The Nature of Theology

“So tell me about your new boyfriend.”

A common enough question heard from squealing teenagers as well as older adults on the dating merry-go-round. And of course the question never suffers for lack of an answer. In fact, the questioned will give her interrogator as much or more information about the new flame as she could ever want to know.

But how would we respond to such a question about God? Do we ever get that kind of question? Do we ever ask it of ourselves? And why would we feel like such a question is worthy of as much detail and effort as getting to know an important person in our lives?

I’ve talked to people who profess no interest in theology or “doctrine,” convinced that such things are unimportant since we need to focus on loving people and preaching the gospel and that sort of thing. But then I wonder why bother?

Why should we love people?

Why should we preach the gospel?

And of course, as Christians attempt to answer me when I ask such questions, they invariably make reference to the Bible. But why would they do that? Why does it matter to me what that dusty old book has to say? And of course, most Christians will distinguish themselves from those who are not Christians, as if there is something in what they believe or do that sets them apart from others, even others who might practice some sort of religion.

You mean there’s a difference between a Christian and a Wahabbi Muslim? Don’t they both worship one God?

So what distinguishes a Christian from someone who isn’t?


And once you start trying to answer them, you’ve started spouting doctrine and you’re guilty of doing theology.

The problem is not that anyone really believes that doctrine doesn’t matter or that theology is of no consequence. Rather, the questions they ask, the stuff they talk about, the things they do—they just don’t imagine that such things are part of what is called “doctrine” or “theology.” And they fear that things like “doctrine” and “theology” are necessarily divisive, too hard to understand anyhow, and that it will keep people from getting along or working for what is really important: the gospel.

Which is sadly too often true. But then “doctrine” is the stuff of which even getting along and the gospel are made, since there is a con-tent to even those basic concepts. If you say all that matters is that we believe in Jesus, that’s fine, but who is Jesus then? What do you mean “believe” in him? Once you start to answer those two questions, you’ve slipped on the banana peel of “doctrine.” You’re starting to do theology. You simply can’t escape from it.

Let’s look at it this way. If we want to build a computer, we’ll need some stuff out of which to build it. Simply getting a cardboard box and drawing high tech looking doodles on it won’t get us on the internet. We’ll need the case and the power supply, we’ll have to choose a motherboard and a CPU—Intel or AMD?—and we’ll need to decide on an operating system: a flavor of Windows, or Linux, or something else entirely, like OS-X? And then there’s the issue of hard drives, how big, how much and what sorts of memory, the video card, and inciden-tals like speakers, monitor, keyboard and mouse (wireless or wired?). We have to make choices and decisions. We have to know things; we have to know what we’re doing in order to put it all together, let alone to make the choices as we shop. And of course we have to pay atten-tion to the cost of it all. Will it fit into our budget? Can I really skip paying my mortgage this month in order to pay for this new toy?

This is what doctrine, or theology, is all about. It’s about understanding God, how we relate to him, and how we relate to each other. Theology is about the stuff of which our lives are built. It’s about both big and little questions. Why can’t I get online? How long before supper’s ready? How do I change a diaper? How do I convince my teenager that getting a tattoo of her boyfriend’s name put on her belly is a really bad idea? How am I going to pay the mortgage this month? How come my wife and I can’t get along? Why do I have the flu, now? Why did my son have to die? What am I going to do without my husband, I miss him so?

That’s really all theology is: a bunch of questions and a stab at answering them. Some of the questions have easy answers that everyone agrees on. Most of the questions have several possible answers that no one agrees on. Some of the questions seem to have no good answers at all, but that doesn’t mean the question shouldn’t be asked or that no one should keep trying to find an answer.

If you have questions, if you think you don’t know it all, if a lot of what you see in life puzzles you, and if you’ve been trying to find the answers, then theology is something you’ve been doing all your life!

So What is Theology?

Theology can be defined simply as “the study of God.” Freshman college students, along with most of the general population, usually define it with one word: “boring.” This is rarely a fault in the student or the general population. The common way of teaching theol-ogy as a list of facts about God hardly seems to bear much relevance to everyday life. How is getting a job or mowing the lawn or even preaching the gospel aided by knowing about supralapsarianism? Isn’t the Bible alone enough? All we need to know is how to be saved, and how to give the gospel to others, right? Why should we know anything more?

The nineteenth century theologian A.H. Strong described theology as “The science of God and of the relations between God and the universe.” Paul, a first century theologian, wrote to his friend Timothy that properly understanding the “word of truth” was both worthwhile and required some effort (2 Timothy 2:15).

