I’m a fan of the mystery genre. I like shows and movies where the main character, or the team, has a big problem to solve and has to use problem-solving ingenuity and cool technology to try to figure out what happened. One of my favourites is when there’s a missing person that needs to be found within a certain time or something bad will happen. The gathering of clues and working the problem is interesting, but once that sense of urgency is added, it becomes so much more interesting.
When someone goes missing in these shows, it’s often up to at least one of the investigators to interview the family and friends to sift for clues in the missing person’s personality and habits in order to figure out what might have led to the situation in the first place. What was this person like? What were their habits? Who are their friends? Did they have any enemies? Were they under any special stresses? Did they meet anyone new?
Right now I’m re-reading, for the third or fourth time, the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and still loving it. Of course, he doesn’t have a team of investigators working with him when solving crimes, so he does all the interviewing himself.
Most times in the stories, the person with the problem comes into 221B Baker Street, sits down in front of the fireplace, Holmes sits back, closes his eyes and says, “Tell me what happened and spare no details.” Of course, for the sake of the story, the person usually has a very good memory of exact conversations and locations, but when they are done the great detective usually asks a few clarifying questions and says, “Ok, I’ll get back to you about this soon.” and invites the person to leave.
One of the best things about his friend Watson is his ability to stay quiet when Holmes is thinking because in a lot of the stories, Sherlock Holmes simply sits in one place – in his chair, a cab, a hotel room – and thinks. And Watson just sits there. Then, after a while, Sherlock with stand up, call Watson over, and say, “Let’s go, there’s only one thing I need to see before I know exactly what happened.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, at the beginning of the adventures says that there are three abilities that a great detective must have: The powers of observation, of deduction, and a great knowledge of past cases. Later, as he develops the character he adds two more: a good imagination and staunch determination.
I’ve actually mulled these over in my head quite a bit over the last couple years, and as I’ve been reading again. I think Doyle is absolutely right about these being necessary for a good detective, but I also think that they are also valuable for Christians who study theology.
The word Theology itself means simply, the study of God, right? To do theology is actually very much like a missing person case from those TV shows or a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Theologians, like detectives, search through the evidence around them to try to discover and understand all that they can about God – and that certainly needs the abilities to critically observe all the evidence, to be able to rightly deduce its meaning, and to have a vast and growing knowledge of history and philosophy and other studies. They need to be able to use their imaginations to put the immensity of trying to understand such eternal and sometimes paradoxical things together, and of course, the determination to keep working at it when it all seems too impossible to ever grasp.
But it’s worth it. There is something especially unique and pleasant about studying the person and the attributes of God.
The Joy of Studying God
Proverbs 9:10 says that
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”
Isaiah 26:3 says,
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.”
Remember talking about Psalm 119:9-11 which says,
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word. With all my heart I have sought You; Do not let me wander from Your commandments. Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You.”?
You see the interplay between reading the Word and meeting God because even though Psalm 119 is a love song about the Bible, but it’s just as much a song about the joy of studying God, because it is through God’s Word that we encounter the person of God.
And it goes the other way too. As Psalm 14 begins, and which Romans 1 echoes and expands,
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.”
Part of what it means to be a Christian, part of the way we worship God, demonstrate our love for Jesus, and participate with the Holy Spirit is to try to “understand God”, to “seek after God”. What does that mean but to try to track him down? Like Sherlock Holmes following the evidence to solve the crime and discover whodunit, we follow the revelations of God to do the same – to answer questions like: Who created everything and why? What is the purpose of this world and what is my purpose as an individual? What is God like? What does He want? What does He expect of us?
That’s part of what we’re doing as we study the Heidelberg Catechism – we’re following the evidence, the apologetic, the arguments for not only whether God exists, but who He is, what He is like, and what that means for us.
It began where we must begin, with an explanation of why there is misery in our world and how that misery can be fixed. After all, mankind is nothing if not selfish and is constantly asking the question, “What do I get out of it?”. And so it starts with explaining our greatest problems and how those problems are only solved by Jesus Christ. It explains the depth of our grief and then presents Jesus as the exclusive answer.
But then it must defend that exclusivity, right? What makes Jesus special? Why Him? And what does it mean to have faith in Him alone? And once those questions are answered, presenting faith in Jesus as the only way of salvation, inviting people to become Christians, the author of the Catechism does what any investigator would do: starts digging into the specific details. In question 22 it asks, “What, then, must a Christian believe?”
As we move through the catechism the discussions become more and more specific beginning a line by line study of the Apostles Creed. It’s not enough to know the crime and whodunit. Remember, a good investigator, a good detective, a good theologian, must do more. They must observe as many details as they can, even to the minutia that no one sees. They must seek to deduce all they can about the means and motives behind what happened. They must meditate and study history so they can gain greater knowledge of how this has been seen in other areas of life. They must apply their imagination that they might try to experience what they are learning for themselves and understand it on a deeper level. And they must show the dogged determination to keep digging until there is no more gold to be mined from their study.
