What Is Theology and Who Does It? Part 2

What Is Theology and Who Does It? Part 2

            In Part 1 I described two broad types of antipathy toward scholarly, academic theology among American Christians (especially evangelicals). The first is anti-intellectualism (especially toward scholarly study of religion in general and Christianity in particular. The second is scholarly, academic belief that theology is a pseudo-science except as it is done by non-theologians (philosophers, sociologists, artists, etc.). Before proceeding to read this second part of the series, please go back and read Part 1. Without that this Part 2 may not make much sense. I am assuming Part 1 here.

            So, everything I have said so far begs an answer to the question “What is ‘theology’—as I mean it here?”

            Because of the antipathies to theology I described in Part 1, Stan Grenz and I wrote Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (IVP 1994). It has sold very well and is still being used as an introduction to theology in many Christian academic settings. What I say here will overlap some with that.

            My experience has been that when I have the opportunity to explain what I mean by “theology” some opponents of scholarly, academic theology as a distinct discipline acknowledge it—if it is done rightly. Others, however, go deeper into their opposition.

            First, let me clarify “scholarly, academic” as qualifiers of “theology.” Most broadly defined “theology” is simply the study of God, thinking about God, the “science of God.” By “scholarly, academic” I do not mean “ivory tower,” “speculative,” “impractical,” or “disconnected from life”—including the life of the church. I mean the study of God, thinking about God that goes beyond folk religion—the very informal, cliché-determined, feeling-oriented thinking about God that many lay people (and some pastors) revel in (e.g., “God helps those who help themselves”).

            When I talk about theology as my discipline I am talking about thinking about God (and matters related to God) informed and shaped by research into and reflection on sources and norms. What sources and norms? Revelation (especially Scripture), tradition (in Christian theology that would be the Great Tradition of Christian thought and a denomination’s traditions), reason, and experience. Theology as I mean it is the study of God (and matters related to God such as salvation) shaped by research into and reflection on revelation, tradition, reason and experience.

            Who is theology’s audience? For whom is theology done? Well, of course, for a Christian such as myself, the primary audience is God; theology is done for the glory and enjoyment of God—and our enjoyment of him. But the secondary audience is the church—one’s own denomination and the church universal. The tertiary audience is inquirers—whether churched or not.

            Sidebar: There are, of course, all kind of disciplines that include “theology” in their name. There is, of course, “philosophical theology.” That’s not what I mean when I claim theology as my discipline. Philosophical theology is thinking about God philosophically—not using revelation or tradition as sources or norms but using only reason and universal human experience. This is akin to “philosophy of religion.” I recognize it as a legitimate and distinct discipline that can be helpful to theology as I mean it, but it is not my discipline and, in my opinion, cannot replace theology as I mean it here and whenever I say I “do theology.”

            There is, of course, also “historical theology” and that is a discipline I also practice—through research and reflection. It is adjunct to theology as thinking about God (and matters related to God)—especially within a specific religious context such as a Christian school or church. Historical theology is the study of Christian beliefs (and worship and ethics, etc.).

            In my opinion, neither philosophical theology nor historical theology require commitment to the truth of any revelation or to any church (universal or particular). Theology as I mean it here and as I claim to practice it as a scholar does require commitment to the truth of a revelation, Jesus Christ and scripture, for example, and to the mission of God in and through the church of Jesus Christ.

            Better than any simple definition of theology, as I mean it and claim to practice it (however imperfectly), is a thick description of it through explanation of its tasks. Theology as I mean it, claim to practice it, and hope to defend it, has four tasks—grouped under two general headings. The two general headings, theology’s two major tasks, are critical and constructive.

            Theology critically examines truth claims about God (and matters related to God) in light of revelation, tradition, reason and experience to determine, as much as possible, their truth status (or falsity) using those four criteria. It does this for the churches—to protect and preserve them in the truth of God. The second step under “critical task” is to determine, as far as possible, the importance of true beliefs. Are they essential to Christianity (for example), not to Christianity but to a denomination or Christian tradition, or interesting but not essential to anything?

            As for the constructive tasks of theology: Theology attempts to develop cognitive models (doctrines) of God and matters related to God out of revelation, tradition, reason and experience and (second step) reconstruct them to be culturally relevant.

            These are extremely simplistic accounts of theology’s tasks, and they do not explore or explain the various possibilities for carrying them out, but I argue they define “theology” and are all necessary to its being “done” adequately. Theology as I mean it does these tasks in that way—using revelation, tradition, reason and experience.

            One question that inevitably arises is about “biblical theology.” What is “biblical theology” in relation to what I am calling simply “theology?” As I understand it “biblical theology” has two distinct meanings. First is simply hermeneutics. Second is “theology done faithfully to the Bible.” I affirm both. The first is useful, even necessary, for theology as I mean it, but theology as I mean it here (and in Part 1) goes beyond hermeneutics. Theology as I attempt to do it, evangelical Christian theology, also attempts to be biblically faithful.

            Now, let me make some possibly startling claims about theology (and related matters).

            Where doctrine does not matter, theology will inevitably be undervalued if not rejected entirely. Or it will be transformed into something else while still being called “theology.” This is a major cause, I believe, for the under valuing of theology in contemporary American Christianity. To a very large extent, non-fundamentalist Christians have given up on truth that transcends the individual and his or her spirituality.

            Theology has many pathologies, but none of them, nor all taken together, negates theology’s importance. Theology’s pathologies are no excuse for discarding or neglecting it.

            Theology is a distinct and scholarly discipline within the Christian academic context; it cannot be replaced by any other discipline without major loss.

            The church of Jesus Christ is shaped, in part, by beliefs and its beliefs should be reasonable in the broadest sense in light of revelation, tradition, reason and experience. They should be intelligible to thinking people who embrace Christianity’s sources and norms (as they should). Therefore, churches should rely on their theologians for help in shaping worship, mission, proclamation, etc.

            Throughout my thirty-one years as a theologian I have found very few churches that valued theology or theologians. Once I volunteered to serve as “theologian in residence” at a church where I was a member. I asked for no remuneration and made clear my only desire was to serve as a consultant whenever the church dealt with matters pertaining to doctrine. I am confident the church declined not for any personal reasons; I was “in good standing.” They simply did not care about theology.

            Occasionally I have approached pastors and worship leaders with a comment about something theological and have usually been rebuffed. Here’s an example from many years ago. The guest preacher’s sermon was about the “imminent return of Jesus Christ” and resonated well with the eschatology believed by most members and pastors of the denomination which was clearly premillennial. Immediately after the sermon the worship leader had the congregation stand and sing “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations” which is blatantly postmillennial. (I knew the worship leader was not postmillennial and doubted that any church member or attender was, either.) I approached the worship leader after the worship service and asked him if he noticed the dissonance between the sermon and the song. He didn’t. I had to explain it to him. He said “Only you would notice that.”

            To me, that’s a sad admission. A worship leader, like every staff member and leader of a church ought to at least be inclined to listen to and take seriously what his or her own denomination’s trained theologians have to say. Unfortunately, my experience is that that is rare. The result is often a lack of intelligibility, coherence, in preaching, worship and mission.

            A good Calvinist friend of mine says “If we are to get the message [of the gospel] out, we must first get it right.” I agree. I’m not at all convinced the majority of American Christian lay people or pastors (or church leaders in general) agree or care—in any way that would be corrective or transformative.

            In Part 3 I will deal with who is a theologian—that is, who does theology (as I mean it here).

  • Chinglican at Table

    Thank you for this. Re: your point about ‘only you would notice this,’ I sometimes listen to our local Christian radio for theological entertainment. Recently, a very popular song has repeatedly played, alleging that, ‘My God’s not dead / He’s surely alive / He’s living on the inside / Roaring like a lion.’ I have since remarked that this has become my favourite articulation of liberal Christianity, which makes our evangelical radio station strangely ecumenical.

    Thank you for this post series. I look forward to #3.

    • Ed Cook

      Great post following another great post. Looking forward to #3.

      Thanks for mentioning Stan Grenz. Stan was a friend and mentor when I was a midlife church-planter/pastor when I entered seminary after starting a church 4 years prior. We had talked about him being my dissertation advisor when I entered the D.Min. program at Carey in Vancouver BC. His unfortunate and untimely death meant that it was not to be. But hardly am I ever engaged in a theological task without being reminded of him and something I learned from him. You are now becoming one of my “friends and mentors from afar.”

      Ed Cook, D.Min.

