A Series: Christian Theology—Answers to Questions: One: Why Theology?
Here I introduce a new series on this blog. I am going to write a series of essays about basic questions Christian theology at least attempts to answer. Over my almost forty years of teaching Christian theology I have accumulated numerous questions that occur and re-occur. Here I will answer the most common ones.
One very common question, asked in many ways, is what is the need for theology? Why do we Christians (and possibly others) need theology?
In order to answer this question I have to consider the meaning of “theology.” Martin Luther perceptively said that every Christian is a theologian. I might add that every person is a theologian insofar as he or she thinks about life’s ultimate questions. Here however, I will restrict my thoughts to why Christians need theology.
Theology is, at the most basic level, reflecting about God in light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, scripture, Christian tradition, using reason and experience. Many will recognize this as the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” but I believe it is not at all limited to Wesleyans.
By “reflecting” I mean thinking critically and constructively. Christian theology’s two sources are revelation and tradition; Christian theology’s two tools for thinking reflectively about revelation and tradition are reason and experience.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I have written a book about this question together with my late friend Stanley J. Grenz. It is entitled Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (InterVarsity Press). It has sold about fifty thousand copies. If you want a fuller answer to who needs theology and what theology is, please read it.
Theology is critically examining messages that claim to be “Christian” to see if they really are Christian and constructing re-constructing beliefs about God from Christian sources using tools such as reason and experience.
“Theology” can be understood in several ways that are equally valid. First, theology can be understood and the word can be used for the process described above. Second, theology can be understood and the word can be used for the products of the process described above. These are the two main uses of the word “theology.”
For example, “Karl Barth’s theology is profound and takes a long time to understand.” That sentence can be understood in two ways—either separately or together, at once. The person saying is may mean the process Barth used to arrive at his conclusions or he/she can mean Barth’s conclusions.
In my experience, most Christians in the pews (not trained in theology) frown when they hear that theology uses reason. I believe that is usually because they are thinking of “reason” as a particular philosophy external to Christianity itself. That is not what I mean by it, although that has happened in some cases of theologians who used a particular philosophy as the “good luck” of Christian theology—to make it intelligible and relevant to a particular audience.
Theologian Paul Tillich is a good example of that. He said that existentialism is the “good luck” of modern (20th century) Christian theology because without it Christian theology would be unintelligible to modern Western people.
That is not what I mean by “reason.” By reason I simply mean the basic laws of thought, logic, the rules that govern all intelligible discourse—such as the law of non-contradiction. Even then, of course, some Christians object and prefer their beliefs to be self-contradictory. They wrongly think that mystery necessarily results in contradictions. They can find some support for that in the history of Christian theology (Tertullian and possibly Kierkegaard).
However, I argue that if we do not want Christianity to be compatible with anything and everything, and if we want our Christian beliefs to be taken seriously by intelligent people, we cannot revel in logical contradictions in our thinking and speaking about God.
Why theology? Because the only alternative is folk religion. I also wrote a book about that. It’s entitled Questions to All Your Answers: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith and was published by Zondervan. There I critically examine about twelve popular Christian clichés that have some truth but ultimately do not hold up under scrutiny.
Here I will give just one example of why theology is necessary. Over the years I have heard many Christians say something to the effect that their spirit is the Holy Spirit. This is apparently a very common belief in some Christian circles. I once happened to watch and hear the wife of a famous evangelist speaking on a Christian television talk show. She explained to the host and the audience how Christians are different from non-Christians because non-Christians, the “unsaved,” do not have any spirit at all. Because of their sin, their spirit is dead. When they become saved the Holy Spirit enters in and replaces the dead spirit. So, for the Christian, his or her “spirit” is the Holy Spirit.
