A Series: Christian Theology—Answers to Questions: Two: Why Theology Is Necessary
Why is theology necessary? Simply put—because the Bible is not always as clear as we wish it were. There is an old Protestant adage that the Bible interprets itself. Some Protestants have believed that the Bible is “perspicuous”—capable of being understood correctly by anyone who reads it without wrong presuppositions or biases. The Bible without Theology is not just the title of a book; it is an attitude held by many Christians.
The problem is that anyone who reads and studies the Bible closely will discover that there are apparent contradictions in it and many statements that are unclear as to their meaning. Beyond that, however, nobody reads the Bible without some presuppositions and biases that color the way they understand it.
The above claims arise from a lifetime of reading and studying the Bible and the diverse interpretations of the Bible by equally sincere, well-meaning, spiritually devoted Christians (to say nothing of non-Christians).
Also, and in addition to what I say above, every sermon and Bible study is theology—for better or worse. If the Bible were absolutely perspicuous every good sermon would be just a reading of the Bible. No, the Bible requires interpretation and explanation. At the most basic level that is theology. Not always good theology but theology nevertheless.
*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.*
It is not, then, a question of theology or no theology; it is a question of good theology or bad theology. Or perhaps it is a question of better theology and worse theology. But theology in its broadest sense is inescapable for anyone who reads the Bible for understanding and who hears or reads explanations of the Bible’s meaning and wants to know whether they are correct.
In the sense of “product” (as explained in the first post of this series) theology always already exists. Everyone already comes to the Bible, to Christian tradition, to Christian living, with some set of beliefs however inchoate and subconscious. Here, in this essay, I am talking about what I previously called theology as “process”—thinking critically and reflectively about messages labeled “Christian.” By “messages” I mean anything and everything of cognitive content—written or spoken or sung or portrayed. They simply cannot all be authentically Christian because many of them absolutely contradict each other and some of them are contrary to the Bible itself, to the spirit of Jesus Christ, God’s self-revelation, and to all of Christian tradition.
For example, the various forms of the so-called “prosperity gospel” or “health and wealth gospel” or “positive faith” teaching call for critical theological reflection because, while they may not be entirely new, they do present a relatively new interpretation of God and prayer and the Christian life. Theologians outside the “Word Faith” movement have rejected it as a distortion of the Bible, of the spirit of Jesus Christ, of Christian tradition as well as a harmful message that ultimately disappoints because it holds out false hopes.
Christian theologians, even those with strong evangelical and even Pentecostal/charismatic credentials, have discovered that the roots of this movement lie not in Christianity but in a philosophy called “New Thought” about which I have written extensively here. That philosophy, which evolved into several religious expressions, holds at its core the idea that God can be manipulated into giving gifts of health and wealth through magic—powerful thoughts and spoken words that cause God to heal and to give financial abundance and prosperity.
One day I saw a billboard near my home that was an announcement of a new church in town. The billboard said “Never poor, always wealth; never sick, always healthy—guaranteed!” That is a message that calls forth serious theological examination. Its biblical basis is extremely weak, based on a few verses here and there that are wrongly interpreted. It echoes New Thought more than authentic Christianity.
That is just one example of the necessity of theology as process. The gospel of health and wealth, the Word-Faith movement, is extremely popular both inside the United States and among Christians in the Global South and elsewhere. Unfortunately, Christianity has become a patchwork quilt of such messages, beliefs, “gospels,” that all claim to be authentically Christian but absolutely contradict each other and usually arise out of some cultural philosophy such as New Thought.The early church fathers, especially second century bishop Irenaeus, began practicing theology as I mean it here, in this series, to combat Gnosticism. Most second century gnostics claimed that their belief system, including that matter is evil and that Jesus Christ was not truly human, loudly claimed that their version of Christianity was the true one. Irenaeus exposed it as having no foundation in the teachings of the apostles and he exposed its absurdities and inner contradictions. (This was in his Five Books against Heresies.)
Today, in America, at least, theology as process (critical reflection on messages claiming to be Christian as well as reconstruction of traditional doctrines that have been forgotten or not yet discovered) is largely being written off by Christians who are mired in folk religion. This rejection of theology and even of the cognitive content of Christianity in favor of “feeling content” undermines Christianity’s ability to speak coherently and intelligibly into the “marketplace” of ideas in our pluralistic society. Christianity is by-and-large not taken seriously as an account of reality precisely because by-and-large Christians (with some notable exceptions) have exchanged Christianity’s cognitive content for “spiritual experiences” alone.
Where are the Christian public intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr? Where are the great Christian theologians like Karl Barth? Where are the churches that value theology by financially supporting seminaries? The latter exist, of course, but they are becoming fewer all the time.
So, to conclude, for now, if you are interested in knowing the cognitive content of basic Christianity, a good place to begin is my book Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story (Zondervan) which lays out what all Christians have always believed about reality in contrast to secular and pagan beliefs about reality. There I discuss issues such as Christianity, the Bible and modern science—are they enemies? Also, is God personal and involved in the world in a supernatural, not only natural, way? It is not exactly a book of systematic theology but an exposition of what has been called “the Christian worldview” where “worldview” means “metaphysical perspective on ultimate as well as non-ultimate reality.” The book does not require any previous knowledge of philosophy or theology. I wrote it because I have discovered over forty years of teaching theology that many Christians know their catechism but have beliefs about reality that are totally alien to authentic biblical Christianity. Consider it a correction to both so-called New Age beliefs (radical immanentism) and deism (radical transcendentalism). I explain every term that may not already be familiar to lay readers and beginning students of Christian thought.
Yes, I am shamelessly promoting my books in this series, but my publishers appreciate it. And I wrote my books for reasons and I believe they can be helpful to “inquiring mind Christians.” Most of them are not strongly academic; no university press would publish most of them. They are written specifically for ordinary but thoughtful Christians with inquiring minds.
To conclude, theology, as I have described it, is the only antidote to Christianity gradually becoming compatible with anything and everything and therefore nothing—except perhaps inward spiritual feelings with no cognitive content or with wrong cognitive content. Folk religion is to serious Christianity as astrology is to astronomy.
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