What Is Theology & Why Is it Important?
Theology is studying God. Christian theology is knowing God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Theology is “the queen of the sciences.”1 This was not only the opinion of the great Middle Ages scholar, Thomas Aquinas but was held as truth all the way through the 20th century. After the infamous influence of higher criticism, following Darwinism metastasized and infected every school of learning including metaphysics or divinity, theology was relegated to a specialized study. This would have been surprising if not abhorrent to both faculty and students of familiar institutions like Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, and even our state universities, like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — the oldest state university in America — where the teaching of theology was central to higher education.
The reason for theology’s decline in higher education and its compartmentalization to Bible schools and seminaries has a lot to do with the cultural degradation and the onset of postmodernism, which deconstructed Western civilization, including the centrality of Christianity to our ideas about self, others, and, especially, God our Creator. As these bad ideas made their way into the vital organs of theological higher education, the cancerous growth of denying God’s Word made its way into the full bloodstream of the Church, in virtually every denomination and tradition. In fact, evangelicalism, is in large part, a response to this philosophical and social pandemic.
So, it is rather unusual for some Bible-believing Christians to complain that “theology has crept into the Church,” as if theology, “knowing God,” had never been central. Influenced by the airborne spiritual pathologies of a post-Christian culture, such muddle-headed assertions from the mouths of believers unwittingly support the ungodly ideas in the “world,” which they would otherwise oppose. It is right to ask again: What is theology and is it important? Why was theology important in the early Church (and it most unquestionably was important)? Why was it important in the Middle Ages? In the Reformation? In the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries? The answers to those questions are nothing short of life or death for biblical Christianity.
Let’s explore the meaning of theology and its effects on the soul, the Church, and the very world in which we live.
Theology Is Knowing God
The definition of theology is simply “the study of God.” Two Greek words—“Theos” (θεός)— God — and “logos”(λόγος)—combine to create the word “theology.” The emminant scholar, Louis Berkhof, asserted with brevity and precision: “The New Testament has the Greek equivalents of the Old Testament names. For ’El, ’Elohim, and ‘Elyon it has Theos, which is the most common name applied to God.”
Jeremiah called Israel to recall the priority of theology, that is, of “knowing God:”
“Thus says the Lord: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord’” (Jer. 9:23-24, emphasis added)
The Apostle Paul joined the chorus of voices, divine and human, to emphasize the necessity of theology, that is, of “knowing God:”
“Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Gal. 4:8-9, emphasis added).
The Apostle Paul is saying that the Galatian Christians not only knew about God, but they had an intimate knowledge of God in their own lives. Such intimacy not only opened their consciousness to their Creator but also to themselves. This is quite different from someone saying that they know about God. I think of the great J. I. Packer in his book, Knowing God. Dr. Packer wrote of a sadly familiar spiritual pathology, which remains a constant toxic threat for all of us:
“A little knowledge of God is worth more than a great deal of knowledge about him.”
Theology is knowing God. Indeed, this kind of knowing God is filled with love, gratitude, and the “communicable” attributes of God impressed into our lives. Theology is not incompatible with love. Theology, the thirst for knowledge of God in our lives, is equated with love by the Apostle John:
“We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:6-7, ESV).
Theology Is the Divine Drama of the Ages
Theology is more than merely a definition of a word. Theology that is biblical, Christ-centered, and comprehensive is the very plan of God revealed in His Word. The great twentieth century English professor and essayist, Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), wrote of theology as the “divine drama.” In her remearkable book, Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine, the Oxford scholar asserted:
“. . . for the cry today is: “Away with the tedious complexities of dogma—let us have the simple spirit of worship; just worship, no matter of what!” The only drawback to this demand for a generalized and undirected worship is the practical difficulty of arousing any sort of enthusiasm for the worship of nothing in particular. (P. 14)
Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ. It is the dogma that is the drama—not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. (P. 20)
The Church’s answer [to the great existential questions of life and death, the meaning of life, and life after death] is categorical and uncompromising, and it is this: That Jesus Bar-Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, was in fact and in truth, and in the most exact and literal sense of the words, the God ‘by whom all things were made.’” (P. 2)
I cannot imagine a more credible, concise, and convicting definition of the theology and its importance. For Sayers, the Church in trying to reach the world without theology was impossible. Theology is the drama that attracts. Theology, knowing God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is the essence of the Christian religion. It cannot be otherwise.
Theology Is the Answer to Our Deepest Needs
All theology is pastoral. I mean to to say that after we have studied “knowing God” in the Old Testament, New Testament, and have catalogued our findings into a systematic theology, as we have observed God’s Word and ways in historical theology, we come to see that theology is “knowing God” for the purpose of living (and dying, which is, for the believer, a continuation of life). Thus, there is a beauty about theology that transcends, even resists, categorical truths that remains unapplied in the human soul. Dr. Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary put it so memorably in his work, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life:
“The primary symptom of a soul that has become sick is that it becomes blind to the poetry of life.”
