The fourth interview in this Experiential Theology series is with Ray Ortlund, pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Ray previously served on the Old Testament faculty of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside of Chicago for nine years, and has pastored churches in California, Oregon, and Georgia. Ray participated in The New Living Translation and the English Standard Version of the Bible, and contributed the introduction and study notes to the book of Isaiah in The ESV Study Bible. He also serves on the Council of The Gospel Coalition. You should be reading Ray's blog, Christ is Deeper Still. But first, check out this interview with our brother where he shares his thoughts on the value and goal of theology.
Why does theology matter?
Theology matters because God matters. Theology, done properly, is the Bible prompting us to articulate our vision of God. The less articulate we are, we power down. The more articulate, the clearer, the more biblical, we power up and are enabled to live in new ways that show God really matters.
Theology matters because community matters. Theology connects us to one another through shared discourse and agreed upon categories. Ultimately, what unifies us is not a shared experience but shared beliefs.
Theology matters because mission matters. When living for Christ gets tough and even friends may fall away, our theological convictions remain close friends. They keep us going when truth is the only power left for missionality to stay alive.
What is the central task of the theologian?
To love the Triune God wholeheartedly, according to the Bible. Nothing complicates theology like academic detachment or worldly self-display or career ambition. Central to everything else about a theologian is a tender heart toward God, reverent toward the Scriptures.
How would you respond to those who say, “I’m not a theologian”?
I’d start out pretty nice: “Okay. God has called you to be a musician. Great.” Then I’d show my true colors: “But you cannot be the musician God wants you to be without going deeper than that. You need to think biblically about who God is, who you are, what’s gone wrong, what God has done about it through Christ, and where it’s all going. That’s theology. It changes how you see everything. So unless you want to be a shallow musician, you need to become a theologian/musician. And you can be.”
What advice would you give to the average Christian who loves Jesus and the church, but needs to grow theologically?
Here’s one way to jump in. Pull some friends together, everybody buy a copy of Driscoll and Breshears, Doctrine, and work through it together. Check out the small group suggestions on pages 437-450. Read it slowly. Embrace the difficulty. Look up every word you don’t understand. Mark up your copy with questions and highlights. Get mad if you have to. But pray to God for clarity, and he’ll give it. As you read, keep checking it against the Bible, examine what your friends say too, and don’t let go until you really know what you believe. You will never be the same again.
We know heretics are bad theologians, but can one be a bad Reformed theologian? How?
Our minds were created to admire grandeur and coherence and challenge. Reformed theology provides all that, plus more. So we like it. But given our wickedness, the very excellence of Reformed theology can make us weird. We can admire our theology of God rather than God, because the theology itself really is gorgeous – but only as a dim reflection of the One described there.
Worse yet, we can admire ourselves for being so smart: “We get it, we’re Reformed, we’re not like those Arminian idiots over there in that other group.” God hates pride. All pride. Reformed pride.
Final thought. Through the years I have learned a lesson: Everything man-made will let us down. Everything, eventually. Even theological systems. Only Jesus will never let us down. We appreciate Reformed theology. But let’s put our final trust here: the risen Lord Jesus Christ himself, our dear Friend, the only Savior of sinners.