At first it may seem innocent to ask the question,“What is theology?” after all theology means the study of God. Throughout this article, I intend to demonstrate that while it may be innocent to ask the question, “What is theology?” the answer is actually quite complex, serious, and very important. At this point some people may think that their suspicions about theology are justified—namely that theology isn’t important because it is dry and boring. I can understand that sentiment, we theologians do use a lot of “big” words that the vast majority of people never even think to use.
In my early teens I grew not only in my relationship with Jesus, but also with studying the Word of God, learning the great truths of Christianity. Some people may accuse me of being a nerd at this point, and they may have a point to a degree. Yet, here’s the thing: everyone is a theologian. Since everyone has a belief system, we must be clear about what theology is and why thinking through a biblical worldview is so important. When Christians speak, teach, or write they are to do so from a biblical worldview. Crucial to having a biblical worldview is to understand that at the heart of this worldview is God Himself who creates us, sustains our planet, and who empowers us through the Holy Spirit to make much of Jesus. It is in and through the Risen Christ that Christians are to proclaim the message of the Bible, which contains one unified message about Jesus, His coming to die, rise and ascend and to yet return. It is this message that Christians are to enjoy and proclaim.
Often Christians say that they don’t have theology nor are they theologians, however, this is the wrong approach. In my experience Christians often say this because nobody has walked them through what key doctrinal and theological words mean. So, instead of being honest about what they don’t understand, Christians often refuse to be authentic about what they do and do not know. While Christians today have more resources than ever, what we need is a filter through which to view those resources. Our desire to spread the fame of God among the nations is spot on, but we also need to understand that we are all theologians, even if we aren’t professionally trained ones.
One of the main reasons why Christians object to being a theologian is because they don’t feel that they are qualified to speak to the issues. They view theology as only for the “professionals”—those with a Ph.D. or a Master’s degree. Yes, there is a need for professionally trained theologians to speak to the issues of our day with great clarity. Yet, there is also a need for Christians in the pew to speak to the issues of our day, as well as within their workplaces.
One of my chief goals in my ministry is to equip lay people to speak to the issues of the world today. Here at Servants of Grace, we want you to understand that doctrinal and theological issues truly matter. And beyond that, we want you to know what the terms mean so you can speak with confidence to your friends and neighbors about the glorious truths contained in the Bible. We believe that every Christian regardless of their education level, can and should learn the truths we write and speak about regularly on our website. Make no mistake, friend, the stakes have never been higher for every Christian to speak to the issues and do so through a biblical worldview.
Here is where theology comes in. Theology is the application of our doctrine, which comes from the Word of God. It is a doctrinal statement that Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6), and that salvation is only available through Jesus (Acts 4:12). The application of that truth would be, for one, to explore the depth of it by examining, for example, the exclusivity of Jesus and how if one rejects Him, they will go to Hell, a place of unrelenting, unending, and conscious punishment.
One reason why many Christians don’t see theology as important is because of how we view doctrine and theology. Christians often see our theology as more important than grounding our convictions in the truth of the Word of God. The greatest problem in evangelicalism today is our lack of doctrinal depth, precision, and conviction. This was made plain in circa 2000-2007 with the rise of the “emergent discussion,” which was a conversation about discipleship and how to reach people. The fruit of this discussion demonstrated that under the guise of “conversation”, evangelicals, rather than standing on the Word of God, would rather compromise the truth.
At the heart of Servants of Grace is the idea that what we, as Christians, need is a return to the Word of God and to the confessional standards of the early Church. Our greatest need in Christianity of this generation is to return to our first love Jesus. We need to return to the Word of God and to study the fruit and labors of men and women who have gone before us in church history.
Sadly, many evangelicals view church history with suspicion and the whole enterprise of theology as unimportant—even while they hold onto convictions and declare their beliefs, which is the task of theology. Evangelicals should learn from men like John Owen and Charles Spurgeon—men who stood fast on the Word of God and the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Evangelicals, our great cry should not only be for more “Owens” and “Spurgeons”, but for men and women on fire for the glory of the gospel.
How then can Christians be theologians?
By understanding the relationship between doctrine and theology, Christians can gain confidence that when they open their mouths they have something to say that will profit others and point sinners to the gospel. Since everyone, even your neighbor, is a theologian, the question as it’s been said is whether you’re a good theologian or a bad theologian. How then can one be a “good theologian”? Being a good theologian means being faithful to the Word of God and to the teaching of the Church throughout its 2,015 years. This includes affirming and teaching what has been taught by the Church from the Word of God throughout its history. Even here it’s important to make mention that Christians do not affirm creeds for the sake of the creed itself, but rather affirm creeds because Christians of ages gone by have sought to faithfully teach the Word of God, and to answer objections to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. While people today view with suspicion any form of institutionalism, even the New Testament epistles affirm the reality that Christianity is a community gathered together to corporately worship the Lamb slain, hear the Word preached, participate in the sacramental communion, and much more. Being a good theologian means placing oneself under the authority of the Word of God, of the local church, and faithfully proclaiming the entirety of the Gospel.
