Theology is important! “But I am a practical person, so why do I need all that book-learning stuff?”
Theology is important for you. “No way. I follow the Spirit, so why do I need to know all that doctrine?”
“Theology is the domain of seminaries and we all know that seminaries are spiritual cemeteries.”
I have written on this before, but it is worth stating again – what we believe largely determines how we live. Sometimes we speak and act irrationally or out of anger or hurt, but mostly what we say and do flows from our embedded values, priorities, and life principles. These arise from what we believe about who we are, what we are doing on this planet, and where we go when we die, and these, and more, are the subjects of theology. However, I need to define ‘theology’ before progressing further.
What is Theology?
I really dislike the stock definition of theology as the study of God. God is multidimensional and we are limited to three dimensions of space and one of time. God is all-knowing, all-wise, and all-powerful and we are pathetically limited in all of these aspects. How then can we study God?! It is like an aphid claiming to be able to study an angel. I don’t even like the idea that theology is talking about God. No, it is far more than just that, and of much greater value than talk and conjecture.
A biblical understanding of the nature of theology derives from two Greek words, Theos and Logos. Theos translates as ‘God’ and Logos translates as ‘divine reason’, which can also mean ‘reason as the controlling principle of the universe’, and even ‘reason as manifested by speech’. However, the biblical revelation goes deeper because in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the author writes that the Lord Jesus Christ is The Logos.
On all three occasions ‘the Word’ is a translation of the Greek ‘logos’. So, authentic Christian theology is based on the revelation of Jesus Christ as God. Theology is rooted in divine revelation rather than intellectual discovery yet it deploys philosophy and reason as aids to comprehending God’s revelation to us. Theology is the body of Jesus-centred divine revelation.
How we Develop our Theology
Seminaries articulate theology and act as its custodians over the generations. Some of us study at such establishments’, others read theology books, while still others do neither. Yet all of us have a theology. We may have imbibed it from our parents or teachers, or perhaps we have built it directly from the pages of scripture, but all Christians have a theologically informed worldview of one form or another.
This theology, whether we call it that or not, plays a huge role in how we live. It informs our business ethics, our personal morality, and our value system, and it moulds our measures of meaning and worth. Theology is, therefore, important to all of us.
The role and importance of theology is more obvious within the context of the church than it is in our personal lives. Local churches and denominations invariably have a well-established theology, which becomes obvious through its preaching, teaching, and leadership ministries. They often crystalize their theology in statements of faith or position papers and teachings on key doctrines. Problems arise when churches place their traditions and historical positions above the revelation of scripture. Problems also occur when church practices arise from poor doctrine and faulty theology. However, those accountable for defective theology seldom acknowledge that their understanding is deficient. For instance, those who promote infant ‘baptism’ usually claim that their practice flows from the legitimate idea that baptism is a church-age continuation of the Old Testament rite of circumcision. However, Jesus modelled adult baptism by immersion and Paul expanded on this idea. So, infant baptism/Christening does not arise from a Jesus-centred understanding of scripture and is therefore defective. All churches have a theology but not all parts of their theology are necessarily ‘correct’. Now, this obviously begs the question of what constitutes good/correct theology.
The Fundamental Criterion of Good Theology
For at least the last thirty-five years I have preached, taught, and written on this subject. My personal conviction is that the biblical revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ is the fundamental criterion of good theology. In a nutshell, my reasoning is:
- The Bible is the trustworthy written record of God’s revelation to humanity.
- Jesus Christ is the full manifestation of the Godhead in bodily form.
- Therefore, the biblical revelation of what Jesus said, did, and revealed of the nature and character of the Godhead is the criterion of sound theology.
Therefore, if a church or denomination bases and validates its theology Christocentrically (from a Jesus perspective) then that theology will be good theology. The same must apply to individuals. However, I do have a few caveats to add.
It is possible for someone to base their theology on a biblical understanding of who Jesus is and what he said and did and revealed of the Godhead, yet still produce poor doctrine and theology. This can happen by:
- Basing theology only on what the scriptures reveal of Jesus Christ. Some would call this red-letter theology and it arises when there is a failure to realise that Jesus is both the subject of scripture, but also its interpreter. For biblical theology to be adequately developed it must take into account all of the biblical revelation and not just the Gospels, Acts and selective verses from the book of Revelation. But, and it is a big but, all of scripture needs to be looked at through the lens of what Jesus said, did, and revealed of the nature and purpose of the Godhead. This is what I understand as genuine Jesus-centred interpretation.
- Not basing theology on the texts and passages of the bible within their fuller context. Verse-picking bedevils many Christians! Verses that are lifted out of their historical, linguistic, and literary context do not constitute a basis for sound interpretation.
Just in case the two principles I have articulated above are too general, let me give an example of what I mean. I have written before about the Mathew 24 ‘signs of the end of the age’, passage before, but it will also serve well here.
Many people are wondering if we are currently living in the final days of planet Earth as we know it, and so what Jesus said about it is a hot current issue.
Matthew 24 contains some statements that may confuse or scare some. For instance, Jesus said in Matthew 24 verses 15 and 16, “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation’, spoken through the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand) then let those who are in Judea flee fo the mountains’”. I wonder how many doomsday-preppers have taken this as a reason to head for the hills and live in armed and fearful isolation? The assumption for them would be that the whole of chapter 24 is about the end of time. Because there is no longer a temple (holy place) in Jerusalem, then they figure that the reference must be to parts of today’s church which they perceive as an abomination in so many ways. The world is evidencing much of what Jesus speaks of in the chapter, and they see the traditional church as ‘desolate’, so it must be time to run and hide. The problem is that the disciples asked Jesus two questions, one about when the Jerusalem temple would be destroyed and the other about the end of time and the second coming. In verses 15 to 22 Jesus describes the conditions that would occur in AD 70 when the temple would be destroyed by the Roman army. This passage does not refer to our current conditions. There are clues in the text itself that this is the case. For instance, ‘let the reader understand’ must surely refer to the original readers and not the hundreds of generations between then and now. If you would like to read further on this passage of Matthew then click HERE.
What do I believe concerning the centrality of Jesus Christ? What do I believe concerning the trustworthiness of the bible? What do I believe concerning my dependence on the Holy Spirit?
Having determined what I currently believe concerning these three fundamental theological foundations, my next step should be to relate issues of faith and life to what Jesus revealed within its proper context. Do my current life principles, values, and purposes correlate with a Jesus-centred theology? From this base, I can determine what needs to change in the way I live my Christian life. This will be hard work requiring regular reality checks, but I know of no other way to intentionally adjust our theology and the lifestyle that flows from this.
Another way to perform a reality check is to change our approach to responding to issues that arise in our lives. If someone asks what your position is on homosexuality, abortion, war, radical liberalism, or whatever, you can check your habitual response and reprocess the matter differently. Instead of responding with “Well, I think…”, or, “The Bible says…”, you can find some time to run the issue through the filters that I have proposed.
If you still hold that theology is not important, then I would be very happy to interact with you and hear what you have to say. The easiest way is to comment on this post at the foot of the page, or you could send me an e-mail.