What is Theology?


       A.H. Strong described it as "The science of God and of the relations between God and the universe." Charles Hodge wrote that it is "The science of the facts of divine revelation so far as those facts concern the nature of God and our relation to Him, as His creatures, as sinners, and as the subjects of redemption." 2 Timothy 3:15 records:

       Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

       Paul points out that there is an element of work involved in handling the word of truth. Theology is the word that describes that work of handling the word of truth.

       For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of Yahweh, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel. (Ezra 7:10)

       Theology can be defined simply as "the study of God". Freshman college students usually define it with one word: "boring." This is rarely a fault in the student; the common way of teaching theology 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 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 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 Christianity. The themes of the discipline are God, humanity, salvation, and the study of last things, among other topics. 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 criterion 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).

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, without any concrete goal beyond that. 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 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 goal the attainment of truth.
       Stating such a goal is far easier than achieving it. As a human being, the author of this book has his own agenda, his own ideas, his own axes. No one who approaches theology is any different. In fact, objectivity, though a laudable goal, is unattainable. Anyone who claims complete objectivity is lying - either to the people around him or to himself. More reasonable and better is for the author - any author - to discuss very early on 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 the author's presuppositions, may, in another set of circumstances, seem quite ludicrous. At least, by knowing the author'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 makes 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)

Why is Theology Important?

       Besides keeping a lot of theologians off welfare and out of trouble, it brings clarification. Unlike the way teachers so often 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 Acts, 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 saved? Or was entrance into Christianity by grace alone? And then, even if it was by grace, shouldn't they 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. This action, of looking to the Bible and the world for answers, raises a question of its own: if we are going to find out about God, if we are going to do a proper theology - formulate reasonable theories - what are the revelations of God, and how do we go about using them properly?

The Five Kinds of Theology

1. Natural Theology

       Natural theology is restricted to the facts concerning God which are revealed in the universe around us. Thomas Aquinas, in a systematic fashion, outlined his belief that the existence of God may be proven from reason alone. Modern theologians such as Karl Barth, reflecting Immanuel Kant and David Hume, argued that there was essentially no validity to a natural theology, while Process theologians such as John B. Cobb, Jr., Schubert Ogden and David Griffen have argued the exact opposit. Within evangelical circles, there is a division on this question.

2. Biblical Theology

       Biblical theology is restricted to the biblical revelation of God. Its sole source is the Bible, independent of any philosophical system (ideally). In reality, any approach to theology must inevitably carry certain philosophical presuppositions and perspectives.

3. Dogmatic Theology

       Dogmatic theology refers to those elements of theological truth which are absolutely certain. It will avoid controversial fields of study and will concentrate on those points about which the church throughout history has held to unswervingly, such the virgin birth, the resurrection, the Trinity, and the like.

4. Practical Theology

       Practical theology has to do with the actual function of the truth in the lives of people. Given beliefs and doctrines are considered true if they work in the lives of real people. In other words, if it works, then it is true. Otherwise, it is of no consequence.

5. Theology Proper

       Theology proper concerns itself with the study of the person of God, apart from his works. It deals with the existence of God, the ability of people to know him, his various attributes, and the nature of the Trinity. In other words, Theology Proper is concerned with understanding and knowing God.

Our Approach

       The five kinds of theology are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and in fact, this essay will make use of all five sorts.
       Our approach is not designed to give the student a complete, ready made theology: "just add water and shake." Rather, the goal is to give him or her tools, to reveal the questions, and to explain how to ask questions that will lead the reader to teach himself or herself how to correctly formulate theology. The learning process is stimulated, both by outlining a proper methodology, and by discussing in detail some of the most serious riddles facing theologians (people who think about God), pointing out what are sometimes provocative and controversial possibilities in the hope of encouraging - or even forcing - the student to learn how to think for himself or herself.
       In the end, it is hoped that the student will be able to explain, not just what he or she believes, but also why.

