Who Needs Theology?
Who Needs Theology?
Who needs theology? This is a question that must be answered by each member in the body of Christ, because ultimately it is a personal question. The real question is not, "Who needs theology?", but, "Do I need theology?". Several viewpoints are maintained in answer to this question, ranging as far as the east is from the west. Some have taken the approach that theology is only for a select few intellectual individuals, whom we call Ďscholars.í Others have taken the other extreme by declaring that every person in the body of Christ must dedicate themselves to the study of theology. The others range somewhere in between.
To answer the question at hand, we must first understand what theology is. There are many misconceptions as to what theology is, so to begin our discussion, it will help to know what theology is not. Theology is not relegated to people with IQís of 180. Theology is not the pursuit of answers to pointless questions, such as trying to determine how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Theology is not that which divides the church. Rather, it is what unites and strengthens the church.
The word theology comes from two Greek words, theos=God; logos=word, thought, or reason; therefore, theology has to do with reasoning about God, or thinking about God. The word logos is also used to mean "the study of" something. It could also be said, then, that theology is the study of God. It should be clear that theology is not some deep, near mystical study of Godís Word that is beyond the comprehension of the average saint. The task of theology is very attainable for the average Christian.
Everybody has a theology, whether they are aware of it or not. If theology is reasoning or thinking about God, then whenever someone contemplates the purpose of life, why evil exists in the world, the coming end of the world, why they exist, the nature of God, how Jesus could be God and man simultaneously, or how there can be life after death, they are doing the work of theology. The question is not whether or not each believer will be a theologian, but whether or not they will be a good theologian. The real question is if they will they study the Scripture to prove and develop their own personal theology, or will they form their own theology based on personal opinion and hearsay.
As Anselm of Canterbury has noted, theology is faith seeking understanding. We have all had a salvation-experience with God, but now we must seek understanding as to the content and basis of our faith, and the meaning of our salvation. Many passages in the epistles of the NT were written for this very purpose. The apostles were trying to explain to the saints what happened when they were saved, and what it meant to them on a practical level. We are trying to understand the God we serveóseeking meaning for our faith. It is not enough just to be saved. One should continue to grow in the knowledge of the Lord.
Although everyone in the body of Christ naturally does the work of theology, there are differing levels of theology at which they work. Not all Christians are going to study theology on the same level. Some believers are called to be teachers, and as such will give themselves continually to the ministry of the Word as did the apostles (Acts 6:4). Others are called to other areas of the five-fold ministry, and as such will need to study to show themselves approved to God, correctly interpreting the Word of truth (II Timothy 2:15). Others in the body will not necessarily need to give as much time to the study of Godís Word, because they are called in other areas of focus, but nevertheless, they still are given the responsibility of knowing their God, and being ready to give an answer for the reason of the hope within them when confronted by unbelievers (I Peter 3:15).
People offer many objections to theology today. I will give three such objections, and answer each correspondingly.
The first major objection is that theology is not necessary for believers to understand. Many claim that all one needs to know is the basic salvation message of Acts 2:38, and then live the rest of their lives in prayer and obedience to God in good works. I have already addressed this argument to some extent, claiming that everyone does the work of theology at one level or another, but there are several other problems with such an argument.
First, if studying the Scripture, which is our primary source of knowledge of God, is not necessary because all one needs to know is what to do to be saved, we must ask ourselves why the Bible is so big! If all we needed as Christians was Acts 2:38 and John 3:16, then why was the rest of the Bible written? It was written for our understanding. Apparently God thought it necessary for us to be equipped with more knowledge than that of the salvation plan. God had said aforetime, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6). The same is true today. The same was true in the days of the early church. Paul, understanding the importance of theology, did not fail to declare the whole council of God to the church of Ephesus (Acts 20:27). Many of the epistles were written to inform the ignorance of the people, or correct the false theologies that the church had developed concerning God. If it was important enough for Paul and others to write letters to the churches to inform them of things pertaining to the kingdom of God, we should esteem all of Godís Word worthy of importance and study.
