What do you think of when you here the word “theology”? Some of us might think of those old BT adverts with Maureen Lipman as the grandmother who hears that her offspring has got an “ology” at university. Others perhaps of obscure arguments about how many angels can balance on a pinhead. Others of dry and dusty lectures in remote ivory towers.
Theology on the whole doesn’t have a good reputation and there are some good reasons why. In many places theology is taught not from a position of faith, but a position of scepticism or even unbelief. Some of you may remember that a few months back BBC2 showed three programmes trying to undermine traditional understandings of the Old Testament, fronted by a lecturer from Exeter University who in a Radio Times interview professed to be an atheist. Theology also tends to be taught as an academic subject as one of the humanities, and as such the work of theologians tends all too often to be divorced from the practical side of Christian living.
So why did I spend nine years researching the Hebrew text of the book of Zephaniah? The answer was not so that I could appear alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury in a photo! Zephaniah was really a test case. Many academic scholars would argue that the final form of the book emerged over a period of several hundred years, with parts added after the Israelites returned from exile and maybe others in the 2nd century. I wanted to examine the evidence that Zephaniah was at it claimed to be – a complete, single work written in the reign of King Josiah towards the end of the 7th century BC. And despite the arguments of many more sceptical theologians I found plenty of indicators that this was indeed the case. And if I could do this with an obscure work as Zephaniah, doesn’t this give us more general proof that the Bible really is as it claims to be?
Zephaniah also challenged me because the view of God it presents is not a comfortable one. We tend to steer away from the ideas of judgement and punishment for the things we have done wrong. But if we do that we can end up with a cosy picture of God made in our own image. So as I walk daily through the streets of Stoke and Devonport I find my work has a direct practical impact as I pray for God to show mercy to the many who do not as yet know Him.
So what to study next? I did think of looking at Jeremiah, but as my wife pointed out, it took me 9 years to complete my work on the 3 chapters of Zephaniah, so at that rate I am unlikely to get through the 52 chapters of Jeremiah! Instead I have been asked to present some lectures on the Old Testament kings for the Peninsula Gospel Partnership course at the end of the year. I have always enjoy the stories of 1 and 2 Samuel, and I and 2 Kings, but what relevance are the lives of these distant monarchs to us today? By the end of the year I hope to be able to give an answer to that question. Might even form the basis of preaching programme… we’ll see.