(This is a blast from my past. My first ever professionally published article, “Theology Shapes Everyone” was published in The Banner, June 16, 1997 and was written while I was still a graduate student completing my MA in English Literature. I hope you will find it is still relevant today.)
A few months ago [back in 1997], a friend showed me a humorous article, titled, Glossary of Church Growth and Contemporary Christian Music Terminology. It gives tongue-in-cheek definitions of various terms and phrases related to Church life and Christian music. Scanning through it, I noticed the following entry: “Theology: A necessary evil, something like spinach or Pepto Bismol.” Even as I laughed at it, I was afraid the joke’s sentiment may actually reflect the average Christian’s feelings about theology.
One of the catch-phrases these days is, “I want to know God personally, not know about God.” There is, of course, some truth in that statement. This is one reason why books like J.I. Packer’s Knowing God are such best-sellers. Theology is often seen as giving a lot of head-knowledge about God with little to offer in terms of heart-knowledge. In fact, sometimes, theology is even seen as a hindrance to spiritual growth. Perceived as dry, intellectual, academic stuff, theology is seen as far removed from the reality and needs of the Christian’s spiritual walk.
Theology has indeed been guilty before of being irrelevant and abstract. This was especially so during the nineteenth century when many Christians were swept along by the era’s worship of human reason and science. Theology was affected by a very strong emphasis on logic and classification, leaving very little room for the more experiential and pastoral approaches. Modernity also has a strong faith in the inherent goodness of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Hence, creating a split between theory and practice. As a result, theology in universities is often pursued for its own sake, divorced from its service and accountability to the Church. But such abuses of theology do not justify its exclusion. Let us not throw away the proverbial baby along with the bath water. I am convinced that theology has been, and still is, relevant to both a Christian’s and a Church’s spiritual health.
Everyone Does Theology
Before proceeding further, we need to understand that theology does not only occur as an academic discipline in universities or seminaries. Theology is not only for theologians and pastors. As Karl Barth puts it, “Theology is not a private subject for theologians only. . . . Theology is a matter for the Church.” (God in Action) We must, first of all, distinguish between theology as an intellectual discipline and theology as an understanding of one’s religious beliefs. It is in this latter sense that we, as individuals, all “do” theology.
Another way to understand this rudimentary level of theology is to call it god-talk. Or god-think. Doing theology, then, is simply bringing god-talk into our conversations, or god-think into our opinions. How we understand and perceive God shapes our basic beliefs and convictions. These convictions, in turn, shape our opinions and actions. An Atheist, who does not believe that God exists, will have a different worldview than either the Christian who sees God as a gracious redeemer or someone who sees God as a callous judge. I am not suggesting, however, that we talk, or think, overtly about God all the time. What I am suggesting is that Christians should never think about something as if our faith does not count. To leave theology out of our decision makings is to leave god-talk out of our conversations, to act as if God does not matter in our lives.
Theology Shapes Our Worldviews
Everyone has a worldview, and a worldview is a unifying perspective that tries to give meaning to the world we are in. Theology helps shape our worldview by expounding on basic Christian beliefs. What we understand of God and his actions plays a big part in determining our perspectives, and hence, our decisions. For example, in the euthanasia debate, two Christians may be holding opposite positions. One is supportive of euthanasia because he believes that God has given freedom and dignity to his creatures, while the other is against euthanasia because she believes that God is the giver and taker of life, not humans. This is an example of how theology can affect our everyday lives.
No matter how much we like the distinction between knowing God and knowing about God, the two, ultimately, are inseparable. What we know about God will shape how we approach him and commune with him. And vice-versa, the more our personal relationship with God grows, the more it increases our knowledge of him. As Martin Luther says, “The principal lesson of theology is that Christ can be known.” (Table Talk) Luther does not see theology as an abstract science. Rather, it is more like getting to know someone. When I first knew my girlfriend [happily now my wife], we talked a lot about ourselves: our studies, our likes and dislikes, our families. But as our relationship grew, we began to share more freely about our thoughts, our feelings, and our hopes. The more we know about each other, the more we can talk to each other, the more we can share deeper emotions.
Professional Theologians Have a Place
But what about theology as an academic discipline? What role does it play? Firstly, professional theology is to the Church what rudimentary theology is to the Christian. A Church’s theology shapes the way the Church sees its own role in the world, and how the Church responds to issues in society. For example, Churches that adhere to a Liberation theology focus much more on issues of oppression in society, while Evangelical Churches tend to focus on issues of personal salvation. Reformed theology, with its emphasis on God’s sovereignty in all areas of human life, has helped pushed Reformed Churches towards being active in the world, as evidenced by our educational institutions, our labor unions, and our organizations for public justice.
Secondly, professional theology helps shape, directly or indirectly, the Christian’s rudimentary theology. One way, of course, is through the publication of theological books which a Christian may read. But far more commonly, theology seeps into our minds through the local Church community. The average Christian absorbs theology through the liturgy, the sacraments, the preaching and even the music, of the local Church service. The practice of baptizing infants, for example, embodies a specific theological doctrine. Such an event cannot help but create an impression in the minds of Christians who witness it. As with the lyrics of the hymns we sing. Or with the words of the liturgy, the prayers, and the sermon. For we do not develop individual theologies independently from our faith community. Instead, our fundamental religious understandings grow out of the soil of the Church’s theology. Our god-talk, if you will, finds its voice from the Church’s theological dialogue.
And this theological dialogue does not end. Theology helps the Church to understand her own faith in God. But our understanding can never be perfect or complete. The theological enterprise, therefore, will never cease as we continue to grow in our understanding of our faith, as we move closer towards God.
So, academic theology, when done in service of the Church and not for its own sake, influences the Church, and through that, the average Christian. Because of this, theology will always be important to the Church and to the individual. The danger of theology becoming abstract and irrelevant will always be there. But professional theology, at its best, aims to serve the Church and Christ, her Lord. Far from being a necessary evil, theology is an essential, and even enjoyable, part of our relationship with God.