The second reason such an objection is faulty is based on an examination of the development of false-doctrine as witnessed by church history. Historically, false doctrine and heresy entered the church over periods of time. The church did not move from teaching the Acts 2:38 message to teaching baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost and belief in the Trinity overnight. It was a process. False doctrine comes about in small increments. It starts with small distortions of truth, and allows more small distortions until ultimately, what is being taught no longer resembles the faith of the early church. If we do not study theology, we are apt to be unaware of slight changes in doctrine that do not square with the NT teachings. When left go, these small, unnoticed changes will end up becoming false-doctrines that plague the spiritual welfare of the church. One small error leads to larger and more dangerous errors
The second major objection to theology is that it is a "kill-joy." This means that when a teacher informs a happy Christian that what they believe is not true, that teacher is wrong because they zap the joy from the believer. Theologians who want to point out doctrinal error in othersí theologies are viewed as the enemy of faith and joy.
It must be understood that Christianity is not primarily about having certain emotional experiences and feelings, but what one believes and their relationship with Christ. If one is basing their joy off of false beliefs about God and spiritual matters, then the joy they are experiencing is not true joy. Joy is based on reality, not misinformed or ignorant beliefs. I may rejoice if I delude myself into believing that I am the king of England, but it does not change the reality of my situation. That joy would be a fictitious joy. The joy that Christians are to have is based off of the reality in Christ we possess, namely eternal life.
If one wishes to divorce understanding from their relationship with God, they do not understand what a relationship is based on. Relationships are based on communication. We do not learn about God and His kingdom, and our purpose in His kingdom primarily from prayer, but from the Bible. If we did not have the Bible, our knowledge of God would be small indeed. Without the Bible, we would have not have much of a theology. Without a theology, and thus knowledge of God, we would not have as deep of a relationship with God.
Some maintain that to study theology destroys the simplicity of the Christian faith. But there is a difference between "simple and child-like faith" and "simplistic and childish faith." The former is commended in the Scripture, but the latter leads to being carried about by every wind of doctrine. God has not called us to be ignorant concerning His Word. There is no nobility in ignorance or blind faith (Acts 17:11). Paul is the one who warned us of losing the simplicity that is in Christ (II Corinthians 11:3), but this same Paul was full of knowledge! Paul was not against understanding theology, for he was one of the most influential teachers the church has ever witnessed, but Paul was against false-knowledge. This was the way in which the believers were beguiled away from the simplicity in Christ.
The third argument against theology is that it is divisive. A common slogan is "Jesus unites, theology divides." I admit that theology does divide. What I question is whether or not this is bad. Theology can unncessarily divide if we are not careful to fight for the doctrines that are most important. To divide over petty issues is bad. Division itself, however, is not necessarily bad. Every belief divides. Christians who believe that Jesus is the Messiah cause division between themselves and those who do not believe this. Every belief will exclude those who do not agree. Everyone excludes someone; everyone draws a doctrinal line at someplace, no matter where that place might be, and excludes all those outside of the line.
Biblically speaking, Jesus said that doctrine would divide: "Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division" (Luke 12:51). Jesus was well aware that His doctrine was going to separate even family members (Matthew 10:34-37). Paul understood that doctrine would divide, and used doctrine to excommunicate certain members from the body of Christ because of their evil doctrines (Romans 16:17-18; II Thessalonians 3:14; I Timothy 1:19-20; 6:3-5; II Timothy 2:15-19).
The Role of Doctrine in the Life of the Believer
Now that we have established a basic framework for understanding who needs theology, and having countered some of the arguments leveled against such a position, let us go on to examine the relationship of doctrine to the believer. The terms doctrine and theology, although not exact equivalents, are very similar in their semantic domains, and will be used interchangeably hereafter.
