied a great deal of theology about Jesus, he hadn’t studied Jesus Himself. Though he had examined Jesus through the lens of what ancient writers had said, he had not studied what Jesus Himself said in the Gospels.

And I immediately thought, “Isn’t that a danger for anyone, including me?”

Whatever tradition you belong to and whatever church you attend, you can get so wrapped up in your favorite theories, preachers, and theological hobby horses, that somehow, without realizing it and without intending to, you can miss out on Jesus.

Even if you love the Bible, you can get so focused on this book or that—e.g., the creation story, the apocalyptic prophets, arguments for God's existence, or the Pauline revelation—that you somehow, never focus your attention on Christ.

I think that’s also a danger in circles that emphasize God’s grace.

Frankly, I think that many people don’t believe in salvation by grace because, like Alfeyev, they have not studied what Jesus said, especially in John’s Gospel.

But I’ve seen the idea of God’s grace take on a life of its own, quite apart from what the Lord taught, and developed into conclusions I’m sure He never intended because people have not studied what Jesus said. They like the idea of grace—but not as Jesus taught it.

To paraphrase Bruce Lee (yes, that one!), theology is like a finger pointing away to the moon. “Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

Thought for the day: Beware of any theology that has one finger pointed to Jesus, and three fingers pointed to itself. 

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