Are the people in your pews good theologians? A conversation with Malcolm Yarnell


BRENTWOOD, Tenn. — As part of the royal priesthood of believers, theology is for all Christians—not just those teaching in the academy or serving in vocational ministry. It’s the call and privilege of every believer to know, love, and worship God. But how do we help the people in our pews see themselves as theologians? And how can we equip them to think rightly about God so their knowledge of God will lead them in greater love for God?

In his book “God,” theologian and author Malcolm B. Yarnell seeks to make theology accessible to the common churchgoer. “God” is the first volume of a three-part series from B&H Publishing Group entitled Theology for Every Person.

God” explores questions concerning God’s existence, His divine nature, His Persons, and His attributes. But ultimately, Yarnell hopes the book helps Christians take their next step in knowing God so they can love Him and experience Him. Here’s a look at a recent conversation with Yarnell on how pastors can help shape churchgoers into good theologians.

Why do you believe theology is for every person?

Malcolm Yarnell: Theology is talking, thinking, or speaking about God. “Theo logos” means thought or word about God. So, if you believe in God, that automatically makes you a theologian. Even those who are atheists—against God—are theologians. They’re just really bad ones.

Christians know God has called us to personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. And because it’s personal, that means it’s for people. It is for every person. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is that all Christians are called to serve the Lord. And that includes knowing God’s Word, believing God’s Word, and living out of God’s Word. If we’re going to obey God’s call to personal faith and obedience within the Christian life, we have to know what that means. And that makes all of us theologians.

Practically, what does it mean that theology is for everyone?

Yarnell: The greatest commandment is this: that you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (paraphrasing Mark 12:30). We have to use our minds. We’re doing theology when we attend a worship service. We’re doing theology when we pray. And we’re doing theology when we witness. Theology is trying to understand in your own mind who God is so you can love Him with everything you are.

You don’t have to go to seminary to be a theologian. You have to hear the Word of God and respond to it with faith. If we’re going to love God, worship God, and obey God, we need to know who He is, who we are in relation to God, and how that relationship works. That’s what theology entails. And that means, if you’re a Christian, you already are a theologian.

Why should churchgoers study who God is and be concerned with what God does?

Yarnell: We all have the crisis of knowing we’re sinners and need to have a right relationship with God. And all people know by the truth of their own conscience that each of us will have to stand before God and give an account of our lives. That ought to drive us toward knowing who God is and what God is doing. Knowing who God is, is important because we need to worship Him. And if we are going to worship God truly, we have to identify the true God.

How would you help a church member understand how their study of God impacts their everyday life?

Yarnell: Our people have lots of questions—difficult questions, life-shaping questions. Often, we could give them an easy answer, and we need to give them answers. But the best thing I can often do for people in the long term is not just answer their questions but show them how they can get the answers for themselves from Scripture. This will make them happier as believers. It will also help them become witnesses to Jesus Christ in this world.

What are the greatest hindrances to someone studying God?

Yarnell: Perhaps the biggest hindrances are ourselves. When we hear the Word of God, when we read and listen to the Word of God, sometimes we think we know what the right question is. And we are looking to Scripture for the answer to our question. It’s an act of humility to pray, “Lord, I don’t have the answers, and I need you to help me,” but also to pray, “Lord, I’m not even sure I’m asking the right questions.” We must humble ourselves to pray.

Prayer is necessary to having orthodox theology. Humility begins in prayer. It continues in our conversations with other people, never assuming we’re there to set everybody else straight on their theology. No, we’re part of the people of God, and we need to hear one another.

We help one another grow toward the Lord. But it takes an act of humility to say, “I don’t have all the answers, but I want to know you, Lord. So, teach me, Lord. And whoever you use as an instrument to teach me, I’m going to be submissive to the truth of your Word, no matter how it comes to me. Whoever it comes to me through, I will obey.” And that act of humility is necessary for the task of theology.

In your book, you say there are two questions every person must ask and answer. What are they, and why are their answers so important?

Yarnell: The first question is: What is God telling everyone? The second question is: What is special revelation telling us?

General revelation is available to everyone. And special revelation is available to us through Jesus Christ and His Word. General revelation lets us know God’s law. And God’s law reminds us who God is and what His requirements are. People know—because their conscience and nature and history are reminding them—there is a God and they must face Him in the final judgment. His law tells us He has commands and we’ve disobeyed those commands, and therefore we’re under judgment. So, the first question is: “What does God tell everyone?” He tells us He has a law, and we’re subject to the penalty of disobeying that law.

The second question comes out of that first question. The answer to the first question leaves us with some bad news. The second question is about the good news. What is God’s special revelation? Why did Jesus Christ come and be born as a human being? And the answer to that question is so He might redeem us from our sins. The bad news is I’m facing judgment. The next question is: How do I avoid the judgment? How do I get right with God? And the answer to that question comes through special revelation, which is focused in Jesus Christ and available to us today in the Bible. The Bible gives us the gospel—the good news that saves us.

Is there anything you want pastors to know about your new resource?

Yarnell: The pastor’s continual search to help the church become what the church should be relies upon helping people grow in their faith and become servants who work in the church and serve the Lord through the church. In order to have increasing numbers and productive church members, those church members need to have the basics of the faith nailed down so they can learn to teach. Our children’s teachers need to be theologians. Our adult teachers need to be theologians. And our deacons need to be theologians. This book will help churches grow by helping the people grow. It’s an effort to edify the people of God so they in turn can edify the church. It’s there to build up individuals so they in turn can build up the church.