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What is Theology?

September 30, 2009

To kick off my first post on this brand spanking new blog, I thought I would do a series of posts about what the heck theology is.  We are calling this blog theological synergy and the word Theology alone invokes a variety of emotions.  Some of us cringe at the word because it conjures up memories of obtuse vocabulary and a description of the Christian faith that is abstract, disconnected, irrelevant and pedantic.  This has led many to abandon classical formulations of Christian belief, or at least advocate “a new kind of Christian.”  (Whoops… I think I just did an indirect slam.)  On the other hand, some of us get fired up and geek out about theology because we recognize its importance and its relevance, even if we are not always enamored with some of its superfluous distinctions.  So here is my attempt to make a case for not only what theology is, but in further posts to discuss how it should be done.  I will do this over a series of posts that I hope encourages us to embody the mystery of godliness that is the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Tim 3:16).

First, theology is most properly about God.  This is the strict definition of the word (theos + logos = study of God).  It is not just an academic subject concerning correct content, but it is more importantly an ethical exercise embodied by a community.  Plainly speaking, we demonstrate our theology of God with what we say, but even more by what we do.  Faith without deeds is dead says James.  Since theology is the study of God, we are speaking specifically of the triune God who has revealed himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This God is most clearly and directly revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Jn 14:6-7; Heb 1:3).  Jesus Christ, the God-man who dwelt among us in a particular time and for all time.  Theology is universal and particular.  Meaning, the work of theology is to give faithful expressions of who God is and what he does both throughout history and in our specific context.  Thus, it naturally follows that the controlling authority in theology is the words of God given to us through the Bible.  It is the words of God, given by the Father, fulfilled in the Son, and testified by the Holy Spirit telling us who He is, what He has done, who we are, and how we ought to respond to Him.

We are thus in dynamic work of growing in knowledge of the God of the Bible.  The church serves as a living embodiment of who they believe God is.  We are called to be holy because he is holy (Lev 19:2; 1 Pet 2:9).  The critique of the prophets is largely against those who claimed to know God but did not truly reveal Him by their actions.  Instead, the served idols, false gods, and false notions of God.  Moses charged Israel’s leaders to “distinguish between the holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean” (Lev 10:10).  Paul charged Timothy to “watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim 4:16) and to “preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2).  The life of the church, especially its leaders, proclaims who God is, what He has done, and what we ought to do about it.  Lesslie Newbigin put it well when he said the church, serves as a “hermeneutic of the gospel” (Gospel in a Pluralist Society).  God’s people, those whom he has saved, whether they want to or not, preach theology about Him in word and deed.  This also means that those who do not know the God of Bible cannot do theology.  Certainly may have attempted but they have all failed.

This also means that the theology of God’s people is a witness to the watching world.  What we believe about God, what we proclaim about Him, is a testimony to the world.  Hence, we must be aware and approach how we reason about scripture; how we handle the historic tradition of faith; and how we understand our current experiences.  All of which is to be in submission to the Bible.  In part, the failure of modern theology is most exemplified in its inability to be faithful to the gospel and a faithful witness to the world.  The liberal theologies from Schleiermacher to Tillich, and beyond, overly accommodated the world.  Yet, much conservative theology has not adequately addressed the contemporary context being overly concerned with content.  We can learn from the early church fathers who wrote to specific issues that impacted the church.  Luther never wrote a systematic theology, but letters addressing specific concerns.  They wrote for pastoral and missional reasons.  They wrote so that people would increase in knowledge of the gospel.

Ultimately, the aim is to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Our hope and aim is not to bore people with details, but to do theology where the gospel is not just read about or thought about, but that it is embodied.  The measure of whether or not we are doing theology well is the gospel.   The quality of a living theology should be its faithfulness to the gospel.  Our success will not be due to talent or by our own efforts, but by whether we are abiding in Christ (Jn 15), only then will this work bear fruit.

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