A Word on the Discipline of Theology

In the last post I wrote on the book of Acts, I got into a bit of theology, but it might have been theology that didn’t seem like theology, so I thought I might say a few words on the subject now.

I often read and hear Christians say that they don’t like theology or that they don’t want to hear about it or study it; they just want to hear about… (fill in the rest). I also hear others who say they love theology and doctrine, and they want to hear more about doctrine…

I’m reaching for my old professor of theology hat for a minute, because I’m afraid that neither of these points of view really reflects an understanding of what “theology” actually is. Most Christians seem to think theology is “teaching”, but teaching, in this case Biblical teaching is actually “doctrine” not theology; theology and doctrine (which simply means “teaching”) are not the same thing.

Does that surprise you?

Strictly speaking, theology is the study of God, not the study of doctrine; doctrine is only the first phase of theology. Classically speaking, the pursuit of the academic discipline of theology meant the student identified and learned everything Scripture teaches about everything, arranging this information in a logical and systematic way (called a “systematic theology”) and then, in light of systematic theology, studying all other academic disciplines to discover and understand how God works in every area of investigation, and to this end such institutions of higher learning as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Princeton were established. As a result of this, theology was once considered the highest of all academic undertakings, not simply because it involved the things of God, but because it involved learning all of the sciences, rather than just one of them.

In the last post (Antioch) I mentioned stepping back and rather than getting caught up in the small details, seeing the big picture of what God was doing in those days, and then studying the secular history of the next 2,000 years and finding the Acts patterns repeating over and over, and then looking at current events and being able to discern what is really going on… that was basic classical (or “applied”) theology. It may be many things, but it is not boring, dusty or silly.

The problem today however, is that most of us never get beyond systematic theology, in fact most universities that teach theology only have systematic theology, as though systematics were the end game; but the end game isn’t doctrine, it’s understanding God’s workings in the world around us… and in our lives.

Some might still be confused: “Isn’t theology studying the Bible?”

The answer to that question is “Yes and no.” It is yes because there is a great deal of Bible study involved in learning what He has revealed to us in Scripture. It is no in that learning what He has reveled to us in Scripture is the point at which we then study other subjects. In many Bible Colleges, “Bible” is its own course of study, apart from theology.

“Don, why should I care about any of this?”

Now that’s the best question of all!

Because if all you want to do is learn doctrine, you’ll make a great teacher of the law, if all you want is to learn about one particular subject, say… Jesus, or love, or church for example, then you will be a walking book of knowledge on one thing. But if you want a real and vibrant relationship with the Lord, a relationship that is at the core of your being, and that is in alignment with God’s will and purpose for your life, it would behoove you to have a better understanding of theology so you can better discern what He is doing in and through your life.

That’s this reporter’s view, anyway.

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About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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9 Responses to A Word on the Discipline of Theology

  1. Pete says:

    Very interesting. I appreciate the explanation on the difference between theology and doctrine. Now I would like to see a follow up blog and what the best way is to study God – to study theology. This is probably where ,most, including myself, miss the mark. We have our preconceived idea on how to study the bible, or God or Jesus, in seeking to understand His will in our lives.

    For me, the best study of God is to read His word and meditate on it, asking Him to reveal Himself in what I just read. I am not a big one for commentaries and other people’s opinions on what God said – I like to go straight to the source. God is my teacher, by way of His Holy Spirit, which leads me into all truth.

    It is also in spending time with Him, listening and talking to Him as if He were a real person sitting beside me, having coffee. He can explain His word to me better than anyone else!

    How do you, or have you, gone about with the study of God? With your theology? I would like a blog about that!

    • Don Merritt says:

      Pete I have written quite a bit on this in the past, most notably the series called “The Journey” (there’s a tab at the top page for that one, and also in “Nakedness as a Metaphor in Scripture” where I talk about being naked before God. Neither of these present things in quite the same framework you put it in, however. I may put it in your framework at some point… we’ll see, but for now, I must say that you seem to have a very good handle on it. One thing I would add to what you said here is that there really is no substitute for being well read on a variety of subjects, and history should be at the top of the list of subjects, for as Harry Truman said, “The only thing new in the world is history you don’t know.”

  2. Mel Wild says:

    Good explanation of the differences and history in academics. I also think theology is important because Jesus Christ is perfect theology. He’s the “lens” by which we understand God and Scripture.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Any recommendations (Besides the Bible) on where to start reading that incorporates both?

    • Don Merritt says:

      I would suggest first “What the Bible Says About Covenant” by my old professor Mont W, Smith, and then any good history of the Emperor Constantine; the combination of the two, one theological (but easy to read) and the history will blow your mind!

  4. Don,
    I would have to echo a loud amen.
    Gary Sorrells

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