Sean McDowell | September 13, 2018

When Theology is Dangerous

When Theology is Dangerous

I love studying theology. I teach a New Testament theology class at Talbot School of Theology, speak on theological issues at Summit Ministries, and teach a high school systematic theology class at a private school in Orange County. Along with philosophy, theology is one of my favorite topics to study. And I wholeheartedly believe that learning theology is vital for spiritual growth.

But theology can also be dangerous. My concern is not with theology per se. In fact, good theology is critical for avoiding dangerous doctrines and preventing error (Titus 1:9). I wish the church would invest more time and resources in teaching good theology. I am convinced many young people disengage the church because of bad theology.

My concerns here are with the way we teach—or often fail to teach—theology.

Concern #1: Associating Learning Theology Itself with Spiritual Growth. Proper theology can help us understand God’s character, so we can relate to Him better. But good theology alone does not mean we are becoming like Jesus. After all, even the demons have perfect theology (James 2:19). During his earthly ministry, people were confused about the identity of Jesus, but demons seemed to always get it right. They had correct theology but could not have been further away spiritually.

Here is a humbling reality to think about: You can have perfect theology and be separated from God. I have had non-Christian students pass my theology class with an A+. They understood biblical doctrines like they understood math, history, and science. They had the correct answers, but they but did not know God personally.

Jesus said that eternal life is to “know you, the one true God” (John 17:3). Eternal life is not based on having correct theology but being in a proper relationship with God. Theologically knowing about God is critical, but it is not the same as actually knowing God in a personal way. Learning theology can be dangerous when we confuse the two.

Concern #2: Assuming Good Theology Results in Godly Character

Not long ago, I was reflecting on the life of an influential modern theologian whom I do not want to emulate. He has flawless theology, as far as I can tell, but lacks kindness in his interactions with people. I cannot judge this man’s heart. Only God can.

But it seems eminently clear that good theology does not necessarily translate to living the fruits of the Spirit. One can have godly character while lacking good theology and have good theology while lacking godly character. The two are not synonymous.

Remember, the fruit of the Spirit is not good theology. It is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). If learning theology does not translate into treating people with these virtues, then something is wrong.

The point of this post is not to disparage teaching theology. Good theology is critical for the health of the church! But let’s be sure to teach theology in a way that shows how it relates to spiritual growth and the cultivation of godly character. Learning theology can be dangerous when we fail to make these important connections.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: