Please Study Theology


“Study Theology? Why in the world would you want to spend years of your life, and a great deal of energy and money, to study theology? What a waste of time!” “A philosophy degree? What, do you want to have a minimum wage salary for the rest of your life?” These, and many similar comments have been heard by college students heading into philosophy or theology programs, or by students entering a theology program at seminary. “You won’t be able to support a family with that type of degree.” “What are you going to do with that type of degree?” Practical concerns often motivate such comments, as the concerned party seeks to indicate the uselessness of degrees in philosophy, theology, or the liberal arts in general. It would appear, according to the received wisdom of generations upon generations of humans, that studying philosophy, theology, and the liberal arts, is not simply impractical, it is downright good for nothing. As young scholars around our nation are graduating from a variety of programs dedicated to the study of these subjects, as our students at Bethlehem College and Seminary graduate, I would like to take a few moments to consider the question, “Why should I study Theology, Philosophy, and the Liberal Arts?” In fact, I intend to make the following appeal, to a nation which is largely turned to the “practical”: Please, for you own sake, for the sake of your communities, for the sake of the Church, for the sake of the nations, for the sake of mankind, and for the glory of God, study philosophy, theology, and the Liberal Arts. If you can’t (even though you should), send someone else to engage in these studies. “Why?” you ask. Read on.

First of all, the study of philosophy and theology, though it may be of “practical” use, is, by far, the most valuable and important activity that any human can engage in. In book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle suggests that the happy life is found, first and foremost, in the highest and most excellent activity of man, which is the contemplation of the truth; and, secondarily, in a life of practical virtue.[1] That which is contemplated, by the happy and wise man, according to Aristotle, are the first principles and causes of all things.[2] This truth which wise men desire to contemplate is the science of divine things and is thought to be primarily of God and possessed by God.[3] Aristotle calls this science of the first principles and causes of all things first philosophy, the divine science, or theology. It would seem, then, that the highest and most excellent activity of man, according to Aristotle, is to contemplate God. We begin pursuing this knowledge when “wonder” or “awe” awakens us to the divine,[4] but why do we seek this knowledge? Aristotle explains that we seek to contemplate God, for no other reason than to know Him.[5] To know God is an end in itself. We do not contemplate God for practical purposes—to be better humans, to run our families, churches, or states better, or to learn how to do some art with greater ability. The contemplation of God is not for “practical” concerns—it will not make you a better farmer, mechanic, or heart surgeon. We contemplate God, according to Aristotle, not because of its practical utility, but, rather, because it is the highest and happiest activity of man—an activity which is an end in itself, valuable in itself, desirable in itself. There is no more worthwhile activity that a human can engage in, than to contemplate God. As the Westminster Catechism, q. 1, so succinctly says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” Of course the study of philosophy and theology is of no practical utility! We study these subjects for no other reason than to know God. We don’t study these subjects for practical concerns. Rather, practical activities (such as work) are engaged in so that we can have the leisure to study these subjects. This is man’s ultimate end; this is happiness; this is man’s highest and most excellent activity—to know God.

Of course, for many this will not be a sufficient reason to study philosophy, theology, and the liberal arts. Consider, then, the reasons provided by Philip Melanchthon in two orations presented at the conferring of degrees to the students of the University of Wittenberg. The first in relation to philosophy, the second in relation to theology. In 1536, Philip Melanchthon presented an oration at the conferring of Master’s degrees to the students of the University of Wittenberg. The title of this oration was, quite simply, “On Philosophy.” In this oration, Melanchthon begins by noting that the reason why we should zealously study the Liberal Arts, and specifically philosophy, is to support and honour the church.[6] He saw these studies as even more urgent in light of the perilous times in which he lived—our times are no less perilous. He notes that ignorance of the Liberal Arts risks undermining not only our churches, but society at large. He says that the Liberal Arts must be encouraged in the church, when we consider “how much darkness and ignorance overwhelms religion, and how much devastation, what fearful destruction of churches, and how much savageness and confusion of the entire human race it brings about.”[7] Our churches, and indeed our civil magistrates, must ensure that our schools teach, and teach well, the Liberal Arts, says Melanchthon, for the sake of right religion and a civil society.

Melanchthon goes on to list four reasons why the churches should encourage the proper teaching of Philosophy and the Liberal Arts in the Colleges and Universities. These same points can be given as answers to the question “Why should I study philosophy and the Liberal Arts?” The 4 reasons are:

