Part 1: one basic definition
When asked about the word “theology,” most people tend to think of it as complicated stuff that scholars and seminarians talk about. It’s often kind of nit-picky, sometimes interesting, and always intellectual. Although this does fit the general definition of “theology,” the basic meaning is quite different: God-words (theo-logy). Or, to elaborate more clearly, “words of God.” At this basic level, anyone who says anything about God is “doing” theology. Every Christian who shares the faith with another is acting as a theologian in this way – talking about God, putting him into words!
Part 2: two different purposes
“Words of God” can be understood in two ways: words about God, and words from God. Words about God are speculative, they’re our questions (and hopefully answers) about God. Words from God are revealed, they’re the answers that God gives us without us even asking.
Speculative Theology is a result of human study. As we truly get to know God better, our faith is strengthened, just like getting to know a friend better strengthens that relationship. Of course, this can get very academic, as scholars and seminarians spend a lot of time studying how to get to know God better, but when it comes down it, all Christians carry this out in their own lives in some way.
Revealed Theology is a result of human listening. God speaks to us by his Spirit, especially through the revealed word, the Bible. Of course the Bible can be and is studied with great care and scrutiny, but it’s a different kind of study than Speculative Theology. Speculative Theology starts with a human question and seeks an answer, while Revealed Theology starts with what God has already said, and tries to make sense of it. This, too, is not merely an academic discipline, but something every Christians does whenever he or she reads the Bible.
Part 3: three different approaches
As someone thinks about God and starts to formulate doctrines about who he is, what he does, and what that means about Jesus’ death, the purpose of the Church, the meaning of Baptism, why bad things happen to good people, and everything else that comes up along the way, there are three fundamental approaches that could be taken. The first way is starting with the Bible, what God has explicitly stated, and working out from there. The second way is starting with a non-religious perspective, and working up to God from there. The third way is starting by building a comprehensive system that has an answer for every question and a question for every answer. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Biblical Theology may be the most popularly-understood approach to theology, or way of talking about God. It starts with biblical passages and themes, and formulates teachings accordingly. For example, by comparing Genesis 12 and 15, you can work out a pretty robust understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant. Or if you analyze Psalm 50, you can get a beautiful picture of what how the Atonement works. The obvious advantage with this approach is that you’re much more likely to have “biblical” results. Since we know that the Bible is true and reliable for all knowledge of God and salvation, it’s a solid place to start. The downside, though, is that the Bible isn’t comprehensive – it doesn’t answer every question we might have. And if we read the Bible always looking for direct teachings for us, we run the risk of taking smaller passages out of their larger contexts, and miss the point of what that part of the Bible is actually trying to say.
The second approach (starting from a non-religious perspective) could be named a couple different things, depending on where you start. Natural Theology, Philosophical Theology, and Scientific Theology are some of the major possibilities here. The idea behind these things is to start on the same ground as a non-believer and show how creation (or philosophy or science) point to God. This is particularly useful in the field of apologetics (defending the faith) and in evangelism (sharing the faith): if we can talk the language of the world, we can point them to God more clearly. Its strength is also its weakness, though: a high regard for ‘general revelation.’ Because on one hand, creation and philosophy and science are good things, part of who we are and how we tick, but on the other hand, they’re not specific ‘special revelation’ from God in the same way that the Bible is. So if taken too far, this approach can be abused to displace the authority of the Scriptures.
The third approach is Systematic Theology. It’s primarily about making a system. This makes a lot of sense, too, because half the time whenever someone figures something out, a new set of questions arise. Therefore, in order to be satisfied, all the questions need to be answered consistently in order for any of the answers to make sense. Catechisms are good examples of this, as they attempt to systematize the faith with a series of questions and answers that at least try to cover all the bases. I daresay no theological system is perfect, but the attempt is admirable, and to some degree, necessary. The strength, then, is coherence: if every question is answerable and consistent, then the Christian’s faith can be made very strong indeed. The danger, though, is putting the authority of a system (or human reason and logic) over the authority of the Bible. It can be all too tempting at times to ignore inconvenient verses in the Bible for the sake of keeping a system intact!
Part 4: eight different focuses
No matter what approach to theology you take, there are many ways to organize our questions and answers. Granted, this is now a level of detail that not everyone needs to think about in their personal theological considerations (their words of God), but for those who do want to think through more carefully what they’re saying and thinking, these different organizational focuses can come in handy. At this point, we’re at a level of fine-enough detail that these focuses overlap, too. For example, let’s think about Baptism. From a pastoral perspective the bigger question is “what will this event mean in someone’s life?” But from a sacramental perspective it raises other questions like “what is the Holy Spirit doing here?” So different focuses aren’t better or worse than one another, but simply shed light on different areas. And of course, the more focuses you make use of, the more detailed your answers can be. So let’s look at these eight focuses (in alphabetical order to avoid any sense of priority).
Ascetical Theology is focused on intentionally living out truth, on spiritual disciplines, and on worship. It deals with questions of application – “how can I live this out?” Examples include fasting on Fridays in remembrance of Good Friday, and praying set prayers at certain times in order to pray in solidarity with the Church. At its best, ascetical theology provides Christians with theologically sound spiritual lives. At its worst, it seeks to justify empty ritualism for no purpose.
Contextual Theology is focused on dealing with contemporary issues and situations. Two major examples in recent history are Liberation Theology and Feminist Theology. Massive social movements across the country (and the entire Western world) demanded a new sort of attention for often-overlooked groups of people, namely the poor, the oppressed, and women, and contextual theology sought to provide biblical answers for what to do about these people in these situations. So the positive side of contextual theology is obvious: it’s completely relevant to life right now – that’s the whole point of it! The negative side, though, is that it risks putting non-essentials above the essentials, such as defining the Gospel of Christ as a social liberation, rather than also the more profound liberation against our own sin and death.
Dogmatic Theology is focused on absolute truth, which all Christians have to believe. It’s about the basics – what do we really need to believe? This is what the Nicene Creed was written to be, this is what the Five Fundamentals were written to be, and this is what every evangelist has to tackle when trying to tell people what it means to be a Christian. Dogmatic theology is vital, then, in making sure we preserve the essentials of the faith and keep them central. The downside, though, is that when there’s serious disagreement, there is serious division in the Church.
Ecumenical Theology is focused on unifying different traditions of Christianity without disrupting their unity. In a way, it’s a counterpart to dogmatic theology which seeks to bind back together those who have been separated. The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral is a major Anglican example of ecumenical theology. This focus (and goal) of rebuilding unity in the Church is a major pro. The con, though, is that ecumenical theology can often end up shallow, trying so hard to please two sides that it yields only vague statements that distort both sides.
Historical Theology is focused on utilizing past theological writings into the present. In a sense, everyone who listens to someone else teach is doing this, but it’s especially used when we look for answers to our questions about God from Christian writers in the past. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity is usually approached this way, due in part to the extensive debate, study, and bloodshed in the Early Church to work it out. The strength of this approach is that Christian belief and teaching can be seen to be consistent over time. The weakness that comes with it is the danger of relying more on tradition than on the Bible itself.
Moral or Ethical Theology focuses on how Christians are supposed to live and act. Like ascetical theology, this is a very practical focus which deals with how to behave well (rather than how to worship, as in ascetical). This can range from theologizing marriage & divorce, seeking “the seven virtues,” and working out Just War Theory – the whole gambit of life, both private and public! While the strength of this focus to theology is obvious, the weakness is rather sneaky: we could fall into the trap of exchanging the gospel for works-based moralism.
Pastoral Theology is yet another ‘practical’ focus, looking at how to address concerns that come in the course of regular life in the local church. Answering questions like “how do I raise my two-year-old child to be a Christian?” or dealing with conflict in a small group are examples of pastoral concerns. Although the relevancy is impressive, there is also a risk of tunnel vision – coming to God (or reading the Bible) with specific pastoral questions may lead one to disregard the big picture and miss what’s really going on, therefore taking a reactionary approach instead of being proactive.
Sacramental Theology, lastly, is focused on God’s interaction with the world through the Church. As Christ was Emmanuel, “God with us,” sacramental theology seeks to find and explain how God is still with us today. Whether it’s the question of the Real Presence in Communion or how marriage portrays Christ’s love for the Church, the theme of what God is visibly doing is tantamount. The best of sacramental theology affirms the Incarnation – how Jesus was both human and God. The risk, though, is to focus on the effects rather than the cause, therefore trying to claim God’s power for ourselves.
Part 5: in summary
We’ve looked at the basic definition of theology: words of God.
We’ve looked at its two purposes: explaining God with our words about him, and listening to God’s words to us.
We’ve looked at three approaches to theology: starting with the Bible and working outwards, starting with non-religious knowledge and working upwards, and starting with a system and working inwards.
And we’ve looked at eight focuses which any approach to theology can adopt: ascetical, contextual, dogmatic, ecumenical, historical, moral/ethical, pastoral, and sacramental.
I can’t deny that theology is an intellectual thing. Questions and answers are a matter of the head, whether the heart is invested in them or not. But theology is not for intellectuals only, because it’s not merely an academic exercise, but the intellectual side of our faith – a faith which touches not only our heads but our hearts and hands as well. We think for Christ, we love for Christ, and we live for Christ. But insofar as theology deals mostly with the head side of our faith, I would like to close this post with the following collect, adapted from the 1979 BCP on p. 248.
O God, by your Holy Spirit you give to some the word of wisdom, to others the word of knowledge, and to others the word of faith: We praise your Name for these gifts of grace, and we pray that your Church may never be destitute of such gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen!