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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6 Responses to A Word on the Discipline of Theology

  1. Citizen Tom says:

    Reblogged this on Citizen Tom and commented:
    Here is a post that offers perspective. Some of us can get a bit obsessed from time to time. We can see what we think important, and we can ignore everything else. God has a larger view, and to understand what He wants from us we have to strive to see as He sees, to see things through God’s eyes.

    What if we don’t strive to see things through God’s eyes? Then we assume a greater risk of being blind to His Will. Consider.

    Judges 21:25 Authorized (King James) Version (AKJV)

    25 In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

    The verse above is the ending to the Book of Judges, it also occurs at Judges 17:6, right after we hear about a man named Micah and his house full of idols.

    In my mind the Book of Judges is the scariest book in the Bible. Revelation contains greater horrors. Exodus, which speaks of the plagues that Moses called in God’s name, brings chills to bone. Yet in the Book of Judges the violence is almost insanely random. Because the children of Israel are only doing that which seems right in their own eyes, not striving to see through God’s eyes, their behavior sometimes seems almost desperately mad.

  2. Thanks for your insight on theology. As a matter of transparency, I studied theology while I was getting my Bachelors degree. I apologize for the length but I thought it might be useful to your readers.

    Theology is important. As you aptly point out, it drives what we know as doctrine and teaching in our churches. This may widely unknown as it isn’t always apparent. As a follower of Jesus, it may be useful to know, why does the church I go to believe what it believes. Theology is the answer.
    There is, however, no single, universally agreed to theology in the Christian church. There have been hundreds, if not thousands over the last 2,000 years. That is just the start of the challenge, in my opinion. Some theologies will reasonably explain why one church baptizes infants and others don’t. Is that a big deal in your mind? Maybe. Others don’t see it as a huge issue.

    On the other hand, there are some theologies that may be dangerous, prone to error and false. Jesus says “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

    John alerts us we should test the spirits (think theology) to see if they are from God. As a believer, this is my job and shouldn’t be delegated to someone else. Hence, as you encourage us, I should know something about theology. As the Apostle John said, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

    Well … any hints about some theologies to question or look at closer? Which ones should we test? This is just a short list that may or may not be useful to your readers.

    Queer Theology – a theological method that has developed out of the philosophical approach of queer theory, built upon scholars such as Michel Foucault, Gayle Rubin, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Judith Butler. Queer theology begins with an assumption that gender non-conformity and gay and lesbian desire have always been present in human history, including the Bible. One of the main premises is that Jesus never married because he was gay.
    Black theology – Black liberation theology, refers to a theological perspective which originated among African American seminarians and scholars, and in some black churches in the United States and later in other parts of the world. It contextualizes Christianity in an attempt to help those of African descent overcome oppression. It especially focuses on the injustices committed against African Americans and black South Africans during American segregation and apartheid, respectively.
    Liberation theology – an interpretation of Christian theology that emphasizes a concern for the liberation of the oppressed. The best-known examples of liberation theology come from the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s among individuals such as Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru, Leonardo Boff of Brazil, Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay and Jon Sobrino of Spain, who would popularize the phrase the “preferential option for the poor”.
    Anarchism – is a movement in political theology that claims anarchism is inherent in Christianity and the Gospels. It is grounded in the belief that there is only one source of authority to which Christians are ultimately answerable—the authority of God as embodied in the teachings of Jesus. It therefore rejects the idea that human governments have ultimate authority over human societies. Christian anarchists denounce the state, believing it is violent, deceitful and, when glorified, idolatrous.
    Progressive theology – “post-liberal movement” within Christianity “that seeks to reform the faith via the insights of post-modernism and a reclaiming of the truth beyond the verifiable historicity and factuality of the passages in the Bible by affirming the truths within the stories that may not have actually happened.”
    Prosperity theology – (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success) is a religious belief among some Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity.
    Emerging church – Proponents believe the movement transcends such “modernist” labels of “conservative” and “liberal,” calling the movement a “conversation” to emphasize its developing and decentralized nature, its vast range of standpoints, and its commitment to dialogue. Participants seek to live their faith in what they believe to be a “postmodern” society. What those involved in the conversation mostly agree on is their disillusionment with the organized and institutional church and their support for the deconstruction of modern Christian worship, modern evangelism, and the nature of modern Christian community.
    Feminist theology – a movement found in several religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and New Thought, to reconsider the traditions, practices, scriptures, and theologies of those religions from a feminist perspective. Some of the goals of feminist theology include increasing the role of women among the clergy and religious authorities, reinterpreting male-dominated imagery and language about God, determining women’s place in relation to career and motherhood, and studying images of women in the religion’s sacred texts and matriarchal religion.
    Liberal theology – Liberal Christianity, broadly speaking, is a method of biblical hermeneutics, an undogmatic method of understanding God through the use of scripture by applying the same modern hermeneutics used to understand any ancient writings, symbols and scriptures. Liberal Christianity did not originate as a belief structure, and as such was not dependent upon any Church dogma or creedal doctrine. Unlike conservative varieties of Christianity, liberalism has no unified set of propositional beliefs. Instead, “Liberalism” from the start embraced the methodologies of Enlightenment science, including empirical evidence and the use of reason, as the basis for interpreting the Bible, life, faith and theology.
    Narrative theology – a theological movement which became popular in the late twentieth century. The movement’s proponents argue that the Church’s use of the Bible should focus on a narrative presentation of the Christian faith as regulative for the development of a coherent systematic theology. Thus Christianity is to be viewed as an overarching story, with its own embedded culture, grammar, and practices which can be understood only with reference to Christianity’s own internal logic
    New Church – is the name for several historically related Christian denominations that developed as a new religious movement, informed by the writings of Swedish scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). Swedenborg claimed to have received a new revelation from Jesus Christ through continuous heavenly visions which he experienced over a period of at least twenty-five years. In his writings, he predicted that God would replace the traditional Christian Church, establishing a “New Church”, which would worship God in one person: Jesus Christ. The New Church doctrine is that each person must actively cooperate in repentance, reformation, and regeneration of one’s life.
    Personalism – school of thought searching to describe the uniqueness of 1) God as Supreme Person or 2) a human person in the world of nature, specifically in relation to animals. One of the main points of interest of personalism is human subjectivity or self-consciousness, experienced in a person’s own acts and inner happenings—in “everything in the human being that is internal, whereby each human being is an eyewitness of its own self”.
    Process theology – is an essential attribute of God to affect and be affected by temporal processes, contrary to the forms of theism that hold God to be in all respects non-temporal (eternal), unchanging (immutable), and unaffected by the world (impassible). Process theology does not deny that God is in some respects eternal (will never die), immutable (in the sense that God is unchangingly good), and impassible (in the sense that God’s eternal aspect is unaffected by actuality), but it contradicts the classical view by insisting that God is in some respects temporal, mutable, and passible

    Again, thanks for your insight. Greatly appreciated.

    • Don Merritt says:

      Michael, thank you for your valuable contribution to the discussion here. As an old Theology professor, I must admit to a big smile as I read this: Good work! You have demonstrated something here that is of vital importance to everyone who wants to follow Jesus Christ and understand the Scriptures at the same time, while trying to remain sane in the process. Yes sir, there are so many theologies out there; we could easily add many more to your list, and the diversity of views would be staggering to anyone who has not formally studied the discipline. As a result of this, a great many Christians throw their hands in the air and reject Theology entirely as a subject to be understood… and I can’t honestly say that I blame them. What you have really brought out, without saying so explicitly is the fact that the thing that differentiates between the different views is nothing more complicated than the assumptions that you begin with before you turn to the Scriptures. If you understand that, then things get simple very quickly.

      You see dear readers; all of the above is logical and correct if you accept the underlying assumptions. For example, if you see oppression all around you, and you understand that oppression as a class struggle, then you will search the Scriptures and come up with Liberation Theology – what could be more logical?
      The problem is however, is that the Class Struggle Model doesn’t come from the Scriptures, it comes from the writing of Karl Marx in the 19th century.
      Classical Theology is understanding the world around us in light of the Scriptures, not understanding the Scriptures in light of human teaching. Thus, if you want to understand the Scriptures… and that is entirely your decision to make… then try approaching them with only these assumptions:

      1. The Scriptures contain the written record of God’s revelation of Himself to humanity.
      2. God gave this revelation of Himself to men, therefore men can understand it.
      3. God did not contradict Himself, thus the Scriptures are harmonious with themselves.
      4. The human condition is to be explored in light of Scripture and not the other way around.

      If you do this, your investigating will be easier than you ever imagined, and you can draw your own conclusions.

  3. Well said. Be blessed. God is with you.

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