Studying Details Deepens Our Love
And that’s what Ursinus does in this catechism, especially in his commentary – and more-so those theologians who have come after. They dig and dig and defend and imagine and explain and apply all they can so that the Christians who are reading and listening can better discover the God they worship, the Saviour they follow, and the Spirit that abides in them.
Why though? Why do all this work? Sherlock Holmes is asked this question often too. He spends hours sifting through pieces of evidence, lays on the grass studying a footprint for what seems like far too long, speaks of the tiniest little things – like cigar ash or someone’s shoelaces – as though they are of the most immense value. And he is often mocked by other detectives for it.
That happens to a lot of theologians and studious Christians too. In fact, it happens to a lot of people that become fascinated with a subject. Perhaps you’ve had this experience. You find interest in something – doesn’t matter what it is: art, chemistry, weather patterns, history, fishing. And as you learn, you get more and more into the minutia, the details, the obscurity of the subject. But the more you learn about the details, the more they fascinate you, the more important you realize they are. But when you try to explain it, others mock or get bored.
An art student walks into a museum and looks at a painting. Everyone else sees simply a picture of a dish, or a face, or a meadow, appreciate the colours and a couple details and then walks away. But then the art student walks up and begins to become fascinated with the thickness of the paint, the intricacy of the brushstrokes, the changes of momentum and how the thickness of the paint interacts with the canvas and the light. They pull out a magnifying glass and ooh and aah over the smallest corner of the painting – and everyone around them thinks their nuts.
The average people can sit around and talk about historical events like 9-11 or D-Day or Napoleon’s conquests, but a history buff can spend hours talking about how incredibly important the invention of paper currency was. They can argue the importance of the sextant vs the astrolabe vs the compass to ancient mariners – and while everyone around them is wilting like flowers, they’re enjoying every second!
My point is that learning the minutia, the details, about something you love doesn’t get confusing or boring, it actually deepens your love for that thing. It works in relationships too. In a good marriage, the two are consistently learning more about the other. They study one another, ask the other questions about their history, their current interests, their pains and their plans. And after 20, 30, 40 years, because people are such intricate creatures, there are still surprises, still things to learn. And as that knowledge grows, so does the love. One way you can tell that someone loves you, or that you love someone, is by how many questions they ask you about yourself, or how much you want to know about them. And in the same way, one way you can tell that someone doesn’t care is using you, or has lost interest, is when they don’t ask you personal questions. Love makes a person want to know more.
So this pursuit, this study of God, isn’t just about amassing knowledge. It’s not about getting the right answers. It’s not even about being able to defend our faith when it’s attacked by doubts or unbelief. The greatest reason we study God is to deepen our love for God.
Certainly, in the study of God, we gain much. As the scriptures, we read said: we gain wisdom for life, knowledge of lofty things, a peace and security knowing God is trustworthy. We gain an appreciation for purity and righteousness and desire to do good. But more than all that, we gain a deeper, more intimate relationship with God.
Jesus, in the High Priestly Prayer He prayed before He was betrayed and arrested, began like this:
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:2-3)
When Jesus came it was to save us from sin and death and give us a path to eternal life. We gain access to eternal life through faith and belief in Him. What must we believe? That’s question 22, right? We believe the gospel. What is the Gospel? The gospel is the knowledge of who God is and what God has done through Jesus. Which is why Jesus defines eternal life as the continuing and growing knowledge of “the only true God, and Jesus Christ”.
As God works in us to grow our knowledge of the gospel, so our faith in Him grows. As we submit to Him in prayer and study and our knowledge of who God is growing, our desire for and ability to worship grows. As we talk to Jesus and learn about Jesus, our humility and maturity and love for others grow. As we learn more about the work of the Holy Spirit within us, our peace and security and trust grow, our conscience becomes more sensitive, and we discover the purpose of our life.
And each of these new discoveries causes us to grow more in love with God. We learn to appreciate and embrace His justice, holiness, and discipline. We appreciate more and more His patience, grace, and fatherly heart. As we reflect on who He is, we see ourselves and everyone else around us for who we are – not only wretched sinners in need of grace but special works of art that were lovingly fashioned by a perfect Creator.
But this only comes if we are willing to learn. That growth only comes if we are willing to humbly admit that we don’t know everything about God, or the world, or ourselves. It means humbly coming before God’s general and specific revelations and trying to see what He wants to show us – not trying to bend it into what we want to see.
Next week, and for the next little while, we are going to get into a section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is going to be challenging – the introduction to the Trinity and the Attributes of God – and I want you to be prepared for it. I will try to teach it well, but I also need you to prepare yourself for it. I need you to till up the soil of your heart and be ready to listen to whatever God chooses to sow there by praying and asking God to help you learn and understand. I need you to try to appreciate the importance of these subjects and fight against the instinct to let it gloss over you because of its technicality. I ask you, over the next while, to cultivate within yourself those attributes of a good detective so that we can not only grow in the knowledge of God together but also grow in love for God and each other.