Archive for May 4th, 2011

An earnest young university student sat across the desk from me (Roger), sputtering protests against my critical evaluation of his theology essay. “I worked hard on this and studied the Bible in more detail on this subject than anyone has! In fact, I’ve been studying what the Bible says about this for several years–ever since an evangelist preached on it at camp when I was in high school. How can you cut down my paper like this?”

I had given him a passing grade–but not the one he had hoped for and expected. While I keenly felt his disappointment and sympathized with him, I could not help feeling frustrated at his lack of understanding of theology at the end of two semesters in my courses.

The student, like many Christians, believed that all theology consists of (or should consist of) is detailed study of the Bible, comparing and contrasting passages in a sort of commonsense way. His paper was a twenty-page magnum opus on his favorite subject–the apostle Paul’s understanding of human nature. Terms like body, soul, spirit, heart and flesh were his bread and butter. But unfortunately he had consciously rejected my pleas and urgings to study these terms using commentaries, books of word studies that would explain the subtle nuances of their meanings in the original languages, and sources that would elucidate the cultural and religious background against which Paul used these terms. Instead the student had simply relied on individual intuition as he read the English translation his home church favored. He was almost totally unaware of the deeply ingrained presuppositions that he brought to the texts as he studied them, and he rejected any notion that these terms might not mean what they seemed on the surface to mean–to him.

Frankly, the paper was a mess. Ignoring hundreds of years of careful study of Paul’s theology, it attempted to jump directly over all of that right back into Paul’s head (or the Holy Spirit’s mind!), using intuition and a poor English translation of Paul’s Greek writings. The result was an account of Paul’s anthropology that was nearly completely wrong. Like many who attempt to interpret Paul’s terms without any scholarly help, the student equated “body” and “flesh” and thus ended up with an anthropology nearly identical to that of Paul’s opponents in the early church!

Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God by Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson. Pp. 22-23.

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