Shortcut to Theology: One Book Before Seminary
Sometimes science fiction becomes science. Jules Verne had an uncanny sense of what would be possible. He wrote, for example, stories about submarines diving 20,000 leagues under the sea, and voyages from the earth to the moon well before the technology ever materialized in reality. I sincerely hope the Wachowski brothers had the same prescience for science when they envisioned humans being able to download knowledge directly into their brains in The Matrix.
Instructions on how to jump-start a motorcycle or pilot a helicopter take only seconds to master, in their sci-fi world. Of course, everyone’s favorite scene is where the protagonist played by a slightly less goofy than usual Keanu Reeves plugs into the computer and emerged with a bemused, “I know kung-fu.”
Seminary is the theological equivalent of plugging into an unreal environment for a limited time, to download into your brain whatever knowledge can retain after an unbroken three years of ingesting an information superhighway. Perhaps in the future seminary will last three minutes, and have better retention. But for now the vocab flashcards, the classes, papers, assignments, and seminars is the only way to pound knowledge into our meaty heads. And then, of course, there is the reading.
Our apologetics class alone had 3,000 pages of reading in one semester. This was the most intimidating reading challenge of the whole seminary curriculum, but it was by no means stand-alone in its workload. In the three consecutive semesters of OT and NT overview it was required to read the Bible through three times, and theology classes covered every word of a 3,000 page systematic theology textbook. In NT introduction we had to read and memorize over a hundred pages verbatim for weekly quizes. All that to say, it would have been nifty to plug that stuff straight into the brain.
I don’t get asked about infralapsarianism frequently enough to have a pat answer. But I can get to the page it’s covered in under 60 seconds.
So, if you are an aspiring seminoid, and want to get ahead, what should you read in the meantime?
I would suggest that you get Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (not the condensed version, but the 3,000+ page edition). Start on page one, and read a section of a chapter each day. The object of the exercise is not to memorize the arguments, references, and verses associated with every doctrine. The goal is to get a grasp of the ordered nature of systematic theology, and to know where to look up theological answers when you have questions.
Of course this book has sections here and there that are inadequate (it is a book about God, after all), but it will stand anyone in a good stead, set up a helpful theological framework, and hopefully prevent you from become a cult leader. Cults start when people build theology off a handful of verses.
True theology is the ability to keep in your mind everything the Bible says about every topic, while discussing any one topic.
Grudem’s is the best tool I’ve used to help in this endeavor. I also like that he includes a hymn and a prayer that is on the topic he discusses in each chapter. This serves as a fantastic reminder that we are not learning for the sake of knowledge (which inevitably puffs up), but to know and undersand a little more about an infinite God who loves us.
Real theology always leads to worship. And I doubt there will ever be a shortcut to that end!