Supernatural Help is Required

       A basic presupposition in the approach taken here, is that God is real; more than that, it is assumed that he cares about human beings as individuals, and that he is interested in them learning and understanding and getting to know him better. Therefore, it is to be expected that God will help the reader as he or she develops his or her own theology. A theology does not grow up in a vacuum apart from a genuine relationship with the object of study. In contrast to most other objects of study, God is a person, and he desires a relationship. Simple knowledge apart from the relationship is not only boring, but mostly useless.

       The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14)

       But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.
       I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. (John 16:7-14)

Methodology

       In our approach to theology we will make use of both deduction - reasoning from the general to the particular, and induction - reasoning from the particular to the general. We will begin with inductive reasoning, since all thinking begins with particulars from which general principles are derived. That is, we learn what dogs are like from having been around a lot of dogs; we learn that we tend to sunburn easily if we get frequent sunburns.
       Thus, we will look at the individual particulars in the Bible and Nature, and from those particulars we will infer general principles. For instance, we learn that God is loving from the numerous examples and statements in the Bible that tell us this.
       Theology, not unreasonably, is called a science, because it makes use of the same principles and methods as science. The scientific method, which also becomes, then the theological method, may be defined as "that method for describing and explaining the revelations of God that incorporates the principles of verification, operational definition, statistical generalization and confirmation."
       John Dewey in his book, How We Think described five steps that are involved in problem solving:

a. We become aware of the problem or question.
b. We clarify the problem or question through definition, observation and the classification of facts.
c. We come up with a possible solution to the problem or answer to the question. We call this a hypothesis.
d. From our hypothesis, we make some predictions. That is, if the hypothesis is true, then certain other things will be true as well. These other truths are described as our testable consequences.
e. Through tests, we then verify the hypothesis and adjust it as necessary. This will lead us to either accept or reject the hypothesis; that is, our answer to the problem will be found to be either true or false.

How do we Find Out About God?

       In modern thinking, a certain dualism has arisen, whereby reason and science have been separated from the realm of faith and religion, severed like East and West Berlin once were. Francis Bacon wrote:

       It is therefore most wise soberly to render unto faith the things that are faith's, [for from the] absurd mixture of matters divine and human [proceed heresies and] fantastical philosophies.

       In the same vein, a guest lecturer I once heard at UCLA stressed that it is a fundamental methodological error to mix the "religious" experience and the "scientific" experience. As he would say, one cannot ask of religious evidence the same things one would ask of scientific evidence.
       Such thinking has infected the minds of many Christians, but it's time to take a pill. This iron curtain must collapse, this Berlin wall in our philosophy must fall. While it is one thing to read modern scientific theory into ancient poetry (or to read anything into it, for that matter), it is another to exclude spacetime affirmations from the book authored by the Creator of the physical universe. A certain question needs asking: is God real, or isn't he? Is he as real as this chair, this piece of chalk, the food I ate for lunch?
       Unfortunately for many Christians today, the answer is negative. For them the Bible is infallible only in "spiritual" matters, and does not speak inerrantly of historical and scientific things; they actually imagine it makes no cognitive truth claims about God, or about the physical universe.
       To illustrate how this modern dualistic disease, this iron curtain, works out in a practical way, an example can be taken from Mormonism. John Dart in the Los Angeles Times wrote:

       Some Mormons have asked rhetorically how much difference exists - in the final analysis - between a salamander and an angel and between magic and religion.
       Others have said the basic truths of the faith are unaffected. The Arizona-based Latter-Day Sentinel, which is also circulated in Southern California, recently ran a story with the headline, "So Why the Fuss Over the 'White Salamander' Letter?" It noted efforts to equate a white salamander with an angelic figure or an ancient warrior, which Moroni was, according to the Book of Mormon.
       Susan Turley, an editor at the newspaper, said, "Like most Mormons I know in the Phoenix area, my testimony of the church is not based on history but (on) what my own spiritual experience and study of church doctrine have done for me."

