Will Studying Theology Undermine My Faith?
Earlier this year I graduated from King’s College London with a First Class Honours degree in undergraduate Theology. Three years earlier I had been afforded the usual Evangelical warnings about the perils of academic religious studies: would my faith survive? Despite the forewarnings and a good Christian grounding (Christian upbringing, overseas-mission-work, F.P. training, Church admin work…you know the drill) I must confess that studying Theology was the biggest trial my faith has encountered so far. And yet, I am about to embark on an MPhil in Theology at Cambridge University, paid in full by a scholarship.
Theology imbued doubt. Surprisingly, for me it wasn’t the content of the course, but rather the mindset that one is trained in when tackling this content that I was unprepared for. A mindset of continually questioning, undermining, doubting, and sad to say I didn’t recognise that I had adopted this beyond the lecture room. I found church difficult, perpetually questioning the lyrics of worship songs: ‘I found a love greater than life itself’ was followed by ‘Did I find this love?’ and so it went on, like an outsider looking in.
By the end of the first year I had printed out the Nicene Creed and pinned it above my computer. I clung to the truth encapsulated in those words by reciting them and praying along with Mark 9 ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief’ while I suspended my judgment on other issues. It was refreshing to hear Archbishop Justin Welby announce, in an interview this September that even he had occasional doubts regarding his faith. That he too had clung to Scriptural truths, quoting Psalm 88. And, as this usual reassurance goes, ‘doubt isn’t wrong’ [cf. Keller, Counterfeit Gods…] yet where, I came to realise, the stress needs to lie in such a saying is ‘but resting in its shallows can be’.
It was interesting to me then what Sir Francis Bacon realised, that a little of religious study perplexed, undermined and could even lead to atheism (vis-à-vis the censory Theology warning), but depth into the subject could prove to be the light at the end of the tunnel. I certainly found this. In an ironic way, I realised we mustn’t shy away from questioning and challenging presuppositions about personal faith; on the contrary, we must fully engage and study hard. The Christian studying theology should be prepared to study harder than the non-Christian; we shouldn’t simply absorb the lecturers’ teaching as correct, but go beyond the handouts, the recommended reading. The shallows can be dangerous, where we wallow, believing something without knowing why and then, when challenge comes, finding ourselves unable to answer. Instead I’m resolved that the Christian must study theology; to know fully why they believe what they believe - to go into its depths.
At a time when I was really battling with an essay on the historical accuracy of Jesus in the Gospels, I had a dream in which I was praying to God about the essay and felt Him say I had to trust the following three things:
1. That Jesus was God’s Son
2. That Jesus died and rose again
3. That God was sovereign over the collation of inspired Scripture
From that point on I resolved to trust God foremost, to trust my experience of God and not just knowledge about Him. Within that year I had another dream, after praying about continuing to study theology as a postgraduate, where I was told not to worry about funding because God would provide. Welby concluded in his September interview that, ‘The extraordinary thing about being a Christian is that God is faithful even when we’re not,’ and that was certainly proved true for me. By the end of the third year I found out that I had got onto the MPhil programme at Cambridge, but more than that, I had been chosen for the Isaac Newton Scholarship, a general Cambridge scholarship awarded across the university, which I hadn’t applied for, and which would cover not only tuition, but accommodation and living expenses too.
So where am I now?
For the past two summers I’ve been working in Tyndale House, a biblical research facility in Cambridge, where I am fully plugged into a church, on a unique initiative which pairs evangelical Christian students with established scholars to conduct groundbreaking research on a collection of biblical texts and artefacts.
The 5-7CE manuscript I’ve been working on, Codex Climaci Rescriptus has three levels of writing on vellum. Written first in Koine Greek (where I come in), or in Palestinian Aramaic (Jesus’ vernacular) on top of these older writings is Syriac text. To be able to read the Greek underwriting, previously scrubbed off for reusing, both high-resolution images and multi-spectral images were taken. My role was to edit these images (to try and actually see the Greek!) before transcribing and translating the text. The content contained both Gospel narratives and Old Testament passages, although there were various omissions in these accounts (e.g. Judas, the woman caught in adultery). Yet the most ground-breaking discovery was several folios containing astrological works by Aratus (quoted by Paul in Acts 17:28) and Eratosthenes (supposedly the inventor of geography, and the first person to accurately calculate the circumference of the Earth) which predates any other extant manuscripts by several hundred years.
Since graduating I’ve also been afforded the opportunity of working in Oxford, through another programme, LOGOS. These fantastic exposures left me somewhat childlike, saying to myself, ‘I want to be a papyrologist!’
Studying Theology has been a journey, and I’m only really at the beginning, but God has been so faithful. Going further with my studies, then, my interest is to really pursue manuscript studies, working both with Greek and Coptic texts, in the hope that this will help me understand better the compilation of the Scriptures, because I have discovered that depth in theology is important, and God is both faithful and sovereign.