Posts

Are our seminaries perhaps filled with young students ambitious for the pulpit, who regard talent over theology? Could the same concern be a reality among the more mature in years, pastors who may regard theological training as a sterile exercise? What about the many naïve, supercilious Christians who fill the pews who boast that “loving Jesus is all that matters” to secure a vibrant, meaningful Christian life?

Introduction

In this essay, I will help the enquirer rediscover the value of theology. I will expound on important definitions, explain the nature and need of theology. I will discuss some misconceptions and how to avoid the pitfalls of studying theology.  Whether one gobbles it up like a burger or savour it like a seven-course meal, just like any good food, theology, if prepared with the right heart, can nourish our faith, strengthen our minds, help us speak prophetically into our generation and intensify our love for Christ.

1. Analysing Smith’s Theological Thoughts

1.1. The nature of theology

R.C Sproul presents an encyclopaedic line of reasoning on what I think is the purpose of theology, “a true Christian university is committed to the premise that the ultimate truth is the truth of God, and that He is the foundation and source of all other truth” (Sproul 2004, 3). In other words everything we learn in the academic disciplines of humanities and sciences (economics, philosophy, biology, mathematics, sociology) has to be understood in light of the overarching reality of the character of God (2004, 4).  If we presuppose God and his word as ultimate truth, and the “bible is God’s revelation of reality” (Smith 2013), then Sproul and Smith both make an apotheose claim – why we need to rediscover the value of theology.  Until the era of Enlightenment – the rise of modern scientific thought, during the high Middle Ages – theology was heralded as the “Queen of Sciences” (Zakai 2007).  Theology spoke authoritatively over nature and science.  This can be seen in the life and work of three forerunners of modern scientific thought —Nicolas Copernicus (1473–1543), Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), and Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) [127].

What is theology? According to K.G Smith, “theology is the study of God” (Smith 2013). The term theology is a combination of two Greek words, the prefix, theos, meaning “God” and the suffix, logos, meaning, “word”. In its simplest form, theology is ‘a word about God’ [p. 18]. Sproul and Smith shares the same sentiment about the shared suffix, –ology, which is shared with the names of many disciplines and sciences, such as biologyphysiology, archaeology, anthropology and technology (Sproul 2004, 4; Smith 2013, 18). It is remarkable that the suffix, comes from the Greek word logos, which we find in the opening of John’s gospel (John 1:1). Albeit a borrowed term, which harks back at least to the 6th-century-BC, to philosopher Heraclitus (Britannica 2021), Sproul expands and explains logos to mean “word” or “idea”. He also claims that one philosopher translated it as “logic” – it is also the term from which we get the English word logic (Sproul 2004, 4). So, we could deduce, theology, is the study of the logics of God (Smith 2013), or the field of study where God is the object of inquiry [p. 18].

Following this etymological foundation, I think it is important to add that the term “theology” is ambidextrous. For instance, Smith, in a refreshing way, affirms that we can obtain knowledge about God’s being, essence, nature and purposes through two main channels: (1) God’s revelation and (2) people’s faith.  Therefore, we can define [p. 18] “theology as the systematic study of divine revelation and human faith.”

1) Theology is the systematic study of divine revelation

If our chief task is to study revelations of God and his truth, which provides a basis for a coherent and meaningful world view and if the scriptures (Old and New Testament) “logos” is the written form of God’s special revelation, then people’s faith takes a secondary position.  One John 1:2-3 and Ephesians 1:9 tells us that God has revealed himself and his plan to us, elucidating Smith’s statement that “we can know God because he has chosen to reveal himself and his truth”.  The scriptures also confirms the supremacy of Christ. The Son is the apex of God’s revelation, “ but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1-3), and in whom “God revealed himself most fully and finally through in the words and works” (Smith 2013, 18).Then the task of a sound theologian is to discern what God has revealed about himself, through a Christological lens, concerning His nature, will and purposes. This must also be followed by one more important function of theology –restating this reality back into our context [19].

Since God’s revelation is recorded in scripture, the branches of theology, namely “biblical studies” and “systematic theology” [19], aid in the study of God’s revelation more directly. Although correct in asserting this, I think that the other branches such as “church history”; “missiology” and “systemics” could provide us with insight into God’s truths.  Still for the avid lover of God’s word, interpreting doctrine, systematising doctrine and contextualising these principles of scripture in our lives provides us with the exciting task of understanding God and his word better.