       The words of that newspaper editor summarize the modern philosophic view of religion generally: it is simply "truth for me". Religion has become utterly subjective and completely personal; it is not based on objective fact, like the existence of say, a bar of soap.
       Contrast the modern attitude toward spiritual truth with the words of Peter in Acts 2:22-37:

       "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. David said about him:
       'I saw the Lord always before me.
       Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
       Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
       my body also will live in hope,
       because you will not abandon me to the grave,
       nor will you let your Holy One see decay.
       You have made known to me the paths of life;
       you will fill me with joy in your presence.'
       Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said 'The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet."' Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."
       When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?"

       Notice that Peter's sermon is critically dependent on the reality of certain events. He makes several statements rooted in objective, or verifiable reality. He says that Jesus was a man that his hearers had known, who had performed certain deeds that they had witnessed and heard about, that he had been killed by them, and that he had risen bodily from the dead. Peter also discusses a former king of Israel, historically verifiable, named David and quotes from writings which purport to have come from his hand. If the events that Peter is describing did not occur as described, then Peter's message is untrue. He bases his conclusion about who Jesus is theologically on what occurred historically.
       The same is true for Christianity as a whole. Critics have not been shy about pointing this out. Michael Arnheim writes:

       More than any other religion, Christianity stands four-square on the acceptance of an historical improbability: namely, that one particular man was no mere mortal but "the Christ," whose death changed the course of human history forever and who continues to exist as "God the Son," part of an indivisible threefold Godhead....
       It was only in the wake of the rationalism and skepticism of the Enlightenment that the historical accuracy of the Christian scriptures eventually came to be questioned. Wit the application to the Gospel of the methods of historical criticism applied to secular sources, the Gospel accounts were declared by scholar after scholar to be unreliable. By the early twentieth century the so-called "Quest for the historical Jesus" was bogged down in negativism. The Gospels, according to an influential school of Protestant theologians, were to be taken as theological rather than as historical documents, and they could yield no authentic information about the life and deeds, or even the sayings and teachings of Jesus.
       Such a conclusion might have been expected to have a cataclysmic effect upon Christianity. For, after all, there could surely be no Christianity without Christ, and could there be a Christ without Jesus? But if Jesus were so shadowy a figure as to belong more to the realm of myth and legend than to that of history and fact, the whole edifice of Christianity must surely crumble.
       Not so, said the radical theologians. The truth of Christianity was independent of historical proof, and historical evidence was therefore quite irrelevant to the validity of Christianity.
       How then is one to decide on the truth or falsehood of Christianity? For Rudolf Bultmann, one of the most influential Christian theologians of the twentieth century, the key element was what he called an "existential encounter with Christ," which did not depend upon any intellectual critical process but rather on a leap into the dark - or, to put it more crudely, upon an acceptance of faith on trust.
       J. Knox and D.E. Nineham, two leading British theologians, similarly reject the possibility of basing Christian faith upon historical evidence but resort instead to the church as the basis of faith, thus becoming caught in a circular argument. As Donald Guthrie remarks: "Neither Nineham nor Knox has recognized the inconsistency of appealing to the testimony of the Church when they have already denied the historical accounts, which they regard as the products of the Church."
       With this we are back to square one: By what criterion may the truth or falsehood of Christianity be judged? To base one's acceptance of a religion upon blind faith or unsupported trust gives one no right to claim the superiority of that religion over any other religion, nor does it entitle one to assert the truth of that religion. And yet no religion in the world is more insistent than Christianity upon its claim to truth or more confident of its superiority to all other faiths.
       More than any other religion Christianity revolves around a single historical figure, and in the absence of any viable alternative method of testing the validity of Christianity we have no option but to begin at the beginning, focus unblinkingly on Jesus and test the truth of the Christian claims made for him.

