What is Theology?
It seems like a scary word to some people. For some this evokes images of large libraries and stuffy bibliophiles sitting on the library floor reading huge volumes of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics or H. Orton Wiley’s three-volume Systematic Theology. Still for some others you picture a university or seminary where professional pastors and future professors go, but come back to the local setting with bigger words and ideas than you can account for on your kids language arts homework. And still for some the idea of some professor sitting in an ivory tower writing and scheming up some new and novel idea just trying to make your life miserable. Surely, it’s not something for dummies and there is no way a common person like you could ever grasp or understand it, you barely get by on Sunday with the sermon and your devotions that don’t always register. Many of you are just confused when it comes to this subject, I’ve probably met someone just like you too in a similar boat, and just wondering what is theology to begin with. It’s a good question to ask. The fact that you even ask it demonstrates that you take seriously your relationship with God, because this word and it’s many subject areas do come up. So let’s go on a journey and hopefully get you some clarity on the matter.
Theology is a term that has been used since the 3rd century to mean “talking about God” or the “science of God.” In and of itself, theology gets at the nature and relationship people have with God and what the word “god” means to people. “God” means different things to different people and to different religious traditions. To the Muslim it is speaking about Allah and the teachings of the Quran and the four other holy books of their Islamic faith. To the Jew it is Jehovah and the keeping of the Law. Both of these monotheistic traditions believe in one “God,” but what they believe about that “God” is vastly different from us Christians. For polytheistic (many god) traditions it could mean doing something for one god to avoid the wrath of another. For the Deist it could just be simply about finding general truths in all traditions and living a moral life and going to heaven. Everyone believes different things and that essentially is what theology is. It is discussion about God or gods and the relationship that exists between us and them and us with others.
What Makes Theology Christian?
Christian theology is talking about God in Christian ways. For Christians, we think about our faith. Christian faith is about both a matter of reflection and an outcome of that reflection. It looks at why we do the things we do and why. It considers why Protestants uphold an importance of the Scripture and Catholics look at both Scripture and Tradition. To answer the question then of what makes theology Christian, it all comes down to what we believe. One such example of this in practice is the various beliefs about the Church itself.
For some people the Christian Church should only be a body of believers, while for others they believe it should be a mixed group. There are certainly other ideas out there also on the matter. Christian theology however forces us to think in an orderly manner about the fundamental ideas of our Christian faith. Theology is, at least to great extent, intellectual reflection on the act, content, and implications of Christian faith. It is used to sometimes help communicate an understanding of certain elements of our Christian faith asking things such as:
- Where did these different approaches come from?
- What are the merits of such an approach?
- What impact or difference is made to the business of Christian living?
Committed Ideas of Theology
Christian theology is about trying to understand why the Christian Church is committed to ideas that seem complicated and, at times, a little implausible. When we look at the question of what is theology, we might consider such difficult concepts about the relationship of Jesus Christ humanity and divinity. Christians affirm that Jesus is both 100% human and 100% divine, but some might ask why say this when it is simpler to say that Jesus is truly human. Another example is the matter of the Trinity. Why is God a Trinity, when it just seems easier to believe in God? Theology answers these challenges and gives voice to not only what we believe, but why we believe it.
Does Theology Just Make Faith Unnecessarily Complicated?
When answering the question of “what is theology” it is not uncommon to hear a question about theology making faith unnecessarily complicated. And, I believe that concern is justified, but to an extent. I often find it helpful to remember what Anselm of Canterbury said on the matter of theology, and that it is “faith seeking understanding.”
As I said in sections above, Christianity thinks about its faith. We make various claims about God and what we are taught and read about God and the relationship we have with God. However we are also people who are curious and have questions, sometimes questions about divorce and remarriage or infant baptism. In essence we say and profess one thing, but now we answer the why aspect of it. It would seem simple to just say well the Bible says xyz about divorce, but what about sexual or emotional abuse that leads one to exit a marriage? Are they biblically justified in leaving that marriage? The answer on this matter gets a bit more complicated, because now contextual elements are needed not just from the Bible’s teaching about marriage and divorce, but it’s teachings on violence and the duty of care spouses have to the marriage and how those cultures in which the biblical authors write approaches and experienced things. At times you need to look at historical Christian and other writings of that time to learn what was going on and then approach the matter from an informed opinion with a set or reasons and recommendations. This is putting theology into practice, it’s actually an area called Biblical Theology and that gets involved with matters of hermeneutics and exegesis and other elements of biblical literature and study.
Another consideration in answering the matter of this being complicated is that Christians do encounter non-Christians. Sometimes non-Christians are interested in the Christian faith and knowing more about it. Perhaps they are curious or not certain about what they believe. Perhaps their parents never emphasized the importance of religion growing up and they feel like they are missing out. Or perhaps you are in a college course debating atheism. Simply stating that “because the Bible says so” isn’t going to fly in these situations. In fact, for the curious or agnostic they may simply think and believe that Christians worship a book rather than an all powerful God who actually existed. They would need some background on why the Bible is important and not merely a book or moral teachings and sayings. Theology offers people in these situations an explanation of Christian faith and it helps people understand why Christians differ on certain points of importance such as baptism by immersion or by sprinkling.
Perhaps the most compelling reason as to the importance of theology and to do it even if it seems complicated is the discipleship of the mind. Theology is the discipleship of the mind. Deut 6:1-24 and Matthew 22:37 both address the importance of our belief in God and living obediently, which happens to include loving God and others with all of our being. The Apostle Paul makes an appeal to us in Romans 12:1-2 about the importance of the renewal and transformation of our mind onto the things of God so we might worship God properly and and follow God’s will. When we engage in theology in the contemplation of the act and being of our faith we are getting a look at the inner dynamic of a life of faith and its desire to understand what is believed.
Other Benefits of Theology
Of course there are other aspects of engaging in theology for the everyday Christian. One such example is that it gives you a deeper person enrichment and appreciation of one’s faith. Perhaps the most exciting thing about Christian gatherings and time I’ve spent with other members of the family of God is in celebration and contemplation of ideas for engaging others for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We read and study the Scripture and other Christian writings or videos for ideas and insights to help that process along and answering challenges. That is an engagement of theology.
Another benefit is that there tends to be a sort of excitement that comes when one wrestles with God. Augustine once exclaimed this very idea in saying that theology was and eros of the mind. Anyone familiar with Greek and the words for “love” or even familiar with human intimacy, will know that this is where the term erotic comes from. Theology is an erotic sensation that engages us with our Creator. It is “a sense of longing to understand more about God’s nature and ways.”
And lastly, the most important benefit of theology which I can think of is that it has a transformative impact on people’s lives. This happens not just to us personally as we learn and grow, but it also is foundational to why we do things. It’s at the core of Christian outreach and social services that are conducted in certain manners. It is why the many food banks out there are sponsored and ran by Churches and Christian organizations. It’s about saying that there is a God who loves others and calls us to be His hands and feet in a hurting and lost world.
I know this has been a long one, but I hope you’ve come to understand that answering “what is theology” is an important thing to wrestle with. Having this understanding is foundational before we even try and engage any other issue or speak on any other issue. We have to be clear in not only what we believe, but why. It’s not about trying to change what the Bible says or come up with some new doctrine, but it is about engaging that biblical text and giving an account for what we believe. I’m excited to see what the future of God’s Church will be and I hope that this new endeavor will encourage you and help you to engage your faith at a deeper level as you growth in wisdom and stature and in favor with God your your fellow man. If you got questions or are just curious I would encourage you to leave a comment. God Bless and talk soon.