One of the reason the creeds are important to biblical Christianity is because they give us an example of what doing theology in community looks like. Pastors and ministry leaders met and discussed the relevant issues through a biblical-theological framework and then spoke to those issues after deliberating. The great creeds of the Christianity were written in response to error that is to teaching that deviated from the truth of the Bible. Therefore, Christians need to understand that Christianity is not a “lone-ranger” religion, where having a card-carrying membership to the church of Starbucks or a subscription to every sports channel known to man cuts it. Rather, the Christian faithfully places him/herself under authority in the local church for the purpose of sitting under the teaching of the Word of God, faithfully preached with the focus being the exposition of the text and the expounding of the glories of the gospel in that text.
There are, as I’m sure you can see, dangers on all sides when we look for the answers to questions like, “what is theology?” and, “how do we do theology?” There are many different fields within theology; including biblical theology, which is concerned with looking at whether there is a unified message in the Bible; systematic theology, which seeks to apply biblical theology; and historical theology, which is concerned with the Church’s teaching and application of doctrine to the life and health of the Church. Doctrine and theology are not for some stuffy ivory tower, but for you. They are for your everyday life as you head to your job (whether you work in a secular or ministry field), and as you minister in the trenches of ministry in your local church.
I realize that seeing doctrine and theology in this way may be new to you. When we learn new things in our walk with God, we are confronted with a choice to either apply what we learn or to completely disagree. One of the areas of concern I have for you, as you study theology, is that you be discerning. Yes, I want you to understand doctrine and theology, but in doing so I want you to learn to be discerning. I want you to think through these issues. I want you to test and examine them and mull them over, again and again. In other words I don’t want you to simply take what we say here at face value, but to test it, examine it, and reflect on it. I’m sure you are used to being told what to do and how to think, so this type of instruction may seem strange. I want to challenge you now to think about what I’m saying and consider it.
I truly desire to equip lay people to be doctrinally knowledgeable and theologically capable. In other words, I want you to be able to discern truth from error and to confront it in a way that honors God. I want you to be known for convictional kindness that affirms what is true, rejecting what is false, and speaks kindly and to the point about what God says from His Word to His people. I want you to not only be able to confront false teaching but also to be able to be conversant in doctrinal and theological issues.
Dr. Albert Mohler said, “The tragedy that evangelicals have lost the art of biblical discernment must be traced to a disastrous loss of biblical knowledge. Discernment cannot survive without doctrine.” Throughout this article I’ve been arguing for a comprehensive biblical/theological framework in order to answer the question, “What is theology?”
At the heart of this question is the idea that theology is not only for academics but for your everyday life. The reason that is the case is because, as Dr. Mohler notes, we as a people lack biblical discernment due to the fact that we have lost a vision for biblical knowledge.
In summation, the problem of biblical literacy is a rising one. Researcher George Barna states that, “Fewer than half of all adults can name the four gospels. Many Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the disciples.”
According to data from the Barna Research Group, 60 percent of Americans can’t name even five of the Ten Commandments. No wonder people break the Ten Commandments all the time. They don’t know what they are,” said George Barna, president of the firm.
The bottom line is that: “Increasingly, America is biblically illiterate,” (see George Barna’s Site). To further give context to this problem twenty-five million copies of the Bible are sold in the United States annually. Nine out of ten homes in the USA have a Bible. More than 400 million copies of all or part of the Bible are distributed through Bible societies each year. “The number 1 predictor of spiritual maturity (according to a study by LifeWay Research) is reading the Bible on a daily basis, [but] only 16 percent of churchgoers read the Bible daily and 25 percent of churchgoers don’t read the Bible at all.”
Since the problem of biblical illiteracy is so widespread, there is a great need for you, the lay person, to understand the relationship between what the Bible teaches and how to apply it to your thinking and thus to your life. As we conclude this article I want to give you a few ways you can take what you’ve learned and apply it to your life and thinking.
First, refuse to be a statistic!
Those statistics listed above are shocking for a reason—they are meant to awaken you to the problem and get you to open your Bible. Regular Bible reading will help you to deal with the challenges you face every day.
Second, if you aren’t already, get planted in a church that teaches the Bible. There you will develop a biblical worldview and thus be able to speak to the issues of our day through a biblically theological framework.
Third, fight for your joy in God!
Refuse to be apathetic about your faith or to take it for granted. And finally, if I may let me encourage you to tell your friends about the work we are doing here at Servants of Grace. We earnestly desire to come alongside local churches in order to help people grow in their faith. In conclusion, as Dr. Michael Horton has noted, “Theology is more than an intellectual hobby. It’s a matter of life and death, something that affects the way you think, the decisions you make each day, the way you relate to God and other people, and the way you see yourself and the world around you.”
This article first appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Theology for Life.