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Theology Is Not Neutral

Many, if not most people, have an almost instinctual aversion to the word theology. Whatever vague impression the word gives off is enough to convince them the study is not for them. One need only see the size of most theology books or hear the kind of obscure terms that theologians love to use, to see why one might come away with that antipathy for theology.

I have no expectation of being able, or intention to try, to make us all fully trained and capable theologians in this article. You can dispel that fear and read on. My goal here is three-fold:

  1. I want to convince you that theology is inescapable – it is not something you can avoid or run away from.

  2. I want to try and demystify the idea of theology and the various disciplines it contains.

  3. I want to help you on your way to becoming a better theologian (since you already are a theologian whether you realize it or not).

Before we get any further, let’s define our terms. What is theology? The most basic (yet surprisingly accurate and helpful) definition I can find is that theology is the study of God and His relation to the world. By that definition, it should be clear why, at least to a Christian, the study of theology is of ultimate importance. What could be of more importance than to know about God and His relationship to the world – especially His relationship to us?

Not Whether, But Which

It should not be too hard to convince you that theology is important to the Christian, but I want you to see that it is unavoidable for everyone – not just those who are religious.

Let’s start with the Christian. Have you ever heard someone express the concern that theology is dangerous because it causes division? The idea behind this question is that no one agrees on everything, so when we talk about specific beliefs about God and the Bible it just causes conflict. We would all be better off if we just accepted the Bible for what it is and loved God and our fellow man, right? This could seem reasonable, except that theology is not neutral. Everyone has a theology whether he realizes it or not.

Who is God? How do we know about Him? What is the Bible? What does it mean to love? How are we to understand what is right and what is wrong? These are all theological questions. Even if you are in what you feel is a biblical church with good Christians, people are going to come from vastly different backgrounds and have varying answers to those questions. They will need to be taught biblical answers to those questions, even the basics, to get everyone on the same page to have unity in the church. That is why we make so much use of our catechism and confession.

Joel Beeke wrote that the process of doing theology involves the search for understanding that “leads us to the hard work of close reading, careful thinking, fervent praying, and conferring with Christians wiser than we are. Then we are enabled to crystalize our thoughts about God in clear and penetrating insights, and are better equipped to serve Him.”

Would anyone argue that it is not right and proper – necessary even – for a Christian to carefully read God’s Word, meditate upon it, ask for God’s help in understanding, and seek help from Elder or others within the church when they have questions? That is all the work of a theologian. It is doing theology. It certainly can get more involved than that, but it certainly includes that.

Non-Christians Are Theologians Too

Can a non-Christian have a theology? Anyone of any religion has some understanding of their deity or ultimate force or presence. They have some understanding of how that god or force relates to them and the world at large. That is theology. As far as the atheist, they absolutely have a position on God. Denial of God or a divine influence in creation is itself a theological position. Not to mention, that for most atheists their defining moto could be summed up as “there is no god, and I hate him.”

It is not really a question of whether you will practice theology. It is about if your theology is going to be correct or false, life-giving or death-bringing, uplifting or destructive, biblical or demonic.

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A Broad and Multifaceted Discipline

The study of theology contains many disciplines. There are numerous categories or specialties under which we study God and His relationship with His creation. Before briefly describing some of them, let me try and keep you from becoming overwhelmed or from just glazing over it all.

The following are specific ways that people focus on the study of theology as they concentrate in on one piece of the whole. These varying disciplines within theology can offer a helpful perspective when we want to dive deep into a particular doctrine. No one is an expert in every kind of theological study. You do not need to consciously consider each category as you learn more about God, it is just helpful to understand the myriad of ways in which we can approach our study to aid us in our goal of better understanding, loving, and obeying God.

The book Reformed Systematic Theology offers these branches of theology and the questions they seek to answer. They help us look at the issue from a unique angle:

  • Exegetical Theology seeks to answer the question “what does a particular part of the Bible teach?” It focuses in on a specific part of the Bible and tries to understand the context, meaning, and application it contains. You may notice that it sounds a lot like what we do in preaching. That is because we practice exegetical and expository preaching – we dig into the text to find its meaning and then apply that to our congregation.

  • Biblical Theology answers the question, “How does a particular doctrine develop in relation to redemptive history?” This will require comparing multiple passages in various parts of the Bible to see how God progressively revealed the plan of salvation to His people. Adam did not have the same revealed knowledge as did Abraham. Abraham was given less than Moses. Moses less than Paul and the apostles.

  • Historical Theology answers the question, “How have the doctrines of Christianity been identified, formulated, elaborated, defended, and applied during the long history of the church?” This discipline makes use of historic creeds and confessions, as well as the writings of past theologians. It helps give perspective and keeps us from drowning in a modern echo chamber.

  • Systematic Theology answers the question, “What does the whole Bible teach about a given topic and its relation to other topics?” This is probably what you imagine when you think of theology. It is most likely what we are doing when we want to understand a particular truth about God or His revelation. It involves using all the tools at our disposal, including the other categories of theology.

There are other theological branches, such as philosophical, apologetical, polemical, and ethical, but those four are enough to help you see the various approaches to studying God and His relation to creation.

God Is God, And We Are Not

To help you on your way as a theologian, let me help establish what must be our orientation in this study. God is God, and we are not. That is the most basic, fundamental truth of theology. There is a God and He is not me. Flowing out of that truth is that He sets the rules, and we do not.

No one approaches theology from a neutral position. Not only are we not God, but we are sinful. This means that we need God’s help to understand who He is and our relationship to Him rightly. Thankfully, we have been given the Spirit of God, who helps us to that end. The process of doing theology works with, and is a part of, the process of sanctification in the Christian’s life.

We are not left on our own to learn about God. Most importantly we have the Holy Spirit and God’s Word, but we also have thousands of years of faithful saints who have spent their lives learning about Him and what He wants from us. Much of what they learned is still available to us. Moreover, we have the local church. God has given pastors to instruct us, and other faithful Christians to learn under and beside.

May we commit ourselves to the blessed study of our God, confident that our labors will bear fruit. You are a theologian. Be a good one.

Listen Part 3 of our Worldview Series on the Reformed Faith and Family Podcast!

Join us for our NEW SERIES on Building a Thoroughly Christian Worldview! Everyone has a worldview whether they realize it or not, and more than likely their worldview is not consistent with itself. The Bible is our only standard for all of life and truth. We are called to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). We can only do this by knowing God's Word. Listen in to this multipart series as Caleb and Lindsey discuss what a worldview is, how to evaluate your worldview for inconsistencies, and also ways to apply God's Word and mission to every area of your life.

As disciples we are meant to have a "Kingdom Mindset." Many Christians today have more of a defeatist mindset and live defensively instead of offensively. The Christian's worldview directly applies to how Christians engage the culture, and this is what we will be discussing in future episodes during this series.

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