What makes Christian theology distinctive?

Welcome to The Theology Whisperer,  a series of short blog posts on theology and theological education.

Why is theology viewed as a distinctive realm of knowledge, and what is distinctive about Christian theology? The answer to both questions lies in the strong reliance of religious traditions on scriptures and other sacred writings, for which an authority is claimed above and beyond all other textual authority.

For example, Reformed theologian Michael Horton states that theology is “both a practical wisdom (sapientia) and a knowledge of mysteries (scientia), both of which rest on Scripture.”[1] I’ll have more to say about Scripture as a source for theology in future posts. For now, let me suggest that Christian theology is primarily dependent on Scripture (that is, the Bible, comprising the authoritative Jewish and Christian Scriptures) for its structure and content.

That is not the whole story, though. There are two other objective factors that render Christian theology distinctive: its location within a community of faith (the church); and its affirmation that Jesus Christ is the key to all truth about God, about ourselves, and about the world in which we live. There are, of course, also many subjective and culturally specific factors.

Those are big claims, and I may sound arrogant or exclusivist to many readers. But every religious tradition distinguishes between objective and subjective authority, has a centre and periphery, and reveres key historical figures without whose teaching and influence the tradition loses focus, meaning and momentum. I would suggest the same is true for many political and cultural movements and traditions.

This is not a novel claim. You’ll find reference to the centrality of Christ, Scripture and church for theology in the writings of theologians and biblical scholars through the centuries. Shirley Guthrie clearly stated it half a century ago.[2]

More recently, in his seminal book, The Analogical Imagination, David Tracy said something similar, identifying three target audiences for theology: the church, the academy, and society.[3] If the essential purpose of theology is faith seeking understanding, then it makes sense to regard the church as the primary audience.

Tasked with defining, defending and promoting the faith, the church has a natural and legitimate interest in shaping the content of Christian theology, and defending it against incursions from without. In my view, one of the problems with modern theology is the historic drift, or the severing, of theological institutions from the churches that birthed them. The academic and social worlds also have legitimate shaping functions, though not at the expense of the church, its purpose and mission.

The church is both an institution and a gathering of people sharing a common identity as followers of Jesus Christ. One cannot be a Christian alone for long; we all need each other in community to be the church, and to pursue the church’s mission in the world. Nor was the Bible written for individuals alone but for a community of people – first Israel in the Old Testament and then the church in the New Testament and on to today.

It is through reflection on the writings of the Bible that we most clearly understand not only the mission of the church but the meaning and message of Jesus Christ. As Shirley Guthrie notes, “The whole of the Old Testament looks forward to him and is fulfilled in him. The whole of the New Testament is an expression of the faith that in him is hid the secret of the past, present, and future not only of Christian individuals but of the whole world.”[4]

But what most profoundly gives Christian theology its distinctive character is its relation to Jesus Christ. Guthrie again:

The name Christ is by definition the clue to what Christian faith is. If you want to know what God is like, Christian theology says – look at Christ. If you want to know what real humanity is and how you can live a genuinely human life – look at Christ. If you want to know what God is doing in the world and in your individual lives – look at Christ.”

It is reasonable to assume, of course, that God is at work everywhere, in all locations, institutions, and religious traditions. And it is reasonable to assume that Christians have much to learn from other traditions and teachers. We Christians should be open, curious, inclusive, teachable, and humble. But above all, we should affirm Christ, church and Scripture as the three basic objective factors that define our theology.

Do you agree? What would you add to these three factors? What makes your theological tradition distinctive?

This post was written by Rod Benson. Leave a comment in the box below, or email theologywhisperer@gmail.com 


[1] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 106.

[2] Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018 [1968]), 9-13

[3] David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 3-46.

[4] Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 11.

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