Many view doctrine as irrelevant, cold, and lifeless. To a certain extent this has been true. The fault, however, lies with the approach and presentation of doctrine, not doctrine itself. Some have presented doctrine as a boring mental exercise, emphasizing such minute details, and using such big words, that understanding it seems unattainable, and relativizing it to the Christian life, impossible. Against such, let it be said that the Christian life is not about finding the right words to explain God, and thereby boxing God into a theology book. The heart of Christianity is a person, not a doctrine; it is about a living experience with Jesus Christ. But when we try to answer the question of who Jesus is, we enter the arena of doctrine.1 When we want to talk about our experience we end up making doctrinal statements. Certain things have to be true of Christ in order for our experience to be valid. Doctrine asserts what those things are that define the Christian God and Christian experience; what is true, and what is not; who Jesus is, and who He is not. Most Christians avoid doctrine and theology, or minimize its importance because they do not understand its function. Once the role and function of doctrine is grasped, the study of theology becomes very practical and pertinent to the Christian life.
Doctrine is a necessary component of the Christian life. Every movement competing for manís loyalty does so on basis of a set of beliefs, whether political, religious, or philosophical. Ideas are affirmed to be true, and more important than any other. Decisions are always demanded of us concerning our beliefsóanimal rights, gays, death penalty, best educational system, etc. We cannot suspend judgment on all beliefs, sitting on the fence. This leads to an agnosticism where all questions arising out of human existence receive the same shallow answeró"I donít know, and I donít care."2
Beliefs are important because they claim to describe the truth about reality.3 They are not merely ideas, but they affect our behavior. The kamikaze pilots in WWII believed that in giving their lives for their government they would secure paradise for their souls. Truly the actions of men are affected, if not dictated by what they believe. If one believes that the world is flat, they will fear falling off the edge. If one believes that tomatoes are poisonous, they will not eat them. What we hear is what we think about; what we think about is what we believe; what we believe is what we do; what we do is what we become. It is an unbroken chain that most always proves to be true. Paul modeled this understanding in his epistles to the various churches. His normal method was to start off his epistle by correcting the church's false-doctrines, and then correct their behavior which flowed from such false-doctrines.
Doctrine is our response to Godís revelation. It integrates the wealth of Scriptural statements into a concise package. It is a summary of Scripture, but not a substitute.4 The Scripture is mostly narrative, not propositional. In other words, it is a running story of Godís redeeming engagement with the world, rather than a bunch of truth-statements. When doctrine is explicitly taught in the Scripture, it is not presented in a systematic fashion. Rather, only bits and pieces of the whole truth are explained for the occasion at hand. What doctrine does is interpret the Biblical story in a systematic manner. It attempts to link our lives with the story of Jesus Christ, the reality of our lives with the reality of His.
How does doctrine relate to our experience with Christ? Much in every way. Christianity consists of a subjective and an objective element. The subjective element is faith; the objective element is doctrine. People tend to fall on one or the other extreme side of this dual-natured religion. One extreme manifests itself in a purely emotional faith that trusts explicitly in Him, but cannot express itself coherently.5 This view is inadequate, but not wrong. It needs supplementing with the objective side of faith.. We do not merely believe in God, but believe certain things about God. Faith has both a content and an object.
The other extreme understanding of Christianity understands the Christian life as a list of intellectual propositions to which we ascribe mental assent. This understanding is also inadequate, because Christianity is also rooted in experience. Faith not only concerns what we believe, but our daily lives, specifically our living relationship with Jesus Christ. Christian faith can never be adequately expressed as mere proposition. It is possible for Christianity to degenerate into an intellectual system, rather than a relationship with a person.
Harold O.J. Brown has spoken a fitting word concerning the deficiencies in these two extremes: "A nontheological faith cannot explain itself, but too theological a faith loses contact with the reason for its existence. ... Too much enthusiastic faith without a corresponding degree of theological understanding is almost certain to lead to error, perhaps to serious heresy. Too much doctrine unaccompanied by a living and growing faith is the recipe for dead orthodoxy."6 Both the subjective and objective elements of faith are necessary to the Christian life. Faith involves both the head and the heart. Christianity is a truth that is believed in and confessed with the hearth/mouth, and experienced in the reality of our lives.
