Clearing Up Confusion about “Theology” (Prolegomena to Prolegomena)

Clearing Up Confusion about “Theology” (Prolegomena to Prolegomena) June 2, 2020

Clearing Up Confusion about “Theology” (Prolegomena to Prolegomena)

Systematic or constructive theology usually begins with “prolegomena”—so-called “first things”—foundations of theology. What prolegomena include vary from theology to theology. However, prolegomena usually begin with some discussion of the method of theology—how theology is “done”—especially including the roles of revelation, tradition, reason, and experience—the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Many volumes of Christian theology begin with some version of natural theology or at least discussion of it. Natural theology, of course, includes reasons for believing in God, divine revelation, etc. (This is why Swiss theologian Karl Barth rejected prolegomena, because he believed it began Christian theology with non-Christian foundations.)

In short, “prolegomena” is any discussion of “first things” of Christian theology but especially theological methodhow theology will be done. This is similar to studies of science which begins with discussions of the scientific method. That would be the prolegomena to the sciences—physics, chemistry, biology, etc.

Here I want to step back from prolegomena to prolegomena to prolegomena—to explain what theology is—discussion of first things before first things. Even among Christians one cannot assume knowledge or understanding of theology as theology. “Theology” is a word often misused for other subjects. For example, “theology” is often misused for ethics and for spirituality and for the practice of ministry. All those and more can come under the broad umbrella category of “theological studies,” but they are not themselves actually pure theology. Let me explain with an illustration.

Theology is to ethics what physics is to engineering; ethics is to theology what engineering is to physics. Both are essential, but they are not quite the same thing. Engineering depends on physics in a way physics does not depend on engineering.

Once, long ago when I began teaching theology at a Christian liberal arts college, I was confronted by a colleague who taught physics. He asked what I taught and I told him “theology.” He replied somewhat snarkily “O, theology, that’s theoretical Christianity.” I responded “O, physics, that’s theoretical engineering.” He got my point, laughed and we were friends ever afterwards.

There is a sense in which theology is “theoretical Christianity,” but that does not make it irrelevant; it makes it essential—in the same way physics is essential to engineering. Engineering might be considered “applied physics.” So ethics and spiritual formation and ministry practice might be considered “applied theology”—theology put into practice.

But nobody learns engineering without first learning physics and every good engineer uses physics daily in “doing engineering.” You cannot just jump into engineering without first studying physics! Physics guides engineering even if it does not actually do engineering.

The same relationship exists between, say, social work and sociology. Social work is applied sociology; sociology is (sometimes) theoretical social work.

Many people, including many Christians, simply do not understand the relevance of theology or they reduce theology to ethics or spirituality or ministry practice. They are not the same. Theology is the study of God; it is thinking about God—with the goal of undergirding and guiding ethics, spirituality and ministry practice. Of course, theology “thinks” about God and other things in relation to God—creation, history, humanity, Jesus Christ, salvation, the church, etc.

My main point here is simply this: theology, properly understood, is not ethics even if ethics often calls itself “theology.” Christian ethics is applied theology, theology applied to moral decision making and acting. Ethics, spirituality and ministry practice (including Christian social work) build on theology. They borrow from other fields such as philosophy, sociology, etc. Theology itself often “borrows” from philosophy and sociology—as “conversation partners”—but pure Christian theology always depends primarily on revelation—especially the Bible—plus tradition, reason, and experience. The Bible is the primary source and norm; tradition, reason and experience are tools theology uses in “filling in the gaps” and interpreting the Bible.

Theology proper, theology itself, is thinking about God (and matters related to God) in the light of God’s Word, revelation, especially scripture, using tradition, reason and experience as tools of interpretation. It is about beliefs—the cognitive content of Christianity—what Christian churches and individuals ought to believe. It informs Christian practice (ethics, spirituality, ministry, etc.) but cannot be reduced to them. They are informed and even regulated and governed by theology.

*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.*

Back to the problem that spurs me to write this brief essay about theology: Very often today, in the late modern, postmodern Zeitgeist (spirit of the age), even among Christians, “theology” is treated as ethics, especially social ethics, and is even reduced to that. Belief, doctrine, intelligent ideas about God (theology), is being lost as “theology” is redefined to refer primarily to things like social ethics, spirituality, practical ministry. Classical theology, theology proper, is about doctrines. It is primarily intellectual although not in the “bad way” that many people think of when they hear or read “intellectual.” It is not “ivory tower” thinking (or shouldn’t be), but it is part of the life of the mind in which Christians determine what they believe in order to practice their lives of Christian work properly—faithfully to what God has revealed about himself in the Bible and to what the majority of faithful Christians have always believed and using reason and experience as tools for interpreting what God has revealed about himself.

