When Christians talk about theology they’re referring to the study of what God tells us in the Bible about Himself and things we would have no other way of knowing about. When other people talk about theology—well, they can be referring to something else entirely.
Words have histories. We call them “etymologies,” and they tell us where words came from. They don’t always tell us what words actually mean because words have the ability to stray far from their origins, but the word “theology” has stayed fairly close to home. It comes from the Greek word theologia (θεολογία), which in turn comes from two other Greek words. The first is theos (θεός), which means “God.” The second is logia (λόγια), which means “utterances,” “sayings,” or “oracles” (a plural form of logion [λόγιον]) and is closely related to the Greek word logos (λόγος), which can be translated as “word,” “discourse,” or “reasoning,” depending on the context. (By the way: the letter g is pronounced as a “hard” g in all these Greek words rather than as a j.) So if all we had was the word’s etymology, we’d come up with a definition for theology along the lines of “sayings about God,” and that’s not too far from the core of Merriam-Webster’s first definition of theology as “the study of God and of God’s relation to the world,” which is the word’s historic Christian meaning, assuming that our source of information is the Bible.
It should come as no surprise that those who deny the existence of God and the supernatural have little time for what Christians have historically meant by theology. But it may come as some surprise that some of those same people still find the topic interesting, and even occasionally become professional theologians! Such people’s working definition of theology, however, is inevitably the study of humanity’s various ideas about God rather than the study of God Himself. So for them, theology ultimately becomes a branch of anthropology (the study of mankind) and they reduce the Bible to just another example of people’s attempts to find meaning in life. But for Christians, theology has far more profound implications.
Making sure we get it
Perhaps you’ve heard someone say, “Theology is just the words of men; the Bible is the word of God. We really should study the Bible instead of theology.” At some level these words should resonate with all Christians because they contain a significant element of truth. No theological text can ever hope to match the authority of Scripture, and for that reason alone no book of theology will ever be able to teach us, guide us, warn us, and comfort us the way the Bible does.
The irony, however, is that people who renounce theology with statements like this actually practice theology all the time! This is because the Bible is a vast book and all who read it can’t help but summarize its teachings in their own words—and as soon as they do that, they’ve started practicing theology, because that’s what theology is.
Perhaps the most common form of theology that most people practice without realizing it is called systematic theology, and as theologian Wayne Grudem tells us, “Systematic theology is any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic.” When Christians quote Bible verses to each other, they’re sharing Scripture. But when they discuss the various teachings of the Bible as a whole, they’re discussing theology in a systematic way.
…most Christians actually do systematic theology (or at least make systematic-theological statements) many times a week. For example: “The Bible says that everyone who believes in Jesus Christ will be saved.” “The Bible says that Jesus Christ is the only way to God.” “The Bible says that Jesus is coming again.” These are all summaries of what Scripture says and, as such, they are systematic-theological statements. In fact, every time a Christian says something about what the whole Bible says, he or she is in a sense doing “systematic theology”…
[Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Leicester, England, UK and Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Inter-Varsity Press and Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 21-23.]
And this is exactly as it should be. One of the most common ways teachers use to find out if their students are “getting it” is to ask them to repeat back what they were taught in their own words; otherwise they’re just parroting syllables that may or may not mean anything to them. By putting the Bible’s teachings into your own words you’re showing God, other Christians, and yourself that you “get it.”
The medical profession, which deals with matters of life and death on a regular basis, has also begun using this technique to make sure patients understand the crucial information their doctors are trying to give them. They call it the “teach-back method” of advising patients, and doctors who use it testify it helps them communicate life-saving information more effectively. If demonstrating comprehension of the facts that affect our lives and health are important, how much more critical is it for facts with eternal implications?
Putting biblical truths into our own words—”the words of men”—also demonstrates that we honor God’s word by thinking deeply about it and wrestling with its meaning.
You see, when He gave us His book, He didn’t give us a list of doctrines, a confessional statement, a systematic theology, and an index. That’s what we gave Him, and getting to the truth isn’t a half bad gift to give God.
[Steve Brown, How to Talk So People Will Listen, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Books, 1999; 2008), 118. Italics added.]
In the words of the medieval theologian, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), theology is “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). It is the same “renewal of your mind” that the Apostle Paul refers to in Romans 12:1-2, which leads to the obedience of living your life as a “living sacrifice”—the act of true spiritual worship.
When we elevate theology to too high of a level we diminish the value of God’s word. When we eliminate theology altogether (or try to) we devalue the meaning of God’s word.
Joining the conversation
Think of Christian theology as a conversation that’s been going on for about 2,000 years (and biblical theology as a conversation that’s been going on for much longer). Everyone has had the experience of jumping into the middle of a conversation. Sometimes you think you understand it only to find out that you don’t. Other times you feel clueless from the outset. The former situation is usually due to thinking you have some brilliant new insight to contribute to the discussion only to discover that it was disposed of long ago by far more ingenious thinkers. In the latter case, your feeling of cluelessness is due to the fact that you’re so new to the terminology people are using that it almost sounds like a foreign language. In either case you lack the background and categories you need to successfully navigate the topic.
The first person to have used the word “theology” in English appears to have been William Langland (c. 1330-c. 1400), a churchman about whom we know very little except that he apparently left us with one of the great classics of Middle English literature, an allegory titled Piers the Ploughman.
Allegories have a habit of personifying qualities and ideas. A good example of this is found in Proverbs 8, where wisdom is personified as a woman who has provided guidance to kings and who is more ancient than all creation. In Langland’s allegory we are introduced to Lady Study, the wife of Intelligence, who could boast of tutoring some of the greatest minds in history, but finally found a real challenge when she encountered theology.
‘The philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and many more like them, were first schooled by me….
‘But Theology has always caused me a lot of trouble. The more I ponder and delve into it, the darker and mistier it seems to me to be. It is certainly no science for subtle invention, and without love it would be no good at all. But I love it because it values love above everything else; and grace is never lacking where Love comes first….
‘…Theology…commands us to live as brothers, to pray for our enemies, to love those who slander us and give to them in their need. And God himself bids us return good for evil—”As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of Faith.” This is the teaching of St Paul, who loved perfection—to do good for the love of God and give to those that ask, and especially to the faithful. And Our Lord teaches us to love all who abuse or slander us, forbidding us to repay injury with injury—”Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” So remember, all your life, to love others, for there is no knowledge on earth so healing to the soul.’”
[William Langland, as translated into Modern English by J.F. Goodridge, Piers the Ploughman, reviseded., (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1966; 1984), 1117-118.]
Langland’s depiction of theology as eminently practical and intimately connected with ethics is accurate if unfamiliar to most people today. True theology leads to both understanding and heeding the teachings of God’s word, and this has profound implications for how we think and act. In fact, those who receive God’s word sincerely become a kind of “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
Learning the lingo
Solomon is credited with the saying, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Virtually every theological idea—good or bad—has already been thought up by someone, somewhere, at some time. The chance of discovering something in the Bible that no one else has seen for thousands of years is virtually nonexistent. And since the goal of Christian theology is to accurately represent God’s truth in Scripture, originality isn’t always a good thing, anyway.
So you’re entering (or have already entered) this conversation called theology after it’s been going on for millennia. And since it’s a discussion based on an ancient book carried on by people from many countries, languages, and cultures, it’s developed its own set of shorthand jargon It’s a vocabulary which is relatively easy to learn if you love God’s word enough to invest a little bit of your time each week in learning it. A good place to start is with the names of the primary categories of Christian theology.
Here are some good places to start reading:
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