The purpose of theology (part 1)

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

What is the purpose of theology? In this and my next two posts (part 2 and part 3), I’ll outline my response to this question from an evangelical Christian perspective.

Some definitions of the term “theology” give us insight into the intended purpose of the field of study. For example, Reformed theologian Michael Horton defines theology as “both a practical wisdom (sapientia) and a knowledge of mysteries (scientia), both of which rest on Scripture.”[1]

This statement indicates two complementary purposes or goals of good theology; and suggests that theology is a multifaceted discipline, perhaps a suite of interrelated resources to be explored and applied in various contexts for various purposes. And Horton rightly identifies Scripture (the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible) as the primary source and wellspring of Christian theology.

A few pages later, Horton makes a supplementary claim that goes to the heart of theology’s purpose as I understand it: “Theology exists … to appeal to the God who has revealed himself and his redemptive purposes in Christ, so that he may be invoked in trouble, praised in deliverance, and obeyed in gratitude.”[2]

It’s the basic difference between studies in religion and theological studies: the former generally explores facts and opinions about religion or religions, often comparing and contrasting the beliefs and practices of several faith traditions; the latter introduces students to academic knowledge about God, but also the first-hand experience of knowing this God as a Person. There will be exceptions to this general observation, because of the cultural diversity within which religious studies and theological studies is framed, but I think the distinction is warranted.

Theology, then, according to Horton, informs our knowledge of God and our relationship to God. Both are essential aspects of theology and Christian vocation. In this post, I focus on the task of attaining knowledge about God, and in my next two posts I’ll discuss theology and the task (or privilege!) of knowing God.

Many theologians emphasise, explicitly or implicitly, the production of cogent, coherent statements about God and God’s world as a primary purpose of theology. They want to cut through the undergrowth and create a clear map of the world of theology. This is especially true of systematic theologians and those who write large theology textbooks.

Horton, for example, in yet another purpose statement, describes systematic theology as “the grammar” of the Christian faith, and theology’s purpose as “teaching the vocabulary and rules of speech (grammar) of Christianity, investigating its inner consistency and coherence.”[3]

Theologians seek to bring the various truths of Scripture into a coherent, consistent whole, and to faithfully express the internal consistency and coherence of Scripture. This is vital when the primary source of our theology is a diverse collection of biblical texts written by some 40 people over a period of more than a thousand years. As theologian John H. Leith says, “the faith is not simply to be affirmed; it is to be understood.”[4]

There is, however, more work to be done than faithfully summarising theological truths. Theologians do not work in a vacuum. Where possible, theology should be “balanced” in light of Christian tradition (biblical and historical); it should be “placed in the context of culture in general, worded in a contemporary medium, and related to issues of life”; and it should include “clarification of faith’s understanding of itself and its grounds.”[5]

For theologian Stan Grenz, the purpose or goal of theology is “the construction of a model of reality that can foster a truly godly spirituality that translates into ethical living in the social-historical context in which we are to be the people of God.”[6]

That may sound quite unlike the first statement by Michael Horton quoted above, and Horton and Grenz do represent different evangelical constituencies (one Reformed Calvinism, the other Arminian-Baptist), but both make essentially the same point: good theology is a coherent and consistent statement of truths, derived from Scripture, informing our knowledge of God, our relationship to God, and our mission in the world.

More about theology and mission in my next post.

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


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

[2] Horton, The Christian Faith, 112.

[3] Horton, The Christian Faith, 22.

[4] John H. Leith, Basic Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 8.

[5] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World. Volume 1: Christ and Reconciliation (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2013), 1:13; Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (3rd edition; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 8; and Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), 6.

[6] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1994), 13.

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