Theology proper, real theology, has a method. Of course, there are people who call themselves “theologians” and call their work “theology” who do not follow theology’s proper method. Nobody can stop them and they cause all kinds of confusion among Christians and non-Christians alike! Real, proper, classical theology rises above particular practices and applications. It precedes them. It governs and guides them. Real theology, proper, classical theology, simply interprets divine revelation and “thinks it out” into doctrines about God, creation, humanity (what it means to be human and the human condition), Jesus Christ, salvation, the church, etc. Then these doctrines guide and govern the “doings” of Christian ethics, social work, ministry practice, etc.

Some postmodern Christians want to put the cart before the horse and say that theology ought to be guided and governed by the “doings” (“practices”) of Christianity. But, of course, that leaves the doings, the practices, without anything to guide and govern them. Practice needs knowledge; knowledge leads into practice. Not the other way around.

That is why every Christian seminary, historically, classically, places the study of theology at the center of its curriculum—together with the study of the Bible. But even the study of the Bible aims at the right thinking about God—doctrinally. Therefore, there is a very real sense in which the study of theology always is and has been the center of a seminary’s curriculum. In the same way as physics is always the center of a school of engineering’s curriculum and biology is always the center of a medical school’s curriculum and sociology is the center of a school of social work’s curriculum. Or, in some cases, students entering these schools are expected already to know physics, biology, or sociology. Because many students entering a seminary do not already know theology it remains at the center of a seminary’s curriculum.

If all this seems cryptic or enigmatic, let me be perfectly clear. Over the past century, and especially the past half century, numerous books have been published pretending to be “theology” when, in fact, they are books almost solely about spirituality and/or social ethics and/or the practices of ministry. In other words, they are not about doctrines per se but about practices—liberation of the oppressed, proper worship, spiritual formation, church leadership, pastoral work, etc. And entire field of study has arisen called “practical theology” that often bypasses real theology, classical theology altogether. That is, many of the scholars and practitioners of “practical theology” call what they do “theology” but they know little to nothing (or ignore) real, classical theology. The result is that “theology” is being redefined in many Christians’ minds so that it has little or nothing to do with true belief—doctrine.

The result of this trend is the gradual withering away of doctrine in Christian churches and even in Christian colleges, universities and seminaries. The line between classical theology and practical theology has become extremely blurred and is even disappearing and many Christians are wrongly thinking of “theology” as solely or at least primarily on the “other side” of the line from Christian intellectual thinking about God—the study of revelation leading into proper believing—doctrines.

One result of this trend is that in many churches today what one believes simply does not matter so long as he or she does the right practices. “Practice” is swallowing up belief or pushing it aside. “Theology” is being redefined as the study of Christian practice without Christian belief. A person may be a church leader, for example, and have no interest in belief/doctrine or have heretical beliefs/doctrines and still be applauded within his or her church because of his or her strong promotion of (allegedly) right practices.

What I am not arguing here is that theology is better or even more important than ethics, spirituality, or ministry practice. Physics is not “more important” than engineering (whatever the character Sheldon Cooper of the television series “The Big Bang Theory” may have said). Both are important, but they are not the same thing. A physicist cannot design a good bridge. If he or she does, then he or she is both a physicist and an engineer. But an engineer cannot design and build a good bridge without physics. Physics needs application, but application is not physics. Engineering needs physics, the study of natural laws, but physics is not engineering.

Imagine that you are interested in studying physics and buy a book about the subject but find that it is only about bridges. Or imagine that you are interested in sociology and go to hear a noted “sociologist” who then turns out to be a social worker who talks only about helping people access private and public programs. Or imagine that you are interested in the attributes of God and how they relate to evil and watch a Youtube video by a “theologian” who only talks about how Christians can comfort the afflicted. And imagine that in each case you discover that the author or speaker knows little or nothing about the laws of nature and mathematics or about why there should be programs to help disadvantaged people or why evil exists in a world created by a good and almighty God.

True, classical Christian theology is the study of God (and things related to God) that aims at right beliefs about God (and things related to God) that then guides and governs Christian practices. It is not guided by the practices although it might learn something from them. But it precedes the practices themselves—not in time, necessarily, but in activity. The activity of thought, belief, precedes the activity of practices. The practices do not guide or govern thought or belief; thought and belief govern the practices—in a Christian context. And that is usually true in the rest of life—at least for thoughtful, reflective practitioners. They put theory into practice and return to the theory with their practices. Theory, knowledge, belief, can learn from practice, but it cannot be reduced to practice or governed by practice.

Christian theology, then, is about beliefs and not about ethics or spirituality or ministerial practices. It informs them and can learn from them, but it precedes them and guides and governs them. It is about doctrines—Christian beliefs—and how Christians should think about God and everything in creation in light of God. It is discipleship of the mind, discovering the right thoughts about God, faith seeking understanding. Practice flows from it and is guided, governed and regulated by it, but it is not itself practice.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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