The Nature of Theology

One could say that our modern concept of theology began with the Greeks, even though it gained its content and method with Christi-anity. The themes of the discipline are primarily God, humanity, and the relationship between the two. According to Helmut Thielicke:

The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428-348/347 BC), with whom the concept emerges for the first time, associated with the term theology a polemical intention—as did his pupil Aristotle. For Plato theology described the mythical, which he allowed may have a temporary pedagogical significance that is beneficial to the state but is to be cleansed from all offensive and abstruse elements with the help of political legislation. This identification of theology and mythology also remained customary in the later Greek thought. In distinction to philosophers, “theologians” (as, for example, the poets of myth—e.g., the 8th-century-BC Greeks Hesiod and Homer—or the cultic servants of the oracle at Delphi [Greece] and the rhetors of the Roman cult of emperor worship) testified to and proclaimed that which they viewed as divine. Theology thus became significant as the means of proclaiming the gods, of confessing to them, and of teaching and “preaching” this confession. In this practice of “theology” by the Greeks lies the prefiguration of what later would be known as theology in the history of Christianity. In spite of all the contradictions and nuances that were to emerge in the understanding of this concept in various Christian confessions and schools of thought, a formal crite-rion remains constant: theology is the attempt of adherents of a faith to represent their statements of belief consistently, to explicate them out of the basis (or fundamentals) of their faith, and to assign to such statements their specific place within the context of all other worldly relations (e.g., nature and history) and spiritual processes (e.g., reason and logic).

(Helmut Thielicke, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia, Vol. 18, Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1984, p. 274.)

The Objective of Theology

There may be as many objectives to theology as there are theologians. Some have as their goal, perhaps, simply the accumulation of facts about God, arranged in some sort of easily accessible order. Others may study God for the purpose of making a point. The ax-grinders union is a significant force in theology: the number of pet projects range from those who wish justification for some behavior, to those who have decided to mount a crusade against falsehood as they see it. Too often, theology falls to the lowest ebb, of people seeking just to prove something, rather than people seeking to discover or understand something. Theology should function as a science, and like any other science, it should have as its sole aim the attainment of truth.

Stating “the attainment of truth” as our goal is far easier than achieving it. As a human being, I obviously have my own agenda, my own ideas, my own axes. Probably each reader, if honest with himself or herself, would have to admit the same thing. No one who approaches theology is any different. In fact, objectivity, though a laudable goal, is simply unattainable. Anyone who claims complete objectivity is lying—either to others or to himself. More reasonable and better is to express explicitly, right up front, what his or her prejudices and points of view might be. In that way, at least the reader has a fighting chance of determining what the truth of a given issue might really be. Arguments that might be reasonable in the context of one individual’s assumptions, may, in another set of circumstances, with those assumptions unknown, seem quite ludicrous. At least, by knowing someone’s point of view, the reader has a chance of understanding where the author is coming from and what point he or she might be trying to make.

Scientists strive to harmonize and make sense of the universe around them. They want to arrive at a consistent point of view, and to postulate theories that make good sense of the relevant evidence.

Ideally, theologians should also seek harmony. They should attempt to formulate theories that make sense of the various parts of Scripture and, at those points where it intersects, with the world as well. Theologians should desire a consistent point of view regarding God—that is, they should hunger for a reasoned and reasonable, non-contradictory picture of who God is and what he expects of the human race—a picture that makes sense both in the context of Scripture, and in the wider context of the Universe as a whole.

Why Bother?

Theology frightens the daylights out of most people. When they hear the word mentioned their eyes glaze over: they have visions of white-haired old men with degrees spilling out of their ears, speaking in polysyllables and attempting to complicate simplicity. They imagine lists and categories and dry barren wastes without a drop of water. Not surprisingly, therefore, many will doubt the need for theology at all, asking the pertinent question: “Isn’t it true that all we need to know is to love each other and preach the good news?”

However, it is a truism that everyone has a theology, even those millions who deny there is any need for it. Everyone who reads the Bible or even thinks about God has contrived a theology of some sort. So there is a question that everyone must face: “Is my theology a good one?” By good, I mean is it accurate, biblical, coherent, and consistent? This is not a subjective question; there are objective criteria to think about.

Jesus told the Samaritan woman that those who worship God must worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). The prophet Hosea wrote:

My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. “Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children. (Hosea 4:6)

So Why is Theology Important?

Besides keeping a lot of theologians off welfare and out of trouble, it brings clarification. Unlike the way far too many teachers present it, theology is not a settled issue of firmly established facts. Theology is theory, and like theory in science, forever alive and developing. In the early Church questions arose now and then and theology—theory—to answer them had to be developed. For instance, in the book of Acts, we find that the church was faced with the problem of what to do with all the Gentiles who were coming to Christ. Did they have to become Jews first, before they could be accepted into the church? Or was entrance into Christianity by grace alone as a consequence of Jesus’ sacrifice? And then, even if it was by grace, shouldn’t they still follow the laws of Judaism?

Later on, people began wondering who, precisely, was Jesus? Was he really God, or simply an emanation, or maybe a created being?

How are such questions answered? By studying the Bible—God’s special revelation—and the universe—God’s general revelation—and finding out what they say. We spend time looking to the Bible and the world for answers, but we understand that the more we look, the more questions we’ll find. In fact, questions will be far more common than answers. But that’s what keeps theology interesting and fun.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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