“Are you the finished product?” Surely no one reading this post will answer the question with a “Yes.” Most of us will answer with both a snort of laughter at the very thought and a shiver of shame as our conscience reminds us of how far we are from what Jesus was and what we will one day be in glory. All pastors – as Christians first – are surely agreed on that.
If so, then how about a second question: “What theological topic have you changed your mind about over the past few years?”
If you recently left seminary, you will probably be able to think of several topics on which you have come to think differently. Perhaps you began your studies thinking that God changes, but as you studied Isaiah and learned more about the attributes of the uncreated creator God you came to understand that he is in fact wonderfully unchanging, not only in his purposes but also in his being.
Among those who left seminary five or more years ago the answers are usually much more mixed. Those who have kept reading beyond the commentaries for next week’s preaching will likely find that their thinking has continued to change under the word of God. Those who have been limited to commentaries are unlikely to have experienced the kind of significant theological growth that happens when we step back from individual passages. Sometimes the local study of an individual passage can change what we think, but more often such change occurs as we ponder the implications of what Scripture teaches as a whole, as the single, coherent, self-interpreting voice of the Spirit of God. If you cannot think of topics on which your thinking has changed then that may well be because you have neglected this kind of wider theological work.
It is easy to neglect wider theological study. We all do it – and sometimes rightly – for seasons. Even those of us employed full- or part-time to be teachers of theology have months when we neglect to study because we are overwhelmed by teaching, marking, and administration, even when time for such study is written into our contracts.
We may sympathize with ourselves and one another, but if not studying beyond preparation has become a habit, then the chances are that our theology is stagnating, and that we are in danger. The question “What theological topic have you changed your mind about over the past few years?” is really just a theological version of the broader “Are you the finished product?” Like that question, it exposes whether or not we think that we have already arrived, whether we claim to hold to the theology that Jesus held and that we will hold in glory.
Can we really have already arrived at the final state of our theology, fully formed and in need of no repentance or reformation? If we think we have, then we are claiming that the flesh – still in us and still implacably opposed to the Spirit – has been rendered impotent in our theological thinking. Why would we think our theology is perfected when we would never say “I am the finished product” in any other area of our lives? “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
Garry Williams is director of the Pastors’ Academy at London Seminary. This post first appeared on the Pastors’ Academy blog. The Pastors’ Academy exists to help pastors on the journey of theological repentance and reformation. It offers a range of activities to help you get (re-)started with study beyond the next sermon, including study hours, days, projects, and a ThM degree. BibleMesh Institute certificate tracks allow you to expand your knowledge of Scripture within a timeframe that suits your schedule.