Many people find theology to be complicated, confusing and even irrelevant. They wonder why they should bother with it at all. “Surely,” they exclaim, “the Bible isn’t that difficult! Why read the works of head-in-the-clouds theologians with their long sentences and fancy terms?”
Sadly, it is common to ridicule what we don’t understand. But doing so is a formula for continuing in ignorance and possibly falling prey to heresy.
I acknowledge that some academic theologians are hard to understand. In fact, it is unusual to find a genuine scholar who is also a gifted communicator. People in academic circles often deal in lofty ideas, and speak and write mainly with their peer group in mind. They leave it to others to bring those ideas down to earth. The situation is not unlike the difference between the practices of science and technology. The experimental scientist in his laboratory discovers a new process or material, and leaves it mostly to others to harness the idea into something practical for the ordinary person.
Theology has been called ‘faith seeking understanding,’ and we should not despise it. As Christians we trust God, but God has made us to want to understand the one we trust and why we trust him. Our God apparently wants us to grow in our knowledge and trust in him, having our minds more and more transformed. But knowledge about God is not something that we humans can just come up with on our own by thinking it out. The only way we can know anything true about God is to listen to what he tells us about himself.
God has chosen to preserve the revelation of himself to us in the Bible, a collection of inspired writings compiled over many centuries under the supervision of the Holy Spirit. However, even the most diligent study of the Bible does not automatically convey to us a right or full understanding of who God is. Most heresies come from wrong understandings of who God is, often promoted by one or a few individuals who fail to grasp how God has revealed himself in the Bible and ultimately in Jesus Christ, and who have given little or no attention to the biblically based teaching of the church down through the ages.
What then do we need? First, we need the Holy Spirit to enable our minds to understand what God reveals in the Bible about himself and give us the humility to receive it. The Bible and the work of the Spirit together are sufficient to bring the humble reader (or hearer) with a mustard seed’s worth of faith to an initial trust that repents of unbelief and acknowledges that Jesus is Lord and that he alone brings us God’s gracious salvation. Second, growth in our knowledge of who God is calls for a comprehensive grasp of the whole of Scripture with Jesus Christ standing at the center of it all. No one can do that for themselves in even a lifetime. We need the wisdom of others. Third, we may misunderstand some or much of what we read in the Bible due to assumptions we bring with us into our study of the Bible. We need help to remove these obstacles to spiritual growth. Fourth, we will not instantly know how best to communicate our understanding to th ose around us. Some are specifically called to help sort all these things out. And this is where theology comes in.
The word theology comes from a combination of two Greek words, theos, meaning God, and logia, meaning knowledge or study–study of God. Theologians are those members of the body of Christ who are called to synthesize and sum up the biblical witness to the nature, character, mind, purposes and will of God. In doing this they survey the results of others in the history of the church who attempted to do the same. They also analyze our contemporary context to discern the best words, concepts, stories, analogies or illustrations that most faithfully convey the truth and reality of who God is. The result is theology. While not all theologies are equally faithful, the church is wise to make use of those results that do help it keep its proclamation of the Gospel resting on the firm foundation of God’s own revelation of himself in Jesus Christ according to Scripture.
The church as a whole has an ongoing responsibility to examine its beliefs and practices critically, in the light of God’s revelation. Theology, therefore, represents the Christian community?s continuous quest for faithful doctrine as it humbly seeks God’s wisdom and follows the Holy Spirit’s lead into all truth. The church ought to make use of those members of the Body who are specially called to help it do just that. Until Christ returns in glory, the church cannot assume that it has reached its goal. That is why theology should be a never-ending process of critical self-examination. Theology can thus serve the church by combating heresies, or false teachings, and helping us find the most faithful ways we can speak the truth in love today in our current context.
My point is that theology — good theology based in a profound respect for the biblical revelation and a sound understanding of its intent, background, context and comprehensive meaning for today — is a vital ingredient to a growing Christian faith. The 21st century is posing unprecedented challenges that are not addressed directly in the inspired Scriptures. Times change, but “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8). At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.” (John 16:12-15).
So let’s not despise the understanding that comes from good theology, even though it sometimes comes wrapped in difficult language.
With love, in Christ’s service,
PS. At www.gci.org/God/theology you’ll find a useful article on this topic.
You will also find an ongoing discussion concerning Trinitarian theology on The Surprising God blog at thesurprisinggodblog.gci.org/.