Theology, the pursuit of knowing God in Christ, is the poetry of life.
Why Wouldn’t Theology Be Important?
I believe it is right to reflect the question on the mind of some that says, “theology is simply not that important.” Now I might ask myself, “why would anyone say such a thing?” But, in fact, people do say this. Why? I have heard from people that “theology is . . .”
Some believe that theology is dull. I generally don’t hold the student responsible for a boring subject but rather the teacher. I’ve heard it said that the greatest sin of a history teacher is to make history boring. That is quite right. We should also say, “the greatest insult to the doctrine of knowing God — that is, theology — is to make the subject boring. I guess it is possible for one to make child-rearing a very boring subject. I guess it is possible to talk about the relationships of men and women, courtship and marriage, and to come off as quite dull. However, you and I both know that neither of the subjects are dull whatsoever!
We must not judge theology as dull if we are so unfortunate as to have a dull preacher! Is there anything dull about the divine drama of the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ? Let us zoom out from the life of Jesus to see the plan of redemption running from Genesis to the last verse of Revelation! What is dull or boring about the plan of God to redeem fallen humankind by making a covenant that God will provide what God requires?
Theology that cannot be preached in theology that cannot be applied to the life of a child is very likely a theology that is brittle, dour, dull, and . . . wrong. But I have heard that theology is . . .
Another criticism about theology is that dogma is divisive. When I say “dogma,” I’m using the word in the same way that Dorothy Sayers did in her essay. Dogma is merely an English word based on the Greek word for teaching. So the teachings that flow from the theological system that is revealed in the Word of God or of prime importance in faith and life. It should not surprise us that human beings who have been infected with original sin and its dark consequences, even after they have been saved and they are putting on Christ, yet battling “the old self” that still resides within them and must be mortified throughout all of their life of sanctification, would have conflicting opinions about the most important things — the things of primary importance. This is a human quality, which is seen in every aspect of life. The Word of God is divine. The Bible is inspired, inerrant, and infallible. Those who read the Bible must be filled with the Holy Spirit so that the Spirit that recorded God’s Word through mortal men and women will recognize the Spirit in the reader and the two shall become one. However, theological dogma such as baptism, communion, how one is sanctified or grows in the Christian life, and a few others — not many — is so important than human beings form “communities of conviction” that are based upon their opinions of one or more of these vital matters.
Men and women of good will, therefore, may disagree. Their inability to express a perfect unity in every single aspect of Christianity neither invalidates their faith nor the veracity of the Word of God. It merely shows that we are human. The Apostle Paul said that one day we will know even as we are known. For now we see through the dark glass, not always able to discern every single truth with unquestionable precision. Thankfully, God has left us with a kind word,
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law" (Deut. 29:29).
True theology that is revealed to us from God’s Word can divide: truth from error. Yet, some have said that theology is . . .
This criticism of theology is that it is merely too esoteric — that is, the doctrines of the Bible may have philosophical, metaphysical, or intellectual merit, but they are simply impractical. Someone might even say, “stick to the simple things.” Actually, I would agree with that. But the thing is, the “simple things” of the Bible are also “deep things” revealed from God to humankind.
I sometimes hear about “pie in the sky by and by.” Those who have said this to me wanted to stress that Christianity — that is biblical theology — offers nothing for the here and now. It is all about heaven. It is all about another world. It is all about another kingdom. I sometimes respond to them as I would like to do in this little article by quoting CS Lewis, who wrote in response to the charge that Christians are just too heavenly minded to be any earthly good:
“If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next… It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.” (Mere Christianity)
Why Theology is Vital to the Christian Faith
It Is the Study of God
Firstly, remembering that theology is truly knowing God by personally knowing His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, we must assert that theology is absolutely vital to Christianity. The study of God and of His Word leads us to the glorious doctrines that change lives. Even as St. Paul admonished young pastor Timothy to rightly divide the truth of the Word of God and to teach it, withholding nothing, so, also, we must pursue the knowledge of God through His general revelation — creation – and His special revelation — the Bible.
Karl Barth wrote in his The Epistle to the Romans an essential theological cornerstone of Christianity and why it must be studied,
“The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths.”
It Is the Story of Ourselves
Theology, the pursuit of God, is an extraordinary inquiry into not only the Creator but of necessity the creation. That creation includes every one of us. A theology that is built upon study of God’s revelation—in creation and in Scripture—leads us to see that God is God and we are not. But we are His image-bearers. We are without Christ image-bearers with a marred image, a distorted spiritual framework inherited from our first parents that touches everything we do, all that we are, all that we want to be. The unquenchable thirst after knowledge of God will bring us to Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord. Knowing Him and following Him restores our humanity, removes the “birth mark” of a sinful nature, and places us on an ever-expanding experience of God’s remodeling of our lives from the inside out.