  • A great deal of knowledge is needed in order to do theology well, more than simply accurate knowledge of grammar and languages. Philosophy and the Liberal Arts provide us with that knowledge.[8]
  • Philosophy is necessary for learning both proper method and “style of discourse.”[9] We might wonder why this is so important, and Melanchthon gives us the answer: we need to learn both proper method and style so that we can learn to rightly articulate and defend the truths of theology.
  • Philosophy is necessary for learning to write discourses and orations well.[10] To speak well, we must understand human nature: what motivates humans to act, why we feel emotions or desires, what the will is and how it is moved, and so on.[11] Indeed, says Melanchthon, “he acts insolently who professes himself a dialectician if he is ignorant of those distinctions between causes that are only taught in natural philosophy and can only be understood by natural philosophers.”[12] To speak well and convince our interlocutors of the truth, we must understand a wide variety of things that are properly learned in the study of Philosophy and the Liberal Arts.
  • The study of Moral philosophy and Natural Philosophy make it easier to do Theology. There are many parts of Theology which are similar to, or which address the same questions as, that of Philosophy. As such, the study of Philosophy helps us to be better theologians. Melanchthon notes that “one who lacks a knowledge of natural philosophy practises moral philosophy like a lame man holding a ball.”[13]

Noting that philosophy and theology are separate, and not to be mingled,[14] Melanchthon insists that they must both be studied and that the study of philosophy is necessary for theology.[15] In light of Melanchthon’s arguments: Please study Philosophy and the Liberal Arts.

We could almost summarize Melanchthon’s reasons for studying Philosophy and the Liberal Arts, from his oration “On Philosophy,” by saying, “Study Philosophy and the Liberal Arts for the sake of doing theology well.” This points us to a second oration, titled “On the Merit of Studying Theology,” delivered at the graduation of Peter Palladius in 1537. In this oration, Melanchthon begins by noting that though the study of theology should be considered the highest and most important activity that a person could engage in, it has fallen upon hard times:[16] Even believers are more often moved by the things and opinions of this world than by the Word of God;[17] the ministry of the Word is difficult, despised, and often poorly remunerated;[18] and too many believers think that the study of theology is pointless, as, “this kind of teaching can be understood without teachers.”[19] Why, in the face of such difficulties, would anyone want to study theology? Melanchthon points us to the Scriptures, to remind us of the value of the ministry of the Word, and, specifically, of the training one should obtain in order to rightly divide the Word of God.

First of all, suggests Melanchthon, the Scriptures place the highest value possible on the preaching of the Gospel. He points us to the teaching of Paul and of Christ, noting that Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ (Rom. 1:16).” Christ, notes Melanchthon, said that the ministry of the Word was the highest form of worship (Jn. 15:8), and Paul described those who preach the Gospel as beautiful bringers of peace.[20] This office is a sacrifice which is pleasing to God, and, indeed, “we should realise that this worship in particular is required from us, and that it is an office most pleasing to God.”[21] The preaching of the Word of God may be of great significance, but why, we might ask, do we need to study theology? Melanchthon’s answer is both practical and based upon some interesting observations from the Scriptures. He notes that the purpose of studying theology in the schools is to protect and preserve the teaching ministry in the Churches,[22] saying,

“Christ gives the Church ministers, prophets and teachers, He wants the Church to be established and taught by them, and He wants those who are to be placed in authority over the Church to be prepared, and He does not want men who are utterly unlearned to be put in authority, or inexperienced men who consider themselves self-taught (autodidacktoi) and invent beliefs from themselves, without any spiritual practice.”[23]

Note the 4 points that Melanchthon raises here:

  • Christ gives to the church pastors, prophets, and teachers. This is clearly taught in the Scriptures, in Acts 6:1-2, 13:1-3, 14:21-23, and 20:28, 1 Corinthians 12:27, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, and 1 Peter 4:10-11.
  • It is the specific will of Christ that his Church be taught by the prophets and teachers which he established in the Church. One thinks, for example, of Acts 6:1-2, 1 Timothy 4:6-16, 5:17-18, 2 Timothy 4:1-5, and Titus 1:9, among others.
  • It is Christ’s desire that those who are set aside for the office of teaching and preaching the Word of God be trained and prepared for this ministry. This is found in Scripture, both implicitly and explicitly stated, both by precedent and in teaching. For example, all twelve apostles were taught directly by Jesus during his time on earth. Their credentials are unquestionable and of the highest esteem. Paul himself was trained, not only as a Pharisee (and, according to his own humble testimony, one of the greatest Pharisees of his time), he received training directly from Christ (Gal. 1:12, 16-17) and when it was compared with that of the Apostles, it was found to be lacking in nothing (Gal. 1:18-24). Paul himself trained Silas and Timothy. Aquila and Priscilla trained Apollos. We also see Paul telling Timothy to pass on what he had received from Paul to faithful men who would do the same (2 Tim. 2:2).
  • Finally, suggests Melanchthon, Christ does not want novices or untrained men to be put into leadership. This is also based upon the Scriptures, for Paul says, in 1 Timothy 3:6, that the elder “must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” Indeed, James notes that “not many among you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (Jam. 3:1).” It is worth noting that Melanchthon expressly rejects the idea that a “self-taught” man should be put in leadership. The dangers associated with being “self-taught” might not seem immediately obvious. A self-taught person has received no direction concerning what is to be approved or rejected and why. Without direction, they are like a city person wandering in the forest, looking for animal tracks. They may never see anything, because they don’t know what they are looking for, and may actually put themselves in danger by accident. It is even worse if they are “leading others”.

