The purpose of theology (part 3)

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

 

In this third and final post on the purpose of theology, I want to further explore the relations between theology and discipleship, theology and piety. Click here for parts one and two.

There will always be more to the nature and character of God than our theologies are capable of expressing. A faithful, inquiring, open-minded theologian will keep on asking questions about God, and God’s ways, and our proper response. Faith seeks understanding, and a mature faith continues to welcome further understanding, deeper truths, mystery and paradox. There is no end to the study of “living to God,” no final point beyond which there is no need to pass.

On the other hand, theory without praxis is empty, and praxis without theory is blind. Our theological insights and education need guidance, direction toward a meaningful purpose, and part of that purpose is informed, practical Christian discipleship.

Theology helps us grow in our knowledge and understanding of God and God’s word. But if our goal is the mere acquisition of knowledge, or eclipsing the wisdom of a friend or colleague, then we have failed. We have missed the point of it all.

Good theology and theologising require more than cognitive knowing. For every Christian, especially those who identify as evangelical, our faith should be equally concerned with intellectual, moral and spiritual growth. Doing theology involves not only academic learning but “growing into a closer relationship with someone who loves us.”[1] This relational aspect of theologising draws these three aspects – the intellectual, moral and spiritual – together.

As we grow in this way, beginning to know God better, the intellectual and moral challenges associated with this knowledge remind us that “our minds are limited and that even when we are fully submitted to God’s will there will be some things about him that we shall never know.”[2] Good theologising encourages intellectual humility and reverence for mystery and paradox.

Theology should also inform our individual conscience and shape our character, ethics and moral decision-making. If, as Michael Bird suggests, the purpose of theology is “to support our task of telling the story of God, to show where we fit into that story, and to decide how to live out that story appropriately” (and I think he’s right), then there is a direct link between learning theology and doing good. Or at least there should be.

It’s not enough to absorb theological knowledge; that knowledge and insight is practically useless until it is applied to our personal lives, our communities, our institutions. It must be set free to do its work of transforming us into persons who faithfully reflect the image of Christ, and transforming our world into the kingdom of God. Nothing less.

As our convictions are shaped and clarified by our reading of the Bible in the context of community, and by our faithful theologising, we come to discover how poorly (or indeed how well) we have been taught by others, and to what degree our beliefs match our actions. We begin to imagine how our theological beliefs cast a vision for the good life, how they demand ethical actions, and how those actions will shape and reshape our world.

Theology also helps us to negotiate the difficult terrain we encounter when we face fear, or experience opposition for our theological beliefs and ethics, or are rendered powerless in the presence of evil, or injustice, or apathy. Theology that does not help us to bridge the gap between theory and praxis is poor theology.

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To conclude this discussion of the purposes of theology, let me share the two “constitutive rules” of theology as recommended by baptist theologian James William McClendon:

    1. The principle of fallibility: McClendon quotes fellow theologian James M. Smith: “even one’s most cherished and tenaciously held convictions might be false and are in principle always subject to rejection, reformulation, improvement, or reformation.” McClendon adds, “If it seems too hard a rule to accept, here are two consolations that go with it: one is that, of course, the principle applies also to itself. And the other is that happily, it applies to our adversaries’ convictions as well!”
    2. Test all things (1 Thess 5:21): McClendon quotes Roger Williams (c1603-1683): “It is the command of Christ Jesus to his scholars [i.e., disciples] to try all things: and liberty of trying what a friend, yea what an (esteemed) enemy presents hath ever (in point of Christianity) proved one especial means of attaining the truth of Christ.”[3]

 


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


References

[1] Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 58.

[2] Gerald Bray, God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 82.

[3] James William McClendon, Ethics: Systematic Theology, Volume 1 (2nd edition, revised; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 44.

Image source: Christianity Today