      • Roger Olson

        I’m honored by that.

  • Adam Nigh

    Another great post! (I posted a response yesterday but it never showed up.) I definitely relate to being told “only you would notice that”. Being influenced by Barth as I am, I do worry about the Wesleyan quadrilateral of revelation, tradition reason and experience as sources and norms. I don’t think its wrong, but I do think even at the level of the most general description of theology (the kind that can include as many theological traditions as possible) it is still necessary to specify how these components fit together. It might be the combination of “sources and norms” that bothers me. Christian theology as a distinct discipline really has one source, or better, one object – revelation. If we understand revelation in a Christocentric way (not that Christ is the only revelation, but that all revelation is coordinated to him as its center), then we can say that our source and object are identical; theology investigates God through a revelatory source identical with himself. Reason and experience then become cognitive tools for the construction of models that assist comprehension of that revelation and tradition acts as a secretary of prior constructions theology can consult as a reference.

    I realize the desire for brevity would steer many toward a less specified account that just puts the four aspects on the table, leaving description of the role of each to later work, but I have too often seen appeals to the quadrilateral serve to suppress the unique authority of scripture; when the four aspects are routinely listed together in a qualitatively undifferentiated way, people get the idea that “God speaks to people in different ways. Maybe he speaks to you most through scripture; to me he speaks most through experiences like sunsets and music.” “Theology” then becomes whatever we want it to be.

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, brevity requires over simplification here. See Stan Grenz’s and my Who Needs Theology? for more detailed explanation of theology’s sources and norms. I assume anyone who reads me here often knows that I believe in “prima scriptura”–Scripture as the sole supreme source in theology.

  • Rene

    This is wonderful, Dr. Olson. Thanks. I was wondering though, sometime could you touch on the difference between ‘doctrine’ and ‘theology?’ They seem to be used interchangeably but perhaps they shouldn’t be.

    • Roger Olson

      As I am using “theology” here it is a discipline–a process. “Doctrine” is a product of theology and something theology works on.

  • Rene

    “Are they essential to Christianity (for example), not to Christianity
    but to a denomination or Christian tradition, or interesting but not
    essential to anything?”

    In my limited experience (and understanding), the failure to address that one question is the cause of most problems in the church. Am I close?

    • Roger Olson

      It certainly is a cause of many problems in some churches.

  • DMH

    Roger, thanks for this post. A few comments/questions regarding the constructive task (I am for the most part self taught so I am always looking to be schooled :) ) 1) Theology is unavoidable- we all try to put the bits and pieces together in a unified whole. 2) I see Scripture as more or less a narrative- how much detail should/can/are we meant to get out of the story? (I’m thinking not near the detail I’ve seen in some theologies) 3) Aren’t our constructive (philosophical) categories foreign to the text?, and as such produce something (well) beyond Scripture? (again, unavoidable, but a reason to bring humility to the conversation).

    • Roger Olson

      I agree. So my solution is that theologians ought to be very clear and explicit about when they believe something (a conceptual model, for example) is required by the narrative and when it is speculative. There’s nothing wrong with reverent speculation; it’s just that in so many products of theology much seems speculative but isn’t labeled such.

  • Fred Karlson

    I just reread the lyrics to “We’ve A Story To Tell To The Nations.” I can see how it could be read and sung with a post-millennial interpretation, but that would never have entered my mind. Peter says that we are to hasten the day of the Lord. That should be our task regardless of which millennial position we take.

  • Jgdisch

    I am a pastor , the church I pastor is not too far from a major seminary in the midwest, Chicago area. I occasionally have one or two… at one time three people working on finishing their doctorate programs in our congregation. I put them to ‘work’ immediately’, I am checking and double checking my own understanding of certain passages and such and if they have time will ask them to teach a class. I paid one Doctrinal candidate to put together a two year course of classes for me to help train future leaders in the church. It helped him financially and helped the ministry of the church tremendously. One student is now in prison ministry near by , another is on the mission field in India after some further education. Another runs the bilingual group we have in the church now. I consider having a bone-fide theologian in my congregation a blessing beyond any other. I agree, theologians should be welcomed and used in a healthy way for reference and clarity and such by any pastor……

    • Roger Olson

      I think you are a blessed exception–at least to what I have experienced in church life.


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