What is theology, and why does it matter to the average Christian?
This one isn’t just for the ladies. I believe every Christian, no matter their profession or educational background, needs a basic understanding of theology. I will not rank it as high as a knowledge of the Bible, nor anywhere near the importance of a life of daily discipline and obedience for effectiveness in reaching those who don’t know God. But let’s face it: if you don’t know the logical reasons why we believe what we do, giving a “well, the Bible says this….” answer isn’t usually enough either.
What theology isn’t (or shouldn’t be):
Theology is not the art of picking apart the Bible and reading our own human logic into it. It isn’t the work of stodgy scholars who want to explain every possible aspect of God’s character ad nauseum. It isn’t a fun way to cause arguments among fellow Christians over its various nuances. It isn’t only for the learned, and it isn’t a replacement of the Bible or of Christian experience.
What theology is (or should be):
Simply put, theology is the study of God. It combines scripture, the centuries of study done by great historical thinkers, and to some extent (or a vast extent, for the Catholic), the traditions of the church. Theology for the evangelical looks a bit different for the reformed, for the anglican, for the Eastern Orthodox, and for the Catholic, to give some examples. But those arise largely from the important views each of them hold.
Even the evangelical disagrees with his fellow evangelical on many particulars. But that is the importance of its continued study; that we may encourage one another to pursue truth and allow our peers to challenge our views with their interpretations of Scripture to see if they might be interpreting better. It requires grace for those who disagree with you, and it requires a willingness to not be adamant about those things which the Bible is not clear on, and fixed on what the Bible does clearly state to be truth. As some medieval theologian said, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.”
Systematic theology has been the categorization of theological study for centuries. The modern meaning simply refers to a collection, in one volume or several, of the organized knowledge of Christian theology. It is usually organized in an order that appears to build: that is, beginning with theology proper (the study of God the Father) and ending with Eschatology (the study of the End, or, Christ’s return).
Here are the categories used by some of the better-known evangelical theologians (e.g., Wayne Grudem, Norman Geisler, Alister McGrath):
- Theology Proper: The study of God the Father. Sometimes combined with Creation. It studies his attributes and character, including his omnipotence, aseity, infinity, and so on.
- Bibliology: the study of what we believe about the Bible. Such as its infallibility, and its being inspired.
- Christology: the study of God the Son, and what we believe about the incarnation, his dual natures, his role in creation, etc.
- Pneumatology: the study of God the Holy Spirit, his role in creation, his role in atonement, and what he does in us today.
- Anthropology: the study of the nature of man. Our male/female natures, our free will, our original sin.
- Hamartiology: the study of sin, where it came from, its extent, and its effects on humankind and nature.
- Soteriology: the study of salvation, Christ’s work of atonement, its extent, whether it can be lost, how it is obtained, what is meant by sanctification and justification.
- Angelology: the study of angels, their natures, their free will, and their roles.
- Ecclesiology: the study of the Church, its universality, its structure, how it arose, how it is governed, how it is meant to reach the world and imitate Christ.
- Eschatology: the study of the last things, views on the millennium, the rapture, the restored Kingdom.
That of course is a very basic list and scant introduction. I hope it has given you some clarity on what it is theologians do all day, and how it might be applied to our apologetics and approach to the logic of our faith. If you would like more information, feel free to research the theologians mentioned above. My personal favorite collections of systematic theology are those of Grudem and Geisler, though I disagree with both of them on some particulars. Of course, I am speaking as an evangelical. Those of you from other backgrounds are welcome to research theologians in your various denominations, though I cannot be of particular help.
As a parting note, please remember that it’s a rare person who agrees with the theologians he reads on every particular. You may agree with 75% of one theologian’s interpretations, and find good answers your agree with for the other 25% by reading someone else. Regardless, you need to approach it with a desire to seek the truth and read Scripture alongside your study, or you risk becoming less a student of truth, and more a student of that one theologian you like.
Beginners of theology, what did I miss? What would you like to know? Advanced theologians, what do you think I should cover next?