Theology proper is to know God. And to know God is to know what it is be fully human.
It Is the Greatest Story Ever Told
Theology is a narrative of God’s pursuit of His own joy and communion in the relationship, lost and found, of His People. It is Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. The culminating truth of Christian theology is the Person of Jesus. He lived the life we could never live and died the death that should have been ours. He was crucified for our sins. He rose again on the third day. He appeared to over 500 at once, many of whom lived into the last years of the first century. Witnesses saw Jesus the Christ ascend into heaven with angelic presence and celestial voice that He would also return in like manner.
This is the Greatest Story ever told. How did one theologian put it?
“The Gospel of the Resurrection is the—power of God, His virtus, the disclosing and apprehending of His meaning, His effective pre-eminence over all gods. The Gospel of the Resurrection is the action, the supreme miracle, by which God, the unknown God dwelling in light unapproachable, the Holy One, Creator, and Redeemer, makes Himself known: ‘What therefore ye worship in ignorance, this set I forth unto you (Acts 27:23)."
Theology must always lead to doctrine on fire in the pulpit. Theology must always culminate in lives transformed by the power of the Gospel. Theology is intended to awaken, to heal, to encourage, to admonish, to correct, but more than anything to know love. To know the love of God. The eminent Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote in his classic theology, “Love Alone is Credible,” these words:
“But if we view creation with the eyes of love, then we will understand it, despite all the evidence that seems to point to the absence of love in the world. We will understand the ultimate purpose of creation: not only the purpose of its essence, which we seem to make some sense of through the various intelligible relationships among individual natures, but the purpose of its existence in general, for which no philosophy can otherwise find a sufficient reason.”
For Balthasar, our humanity is realized as we receive “the love offered …by the divine heart that breaks for us upon the Cross.” And this theological message is a powerful conduit to the human heart, “for the world, love alone is credible.” And God is love. And to know Him is to know pure love. To receive His eternal gift of life in Christ Jesus is to not only know but experience this divine love. Out of the fullness of this love we are able to express His love to another.
What Theology Must Never Be
For as much as we have talked about what theology is, we must be careful to assert what it is not.
Theology is not Speculation
We were told throughout the Scriptures that we should not be speculating about the meaning of a mystery not revealed. Indeed, one of the features of a maturing believer is to be able to live in the tension of the ministry. The Apostle Paul warns Timothy about the disastrous consequences of wrangling over words. We must, therefore, be careful and precise in our statements about what the Bible says. Going beyond that is theological speculation. This will surely lead not only to strife within that particular Christian community but will lead to heartache by the one who is espousing it.
Theology cannot be Weaponized
We have no doubt seen how some people use Scripture as a weapon to hurt other people. Yet even the prophets, like Jeremiah, who warned of judgement, wept exceedingly when their prophecies at length became judgement. There is nothing so heinous as twisting the very Word of Almighty God to become an arsenal to use against another human being made in God’s image.
If someone reading these words has born the brutality of a verbal attack on the conscience by misuse of God’s Word or a theological Molotov cocktail thrown to maime the conscience of another, then it is no wonder that one would have a distaste for “theology.” But theology is about knowing God, not taking His name in vain to hurt another. But there is another thing that theology must never be.
Theology must never be Ignored
Theology, the knowledge of our Creator, must not be neglected. How do we do that? Well, one way is to allow the misuse of theology by another our excuse to avoid knowing God. The reasons that I have named are real. As a pastor, I have seen the damage that abuse of theology can do to a person. To neglect the true knowledge of your God is to ignore the healing salve of grace that is needed to cure your pain.
Others ignore theology because of less complicated reasons: they just don’t have time. Can you imagine that? One would say, “I am too busy in life to come to know the Giver of my life?” It really is quite ludicrous, isn’t it? We have seen that theology is not mere philosophical speculation. Theology is not an esoteric inquiry into metaphysical ideas that are disconnected from living (and dying). Theology is always personal, always accessible, always about knowing God.
Our Lord Jesus was the Great Theologian who taught us about God and, thus, about ourselves. Our Savior once told some who had trusted in Him that conversion was not the end, but the beginning:
“So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31-32).
And that, dear friend, is the wondrous, unfathomable glory of true biblical theology: God is truth. To know Him, to follow Him, to pursue Him with all of your heart, soul, and mind is to increasingly shed the darkness of a fallen world and walk into the soft golden beams of celestial light; a light that warms, illumines, and guides you into the perfect freedom you have dreamed of for so long.
1. Leo J. Elders, The Metaphysics of Being of St. Thomas Aquinas in a Historical Perspective(Brill, 1992).
Michael A. Milton, PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary), Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/freedom007