In light of the fact that the ministers of the Word of God are given the responsibility of leading their local churches, and that their teaching has the power to lead many into error or sin, it is of the highest importance that our ministers study, and study deeply, Theology. In light of the importance of the ministry of the Gospel for salvation and a God-honouring Christian life, says Melanchthon, we must see “to it that those who are to undertake the Church ministry be honestly instructed, and that neither the uneducated nor [sic] the self-educated (autodidactoi) be received.”[24] It is for the sake of our own spiritual lives and the life of our churches that we must ensure that our pastors and preachers are properly educated and trained.

In an unexpected twist, Melanchthon turns to the civil magistrate, and suggests that as the Church must safe-guard its schools, so the Civil Magistrate is responsible, before God, for ensuring that such schools continue to exist and that true religion is taught in them.[25] In fact, suggests Melanchthon, God will protect and bless those who support and actively protect such schools and the professors who are employed to teach within them.[26] We follow Melanchthon, then, and appeal to you: Please study Theology.

These thoughts bring us, in our conclusion, back to Melanchthon’s oration “On Philosophy,” from which we will make our final appeal. Melanchthon concludes this oration by encouraging his students—those graduating and those still studying—to realize that their studies are not simply “a good in themselves” (they are, as we have seen), but they are also beneficial for Church, State, and Society at large.[27] We should take great pleasure in the unity and peaceful flourishing of the Church, the State, and Society, and be tormented by disunity in Church and State.[28] The right study of true Philosophy, Theology, and the Liberal Arts tends to produce the unity and peaceful flourishing, of family, church, and state, that we so desire. In pursuing these ends, we love ourselves, our neighbours, and we glorify God. As such, I appeal to you: Please study Philosophy, Theology, and the Liberal Arts.

Prayer Requests:

  1. Pray that we each would glorify God in our lifelong learning.
  2. Pray for the full funding of the Serious Joy Scholarships yet to be subscribed before June 30.
  3. Pray for our seminary students currently on missions trips.
  4. Pray for our students and faculty as they launch into summer rest and projects.









[1]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X, 7-8, 1177a11-1179a32.

[2]Aristotle, Metaphysics, I (A), 2, 982a4-982b10.

[3]Aristotle, Metaphysics, I (A), 2, 983a1-23.

[4]Aristotle, Metaphysics, I (A), 2, 982b10-24.

[5]Aristotle, Metaphysics, I (A), 2, 982b23-983a11.

[6]Philip Melanchthon, “On Philosophy,” in Philip Melanchthon, Orations on Philosophy and Education, trans. Christine F. Salazar, ed. Sachiko Kusukawa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 126.

[7]Melanchthon, “On Philosophy,” 127. Note this statement as well, “I ask you to listen to me diligently because of your humanity, and to be warned not only to flee the foolish judgements of those who do not believe that the Church needs liberal education at all, just as the companions of Ulysses sailed past the Sirens with their ears plugged [Odyssey XII. 158ff], but also to execrate those people themselves like the most loathesome pests and fearful monsters (Melanchthon, “On Philosophy,” 127).” This should make us think of Davenant’s warning, in his Commentary on Colossians 2:8, against those who would explode philosophy from the Church, and thus leave her without defense against her enemies.

[8]Melanchthon, “On Philosophy,” 128.

[9]Melanchthon, “On Philosophy,” 128.

[10]Melanchthon, “On Philosophy,” 128.

[11]Melanchthon, “On Philosophy,” 129.

[12]Melanchthon, “On Philosophy,” 129.

[13]Melanchthon, “On Philosophy,” 129.

[14]Melanchthon, “On Philosophy,” 129.

[15]Melanchthon, “On Philosophy,” 129. The next question worth asking, of course, is which philosophers should we follow? Melanchthon’s answer is simple and straightforward: Aristotle. “Therefore I said that one kind of philosophy has to be chosen which has as little as possible of sophistry and which preserves the true method; the teaching of Aristotle is of that kind (Melanchthon, “On Philosophy,” 130).”

[16]Philip Melanchthon, “On the Merit of Studying Theology,” in Philip Melanchthon, Orations on Philosophy and Education, trans. Christine F. Salazar, ed. Sachiko Kusukawa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 182.

[17]Melanchthon, “On the Merit of Studying Theology,” 183.

[18]Melanchthon, “On the Merit of Studying Theology,” 183.

[19]Melanchthon, “On the Merit of Studying Theology,” 183.

[20]Melanchthon, “On the Merit of Studying Theology,” 183.

[21]Melanchthon, “On the Merit of Studying Theology,” 183-4.

[22]Melanchthon, “On the Merit of Studying Theology,” 184.

[23]Melanchthon, “On the Merit of Studying Theology,” 184.

[24]Melanchthon, “On the Merit of Studying Theology,” 185.

[25]Melanchthon, “On the Merit of Studying Theology,” 186.

[26]Melanchthon, “On the Merit of Studying Theology,” 186-7.

[27]Melanchthon, “On Philosophy,” 131.

[28]Melanchthon, “On Philosophy,” 132.