Mention the word “theology” to many people today, including Christians, and you may draw a blank stare, if not an eye roll. “Theology,” and the closely related word “doctrine” are, to many, meaningless words, or even bad words. “Doctrine divides,” say some, or “I don’t worry about these things, I’m not a theologian.” But often folks who say this have a very vague (if any) definition of what theology is.
So perhaps we need to know what theology is. Some definitions are necessary.
Though there are many definitions of theology, the simplest seems to be: “the study or science of God.” This is theology in its essential meaning. But theology is usually broadened to include not only God, but also His works: “The science of God and His relations to the universe.” Often when we speak or write of theology we also add to it the description “systematic” which would imply the “collecting, … arranging, comparing, exhibiting and defending of all facts … concerning God and His works.”
Is theology necessary? In a sense this is a moot question; everyone already has a theological system of sorts, though often not a very scientific or systematic one. James Sire’s definition of a worldview as a “set of presuppositions (or assumptions) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously) about the basis makeup of our world” is very close to a definition of theology. So we might say that whether we need it or not, we have already got it. Everyone, Christian or non-Christian, has a concept of God and His works, whether or not they even claim belief in Him; each sees reality (God’s works) through the lenses of his or her own particular worldview. Most have an eclectic theology, often even a contradictory one, including both true and false data from many sources.
There seems to be an imbalance among evangelicals today: not only a stress on the experiential over the intellectual, but also a stress on the practical over the theoretical, which is how theology is viewed. The first and often the only criterion used when evaluating a teaching is whether it “works,” whether it can be used to improve one’s parenting, marriage, dating, sex life, church growth, or whatever. How else to explain the proliferation of seminars and books with at best a quasi-biblical basis? But this is a false dichotomy. Practical Christian living must first be based on correct theology. All theology should be practical and all practice should be theological.
If this sounds like saying that every Christian must be a systematic theologian to live a practical Christian life, it is. To the extent that one’s theology is not both biblically based and logically consistent, it is a false theology. It is therefore imperative that every Christian be involved in the process of “doing theology.” And it is imperative that those of us who pastor and teach be involved in it too, as well as making sure that that which emanates from the pulpit and the counseling room is theologically correct and not simply moralistic or emotional dross.
But how is theology actually done? We are born theologians. We begin to construct a worldview – a concept or set of concepts of God and His creation – on the day we are born, whether or not born into a Christian home. The new birth is, among other things, a radical realignment of our theological thinking. Biblical truth, natural revelation, parental instruction, religious teachings and other factors all contribute to the theological stew so that whenever we decide to “do theology,” we are already encumbered with vast amounts of data to be classified.
And theology is not done only in a theological seminary. It is to be done throughout the lifetime of the Christian – whether a “career” minister or layperson. The pastor must do theology in sermon preparation. As his study of the Scriptures brings forward new knowledge, this must be integrated within his system. The same applies to the Sunday school teacher or the “average” Christian doing his daily devotional study. This may not always be a conscious act, but it should be part of ones’ meditation process.
But doing theology presents some very real dangers, and there are many.
The first danger that I see is that of doing theology for theology’s sake. Theology becomes an end in itself. Theology’s end should be the glorification of God, whether by leading us to praise Him for His wisdom as Paul does in Romans 11:33-36 (at the close of the most “theological” treatise in the New Testament), or by leading us to commit ourselves to Him in a life of “orthopraxis” as chapter 12 exhorts. Too often theology becomes a sort of game that theologians – whether ministers or laymen – play, without relating it to life.
Closely related to this is the problem of jargon. Technical esoteric language – “shoptalk” – is extremely helpful within any discipline or field of endeavor. Single words and short phrases can communicate a large amount of information. However, jargon can also block communication. By using theological terms on the uninitiated we obfuscate and hinder knowledge. Every theological concept can be communicated and understood in non-technical lay language. Underlying all theologizing is the desire to know and understand. Underlying the Christian’s task is the necessity to communicate.
Another great danger is that of “putting God in a box.” Every theological system, no matter how biblical, logical and practical, is of human design, and is thus imperfect. While we should seek a system which answers the most questions and solves the most mysteries, we cannot in this life (I believe) arrive at all the answers. Our system will have some loose ends and we must admit this. We must seek to fit them into the system, but not by over-subtle reasoning or semantic games. We may be required to revise our systems or even to be content with admitting our ignorance.
There is also the danger of elevating non-essentials. It seems that there is a hierarchy in doctrines – both in importance and in certainty. The person and the work of Christ are at the top of the hierarchy, both in certainty and in importance to our faith. So important are these doctrines that Paul can pronounce a curse on those who disagree, and John can call them antichrists (Gal. 1:8, 9; 1 Jn. 4:2, 3). Whether or not the church will be raptured before the great tribulation is a matter that is near the bottom of the theological pyramid, both in certainty and importance. Yet it is on areas such as this that an overabundance of theological energy is expended.
Doing theology should be the activity of every Christian. Correct theology should underlie all our experience and activity. Knowledge about God is essential for knowledge of God. Paul stated his desire and goal: “That I may know Him (Christ) and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His suffering, being conformed to His death” (Phil. 3:10). This is theology in its broadest sense: systematic and practical and experiential.
Or to quote a more recent author: “The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings and the existence of the great God, whom he calls Father” (C. H. Spurgeon, as quoted by Packer, KNOWING GOD, pg. 13)
revised and condensed, 4/26/2006