I do not have time here to explain why this popular idea of Christian folk religion is wrong. I will just say that it needs correction by men and women trained in biblical studies and historical theology and who know how to interpret the Bible using reason and experience. The Holy Spirit is gift, not possession. Everyone has a soul-spirit simply by virtue of being a creature made in the image and likeness of God. True, that “inner man” or “inner person” my be dead in trespasses and sins, but the human soul-spirit comes alive when the Holy Spirit enters in. But no one can claim that the Holy Spirit is their own soul-spirit. That smacks of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism.
Theology, as I have described it here, is not often appreciated by Christians because it sometimes has to correct, even contradict, popular Christian beliefs and expressions of beliefs (such as songs, clichés, stories, etc.). Many Christians hold firmly to false beliefs because they make them feel comfortable or “that’s what I’ve always heard in church,” etc. One Southern Baptist evangelist wrote “Happy is the Christian who has never met a theologian.” Indeed. That is a burden we theologians bear.
Emil Brunner offers a very interesting illustration of this common reaction to theologians and what we do and shows by the illustration why it is a wrong reaction.
He pointed to the scientist whose job it is to take produce from the grocery section of the store and examine it for its nutritional value in a laboratory. She could be blamed for destroying the food rather than enjoying it. Someone might say to her in the grocery store: Why are you destroying good food that someone might need and enjoy? Food is meant to be eaten, not broken down in a laboratory and examined. Brunner points out how absurd this would be. What the scientist does with the food is for the consumers’ own good. What if it turns out that some of the produce is contaminated with pesticides that could kill those who eat it? Everyone knows that what the scientist does is good even if, yes, food is meant to be eaten and enjoyed.
So it is with the theologian. People ought to thank theologians who faithfully examine Christian beliefs. Why? First, because God obviously cares what we think and say about him. Otherwise he would not have given a revelation of himself. Second, because when Christian beliefs are absurd or heretical the gospel that we share is undermined and we cannot expect people to believe it.
Now, admittedly, some Christian theologians go way too far in their criticisms of traditional Christian beliefs and seem to get joy out of tearing them down. That is wrong. Also, admittedly, some Christian theologians seem only interested in speculating about God from ivory towers where what they write or say cannot be understood by anyone but a select few intellectuals.
I adhere to the old adage that the proper response to abuse of something is not disuse but proper use.
I will end with a positive example of the good that theology can do and sometimes does—especially for the churches and people in them.
Historically speaking, the doctrine of the Trinity was becoming moribund and ignored if not denied during much of the nineteenth century. Moribund among conservatives and ignored if not denied by progressives. Most Christians gave it little thought and the popular Sunday School illustrations implied that either God is a committee of three separate divine persons or that God is like H2O—one substance that can take three different forms.
One of the most fascinating contributions of Christian theology in the twentieth century was the renaissance of trinitarian theology—beginning primarily with Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Hundreds of books by Christian theologians have been written in the last century about the Trinity and some of them are extremely helpful in making the doctrine of the Trinity lively, believable, and practical. This renaissance of the doctrine of the Trinity could not have been predicted at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century.
Why does that even matter? Because the God of revelation is triune and wants to be understood as such; the doctrine of the Trinity is the only construct that makes sense of all that scripture says about God. Any move away from the Trinity or any denial of it inevitably leads to a loss of the gospel and of classical, historical, biblical Christianity.
Again, I will shamelessly mention one of my books: The Trinity co-authored with Christopher Hall and published by Eerdmans. It is a comprehensive, critical account and examination of the history of the doctrine of the Trinity. For an easy-to-read, popular but also scholarly expression of the doctrine of the Trinity I strongly recommend Alister McGrath’s Understanding the Trinity (Zondervan). If you want to dig deeper and enjoy a really great constructive treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity I cannot think of a better one than Catherine LaCugna’s God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (HarperSan Francisco). She demonstrates in marvelous fashion how the doctrine of the Trinity, properly understood, is not ivory tower speculation but is closely connected to salvation.
I will finish with a final shameless mention of something I preached and wrote and posted here some years ago. You can find it and read it by using Google: “The Trinity Means Love.”
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