Doctrine is not the presentation of abstract propositional truths that are to believed apart from experience, but is the attempt to preserve Christianity from being twisted through a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the experience. Doctrine gives us the bounds from which we can capture, explain, and interpret the essence of our experience. The apostles were concerned with doctrine because it explained and elucidated the salvation experience of the believing community. Doctrine seeks to preserve the genuine experience of salvation with Jesus Christ so that it can be transmitted from one generation to another. Without doctrine there could be no missions. We could not reach out to the lost. If we did not have doctrine as an interpretive grid for our salvation-encounter with Jesus Christ we would either be ignorant of, or misunderstand the spiritual realities of our experience, and would not be able to pass on the true gospel from one generation of believers to the next. Without doctrine Christianity could not have been born, and could not continue to exist. Doctrine is the means by which the expererience of the first Christians can be ours. If we misinterpret our experience and pass down that misinterpretation we will inevitably pervert the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
Many see doctrine and spirituality as being on two opposite ends of the pole. The study of theology is somehow divorced from "spiritual" endeavors such as faith, prayer, and healing. This false understanding has been very devastating to the body of Christ because it separates truth from spirituality. There is no dichotomy between doctrine and spirituality. Truth is not only cognitive, but truth is spiritual. We live in a physical world in which we cannot normally view and have knowledge of the spiritual realm that surrounds us. The realm in which God exists is a reality of which we cannot know apart from divine revelation. Our salvation has occurred in the realm of the spirit. Spiritual warfare occurs in the same. We do not see these realities. In order to understand them they must be revealed and explained to us. Doctrine is an explanation of the spiritual realities we cannot see; the way the kingdom of God works. Apart from doctrine we would be left in the dark concerning these realities. Most of the epistles were written to explain the salvation reality and experience to saints who had an encounter with Jesus Christ but who did not understand that encounter or its implications. This misunderstanding always manifested itself in a perversion of the truth and bad behavior.
A classic example to demonstrate this is found in the Epistle to the Romans. The Romans misunderstood their salvation from the wrath of God to mean that they could continue to sin (Romans 3:8). They misunderstood the nature of justification and God's grace. Paul affirmed that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Romans 5:20), but the Romans misunderstood this to mean that one should continue to sin so that they can receive more of God's grace. To correct this twisted interpretation of their salvation Paul directed their attention to their baptism. He argued that one who has been baptized with Christ has died to sin just as Christ died to sin, and can no longer be subject to its dominion (Romans 6:1-11). The Romans' ignorance of this significant portion of their salvation experienced caused them to misinterpret their relationship with God and pervert the faith. To correct this Paul needed to inform them of the spiritual realities which occured when they were baptized, i.e. death to sin's dominion over their lives. Doctrine allowed them to understand these realites and live accordingly. Doctrine has a living reality and experience behind it. It informs us about the spiritual realities that are the basis of our faith/life.
Why Doctrine is Important
So why is doctrine so important for every believer? Why is it essential to the Christian faith?óbecause doctrine interprets the acts of God in history. Doctrine ascribes a particular understanding to a particular event(s). For example, the death of Christ on cross is only good news if interpreted in a certain way. The Jews interpreted it as a defeat of a false-Messiah. The Christians interpreted the cross as the victory of God over death and hell. Doctrine provides the interpretive framework to understanding the events of Calvary, among other things. "Doctrine is an interpretive bridge between history and faith, between the past and present."7 It relates the Biblical narrative to our own experience, interpreting the latter in terms of the former. It also outlines the response we should have to the gospel. The doctrine of justification demands that we have faith before we can be justified. If, by faith, we are not assured of the forgiveness of our sins on the basis of Godís grace, we cannot get on with the business of the Christian life. Doctrine is practical.
The question of theology is how faith expresses itself in the way we think, act, and relate to God. Theology is the unfolding of faith. As mentioned previously, doctrine can be understood as faith seeking understanding. Without understanding, we are helpless against the enemy. We are to fight the spiritual fight with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17). Without a knowledge of Godís Word, we have no weapon with which to fight. Doctrine attempts to understand what is believed, so that we will not fall prey to the false teachers that the apostles warned us so often would come.