2) Theology is the systematic study of human faith

A wise theologian understands theology extends beyond systematising and contextualising doctrine from the scriptures. The subdiscipline of Church history and practical theology which involves horizontal inquiry. For instance, “studying a particular faith tradition’s origin, history, beliefs, and practices” [19], can help us discern God’s will for their context. The same is true for us today. Therefore, we cannot be restricted exclusively to the study of the scriptures without considering the context. This begs the question, how contextually sensitive is our theology in this Postmodern world?

Clearly, human faith has a function. Historical theology enables us to discern God’s will in the horizontal context of the past [p. 20].  Practical theology is the belief and practice of God’s people in the present. Both sub-disciplines are useful tools to help us systematise revelation in the context of human faith.

However, in Evangelical theology, divine revelation (special and natural) stands canonical over human faith for understanding God’s nature, will, and purposes. Human intervention is not infallible or speaks from the “seat of Peter”, which is evidently observed in church controversies and heresies. Therefore, the task of divine revelation precedes people’s faith as the primary means of discernment. Therefore, the “chief aim” of sound theology, is to then first ask, “God, what are you saying”? and secondly “God how can it be interpreted into my context”? The secondary aim involves contemporary analysis [p. 21]. or, contextual sensitivity, which ensures we are faithful to translate God’s truth with relevance (practical theology). In the words of Anselm, who beautifully captured the discipline of practical theology as,  “faith seeking understanding”.

 

The practice of medicine is proof - the doctor does not entirely understand medicine. The practice of theology is proof; the theologian does not completely understand God Click To Tweet

1.2 The goal and task of theology

Smith says, “theology is the quest of those who know God to know God” [p.21]. Perhaps, it is better to say; theology is the quest of those who know God to know God better. Most scholars agree that God is not completely incomprehensible, neither is he completely comprehensible. The finite human mind cannot comprehend the infinite God fully. The practice of medicine is proof – the doctor does not entirely understand medicine. The practice of theology is proof; the theologian does not completely understand God. Still, the goal in theology is to learn about God, to discern his will for our generation and beyond, through the help of the Spirit, the scriptures and in community so we may serve him more faithfully (Acts 13:36).   

 The task of theology [p.21] Smith says, has many implications and they can be summarized as the following:

  • God-focus –theology is relational and doxological [p. 23];
  • Bible-based–the revelation of God to man [p. 25];
  • Christ-centred –the supreme revelation of God and his will [p. 26];
  • Spirit-led–the Holy Spirit is the author and illuminator of scriptures [p. 29];
  • Mission-minded –the overarching purpose of God’s will[30];
  • Historically informed –we reflect on the past to inform the present and the future [p. 22];
  • Context-sensitive–theology is both contextually influenced and orientated [p. 33];
  • Practically-oriented–theology inspires personal living (obedience) and right serving (public ministry) [p. 34];
  • Scientifically plausible –the scriptures are God’s revelation of reality [p. 35];
  • Branches of theology–theologies sub-branches, enables us to understand divine revelation [p. 39].

Theology, then, is not a haphazard bible study. It is the systematisation of God’s revelation and contextualising of people’s faith. Its goal is to restate the implications of God’s revelation for our context, so that we might believe and live in a way that is faithful to God’s will [p. 22].

1.3 The method of theology

If God is the object of inquiry in theology, as we have discovered, how than can one practically do theology?  According to Smith, scholars such as Don Browning, J. Andre Cowans, Gerben Heitink and David Tracy use four essential means to inquire what God and faith are. These words are widely used in their literature: hermeneutical, critical, correlational, and dialogical (Browning, 1993). In the most basic sense, we;

  1. Interpret–into the five subdisciplines to holistically acquire insight (Smith 2013);
  2. Evaluate–we re-examine and re-evaluate our insight and interpretations of Christian texts, beliefs, practices; in other words, we become critical (1 The 5:21);
  3. Discuss–we enter dialogue with other experts on the subject (Prov 27:17);
  4. Compare–we examine how the eternal truth should change our context and how our context shapes the way we interpret God’s word.

These four actions apply to the branches of theology, to help us to discourse with God and apply the implication to our context.

 

Theology’s North Star Click To Tweet

2. Smith’s vision vs. popular misconceptions

It is understandable when sceptics outside of the church maintain a negative attitude about God and his revelations, but it is extremely concerning when the church distains theology (2 Tim 2:14). It is not uncommon within the academic arena to hear theology defined as “systematically articulated superstitious” or within liberal society as “the drag queen of science”. Very often, these proponents against God are unsubstantiated claims or mere theories.

