On December 7th, 374, St. Ambrose became the bishop of Milan.
He is known for two things: he was the greatest preacher of his age, and he discipled a young convert who would be known to history as St. Augustine.
Ambrose was a great man. We would probably realize this more than we do if he had not been eclipsed by his famous convert.
St. Augustine became one of Christianity’s most influential thinkers. In fact, both religious and secular scholars think of him as one of history’s most brilliant men.
We rarely honor theologians like Augustine and Ambrose now. We tend to deride them for being out-of-touch with “real life”. (Whatever that is!)
The timely use of the word “theologian,” can evoke laughter from pulpit and pew. We think of 'theologian' the way one writer described an ancient Egyptian philosopher who became so enthralled by observing stars that he slipped in cow manure and broke his leg. Philosophers, theologians and other sorts of theoreticians are poor dreamers, captured by the smell of old books and the sounds of dead languages. Their irrelevance is so staggering that we shake our heads in disbelief when we realize they are still around.
This is a relatively new attitude though. Past generations of Christians held their scholars in high esteem.
I would like to convince you to do that too.
With that, I may have already lost most of you. But I hope not.
I do understand that the very word “theology” makes many people want to die from boredom!
I think I know why.
Sometimes “theologians,” get a kick out of using highly technical jargon. That lets them know who is or is not “in their club.” They throw around Latin and Greek. They quote obscure thinkers we have never heard of. We think we could understand them if they would just speak in plain English. But they don’t.
Theologians often make theology sound like a root canal!
All I can say is “don’t let their poor communication skills keep you from learning about God!”
That is, after all, what “theology” means: “the study of God.” Therefore, if you have ever prayed, you are already acquainted with theology!
So why would we need formal theology in that case? Isn’t devotion and piety enough?
“Theology just makes simple things complicated,” many people claim.
Is that true? Do theologians just make simple things complicated?
I think they often do and they shouldn’t.
However, there is a real difference between being “simple” and being “simplistic.”
Who wants to hear someone say, “Will you please engage the switching device for the purpose of making a positive connection for the flow of electricity to the incandescent filament?”
We want them to say: “Please turn on the light.”
We don’t want to hear them say, “Don’t worry about the electric bill, or an old light bulb, or a switch that overheats. Such things take care of themselves. Let’s not worry about all of that. Let’s just enjoy the light.”
A person who talks like that is not “simple,” he’s simplistic.
In fact, he may even be a simpleton!
Simple people are virtuous; simpletons are slothful.
Some Christian leaders are simple. Some are simplistic. Some are simpletons.
A theologian should learn to be simple, like Jesus. He should not be simplistic, like Larry the Cable Guy.
Being simplistic you see, is just another name for sloth.
Theologians must not be slothful; but they must learn how to communicate with the rest of us.
That’s what Ambrose did.
Augustine did too.
And C. S. Lewis!
Sometimes, I even do it. (I just had to work my way into this illustrious club.)
Theology must, in as simple a way as possible, help ordinary believers understand the implications of God’s Word. That sometimes requires an explanation based on the Bible’s original languages, or a quote from a person who lived in another century. It never calls for humiliating others because they do not understand the theologian’s specialized vocabulary.
You may ask, “Why do Christians even need theologians? Don’t we all have the same Bible?”
Well, yes. We do.
Unfortunately, reading the same Bible does not automatically lead us to doctrinal unity or to the essential teachings of scripture.
We would all like to think that we (unlike others!) always let the Bible speak for itself. However, the truth is, we all read the Bible through the lenses of our own private experiences and personal opinions. We tend to be loyal to the views of whatever branch of Christian faith we encountered as children or as new believers. Because of these human elements, despite our sincerity, we often reach different conclusions about the things than the writers of the Bible intended.
A godly and humble theologian can help us untangle the knots that time and custom can wrap around our minds. They can help us discern the difference between “orthodox” and “obstinate, and between “simple and “simplistic.” They can teach us the history, language usage and purposes behind a particular Bible story or teaching.
Most importantly, a good theologian can help us see Jesus, like Ambrose did for Augustine; like Augustine did for Medieval Europe; and like C.S. Lewis did for many of us.
During Advent, we will talk a lot about the shepherds and how those poor and unlearned men recognized the Lord of glory in the face of a little child.
However, there were other people in that story.
At the center of the nativity was a little baby boy, kissed by a star. The light of that star wooed wise men from far away in the East.
When they saw that light, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
Some of them still do. And when they arrive at the cradle, they say the most wonderful things, like St. Augustine, Ambrose’s famous disciple:
“Late came I to love thee, Ancient Beauty; late came I to love Thee.”