Doctrine is foundational to the Christian life, because it is the precursor to salvation and our relationship with God. Before one can believe on Christ, they must have something to believe about Him. One may have knowledge without faith, but they cannot have faith without knowledge. Belief that something is such and such must precede believing in that something. You cannot believe in a God to whom you have no knowledge of. One must have some knowledge of Godís plan in Christ if they are to have saving or experiential faith. In other words, they must have a knowledge of correct theology. At the very least they must understand that they are sinners in need of salvation, and that this salvation was provided for them by Christís death, burial, and resurrection. This is the basic content of the gospel.
Doctrine is also important because there is a correlation between understanding God's Word and the level of our faith. Paul said, "So faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17). Because faith is dependent on knowledge, doctrine becomes the basis of faith. Without doctrine, our faith would be small indeed, if not non-existent. Contrary to the popular notion that the study of theology is a hindrance to faith, causing one to become rationalistic in their approach to God, a greater understanding one has of God's Word, the greater the faith they will be able to place in God. A lack of knowledge and understanding of doctrine will result in a lack of faith, because faith is contingent on knowledge of God's will and character. Ignorance of God's Word is a sure bet for spiritual defeat (Hosea 4:6; Ephesians 6:17).
Not only does the level of one's knowledge and understanding of doctrine reflect in their level of faith, but it also determines the level of their relationship with God. One's relationship with God can only develop as deep as their understanding of doctrine. Every relationship is built on both intimate knowledge of one another and experience together with one another. Apart from Biblical doctrine concerning God's will and character we would have very little knowledge of God on which to base a relationship with Him. Apart from prayer we would have little experience or communication with God. Knowledge of doctrine, because it is the way in which God has chosen to reveal Himself to us, gives us the intimate knowledge necessary to build a relationship with God. This knowledge is antecedent to a growing intimacy in prayer. When a relationship with God is pursued through prayer without simultaneously pursuing knowledge of God through His Word, the human tendency is to stray off into religious and spiritual mysticism devoid of an objective authority to guide and interpret our experiences with God, and to come up with strange and false doctrines based on personal subjective experience rather than objective realities. Doctrine guides and elevates our relationship with God to a depth which can never be achieved apart from knowledge of His Word.
Doctrine is important because it is that which renews us into Christís image. The Apostle Paul wrote that we have "put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him" (Colossians 3:10). Knowledge is influential in making us into Christís image, bearing His likeness. Peter instructed us to "grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (II Peter 3:18).
Paul made a point about the role of knowledge in the Christian life that is often overlooked. He said, "Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds" (Ephesians 4:22-23). Not only is doctrine foundational to our conversion experience, but it also plays an important part in the process of being renewed into Christís image. Although the Ephesians were saved, there was still a need to put off the old nature and be renewed in the way they thought. Conversion is not only an instantaneous act when we are born again, but it is also a process that continues for the rest of our earthly lives. Although one is born again, their mind is not renewed to the holiness of the mind of God. We are still plagued with the ways and thoughts of the world, sometimes unwittingly. We still hold (at least in part) to the concepts of the world: "push your way to the top," "get all you can for yourself," etc. It is through the knowledge of doctrine, the study of the Word of God, whereby our minds are being cleansed and renewed to think link Jesus Christ, rather than according to our old, natural man. Without doctrine, there would be no renewing of the mind.
Theology is for everyone. Although the study of God's Word will be done on different levels in the body of Christ, it is the duty of every member of the body to study to show themselves approved to God. Theology is the heart of the Christian faith, outlining and defining the Christian experience. Without doctrine there could be no Christian faith, and no Christian conversion. It is time that each member of the body of Christ give themselves to the study of doctrine, so that in so doing we may be firmly established in the faith, grow in our relationship with God, and know how to communicate the Christian faith and experience to our lost world so that they too might come to know Christ.
1. Alister McGrath, Studies in Doctrine. Book 3, Understanding Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 232. <back>
2. Ibid., 231. <back>
3. Ibid., 240. <back>
4. Ibid., 250. <back>
5. Ibid., 256. <back>
6. Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, MA, 1998), 154. <back>
7. McGrath, 301. <back>
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