Disconcerting as all this may be, we are not surprised that the world does not consider belief in God or any supernatural being as necessary. Smith (2015) informs us that “negative experience” (e.g, in church, family or university) usually relates to way people would adopt an atheistic, anti-theistic, even a shallow and non-scholarly regard for God’s revelation.  Another factor within Christians is bad theology – another reason why even Church leaders have negative attitudes towards the discipline of theological studies. Tim Keller makes the point that we all do theology all the time. If we don’t learn to “do it right,” we shall propagate heresy without knowing it, even when sincerely desiring God.  Truth is one of the absolute passions of true ministry—in a church or a preacher. Love of truth is one of the earmarks of the true man or woman of God—truth is their integrity (Anderson 2004: 130-131). RC Sproul said, “Unless we know God deeply, we cannot love Him deeply. Deepening knowledge must proceed deepening affection”. Unless we know the power and value of biblical and practical theology, how can one know God deeply?

Good theology is a transformative, empowering love affair with Jesus Christ.

 

The North Star of theology; keep it Bible-based, Christ centred, Holy Spirit inspired, and mission-minded. Click To Tweet

3. Personal implications of Smith’s vision

I regret not learning theology sooner.  The good news, though, is that in recent years, my desire to understand it (informally) has exposed me to some of the greats and now with SATS (formally), from the patristic period to the immensely innovative middles ages, to our contemporary thinkers, including Kevin G. Smith. Truth is essential, along with others who carry the holy burden, to guard it and prevent it from being deluded by error, making it a turning point to analyse Smith’s version of theology. To simplify it, one would not know how to start without a “clear vision”, and it is easy to forget what I would like to call my new north star of theology, keep it Bible-based, Christ centred, Holy Spirit inspired, and mission-minded. One more important thing, to prevent serving theology itself, but rather the object of theology, who is Christ himself (Segal, 2015) – this changes everything!

Naturally, with this approach, one feels confident and better equipped. The “holistic” approach to thinking theology, which engrafts all the subdivisions of theology (even though only five were discussed in this course), as Smith states it, is another valuable framework to analyse and systematise doctrine –particularly the part in Church history –human faith, I found.  Also, the discipline of practical theology enables one to speak contextually –addressing a truthless culture with the eternal truth through the inspiration and power of the scriptures. This is essential to me because it makes Christianity prophetically and apostolically relevant to our times.

4. Implications of Smith’s vision for my church

John Jefferson Davis (Davis, 2016) challenges the pastor hood. He says most ministers are consumed with running from one committee meeting to another and sermon preparation to another, at the cost of neglecting the health of the Church. He says, “like a healthy backbone in a healthy human body, sound biblical theology can provide support, shape and bring stability to the Body of Christ.” As a pastor, this statement truly challenges me. If a strong spine is essential for the health of our human anatomy, sound theology is essential for the Body of Christ. Therefore, I cannot help but ask, what are the catechetical and apologetical structures I set for my congregation’s health? How effective have I been in empowering God’s people to interpreted the faith in our time?

Under the overarching reflections of Smits expressions of theology, there is no question how the study of theology could profoundly impact a Church and her leadership both doxologically and contextually.

Conclusion

Anyone who has a less than holy reverence for theology fails to understand it.  Anyone who does not have “a clear vision of theology” and how one should do theology cannot discover or substantiate the Truths of God’s word let alone, experience a profound personal relationship with God or share their faith effectively with others.  Theology is not only the queen of science; it is the king of bridges. Life on earth is more meaningful by it; God is reached through it.

Work Cited

Sproul, Robert C. 2014. Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology. Pennsylvania: Reform Trust Publishers. Epub edition.

Smith, Kevin G. 2013.  Integrated Theology: Discerning God’s Will in Our World. Johannesburg: South African Theological Seminary Press.

Zakai, A. 2017.  “The Rise of Modern Science and the Decline of Theology as the “Queen of the Sciences” in the Early Modern Era”. Jerusalem: Equinox Publishing. (127),  doi:10.1558/rrr.v9i2.125.

Browning, D.S. 1985. “Practical Theology and Political Theology.” Sage Journals, 1 April 1985,

(15-33), http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/004057368504200104

Britannica. 2021. “Logos: Philosophy of Theology. Britannica”, 1 September 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/logos

Segal, M. 2015. “You Cannot Serve both God and Theology.” Desiring God. Posted 6 February. 2015; retrieved 18 September 2021.