       If the Bible is not historically and scientifically accurate, then we have nothing to believe, because Christianity, more than any other faith, is a historical faith. Without the objective reality of what is reported in the Bible, the student might as well study tea leaves, because in Christianity we have nothing.
       It is very important, therefore, that in our proclamation of the good news, it be proclaimed as the good news Christ died for sinners, was raised from the dead, and now is Lord. The good news is not just "Look at what God has done for me. I was a drug addicted male prostitute and beat up old ladies just to get my jollies. But now I'm a changed person." All religions can make similar claims, along with most new toothpastes: "try new Zippo toothpolish and you'll be a sex object and have to beat off members of the opposite sex with baseball bats." The gospel must not be reduced to the level of toothpaste.
       It must be borne in mind at all times that if God had not revealed himself to the human race, or if individuals ignore God's revelation of himself, then almost no knowledge of God is possible. There can be no fellowship with Him unless He chooses to introduce Himself to you.

If There is a God, How Can We Know Anything About Him?

       If we accept the idea that there is a God, how do we learn anything about Him? Or them? What can we figure out about who he, she, or they are? Is there one Supreme Being, or many powerful beings, none of whom is entirely all powerful? And if many, how many? Two, three - 160 million, as one would find in the Hindu pantheon? If the concept of divinity is accepted, then the poor human searcher is left in something of a quandary. Which of the thousands of religions (or cults, as some are pejoratively labeled) correct? Or are any? Has anyone come up with the right answer? For that matter, is it really necessary to know anything about God, if he, she or they are so distantly mysterious and insubstantial? What do he, she, or they want of us? If it/them wants something, why doesn't it/them tell us? Why does He have to make it so difficult?
       Reasonable questions, all, which most Christians are not ready or willing to answer; questions that in many cases are beyond their comprehension.
       So what's the poor seeker supposed to do? He has entered the house of theism and discovers it's a labyrinthian conundrum of confusing and contradictory rooms and passageways, every one of which claims to be, if not the one true way, then at least a true way. Can it be that every one is correct?
       Some, finding themselves in this mess, become eclectic, like the man in the pharmacy who says "give me one of everything, just in case." Can there be certainty?
       Certainly! Perhaps the main problem at this juncture is that many a seeker after the right road has left his brain behind. Despite our earlier discussion, the main philosophical mold in which most of us have grown up has made us believe that religious truth and scientific truth are necessarily separate and unequal realms. The principles used in deciphering the physical universe certainly can't be used in trying to understand God, can they?
       Why not? Is God real or isn't he? If he/they exist, then he/they can be known; principles of logic, reason, and the sifting of evidence can certainly be made use of in attempting to find the truth of who God is.

A Major Fallacy to Avoid: I think that God is...

       Perhaps it would be good to shoot something down right now. Surely most of us have heard (if we won't admit having done it ourselves) someone say something like the following: "Well, I think God wouldn't like that." Or, "When I think of God, I think of a great glowing light."
       What is the problem with such statements? If they were statements of hypothesis being set up for testing, nothing at all. But in almost all such cases, the individual involved is speaking for God, or about God, out of his or her imagination, with no thought of checking to see if his or her pronouncements might be accurate.
       To show the idiocy of the situation of imagining something about God, consider R.P. Nettelhorst. Who is R.P. Nettelhorst? Man or Woman? Maybe a woman. How old? Maybe 98. I imagine her to be six four and a starring linebacker for the Rams. Does she like children? Sure: she eats them for breakfast with milk and sugar on them. Politics? Democrat or Republican? I think she's a Communist!
       Ridiculous? Certainly - but on the same level as the individual who believes he or she can know God by sitting in a chair without having had any contact with him/her/them. You can't know R.P. Nettelhorst until you meet him.
       The one who says "I think God is like a man in a long beard," is making a statement equal in intellectual rigor and reasonableness to the one who says, "I believe God is a boiled potato I keep under my bed" or "I believe R.P. Nettelhorst is a Commie child-eater."


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