Just what is theology? Literally, it is derived from a combination of two Greek terms meaning "a word about God." Eventually it was employed to refer not only to a study of the nature and attributes of God, but to the whole range of Christian doctrine. Augustus H. Strong, a theologian of the early twentieth century, offered a definition that is even broader. He wrote, "Theology is the science of God and of the relations between God and the universe."(1) So theology is concerned with a very wide range of subjects, such as the Bible, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, man, salvation, angels, the church, and the end times. Or, we can even say our theology pertains to all of life.
Sound theology is very important in the life of a Christian. History shows us this has always been true. From heresies in the very early church, through the upheaval of the Reformation, to the "Jesus Seminar" of more recent times, Christians have been challenged to give serious attention to matters of theology. And there are important reasons for each of us to devote increased attention to it at this time in history. Historic orthodox theology is currently being questioned, if not attacked, from both outside and inside our churches and institutions. Several examples will demonstrate this.
A few years ago an infamous movie entitled The Last Temptation of Christ drew national and international attention because of its blasphemous caricature of Christ. The non-orthodox reports of the Jesus Seminar, a gathering of various scholars, have received the attention of both theological journals and popular magazines such as Time and Newsweek. The conjectures of New Age advocates such as Shirley MacLaine include heretical views of God, Christ, and other facets of theology. Process theologians, who teach at many seminaries, teach a doctrine of God that includes the idea that "the world can be thought of as the body of God," and the notion of a changing God who is as dependent on the world as the world is on Him.(2) Recent books from within evangelical circles include titles such as The Openness of God, which "asserts that such classical doctrines as God's immutability, impassibility and foreknowledge demand reconsideration."(3) More orthodox evangelical writers have written such books as No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? Obviously, the title indicates that the author is concerned about what he believes is a collapse of theology.(4) The Body, a book by Charles Colson, decries what Colson sees as a drift to a consumer-oriented church that, among other things, isn't concerned about matters of theological truth(5).
Such illustrations serve to alert us to the need for more theological reflection, not less. These are challenging times for theology!
Do you know anyone who can be called a theologian? You probably immediately begin to think of a seminary professor or an erudite pastor you may know. But is it possible you can be called a theologian? If someone were to ask you what you believe about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and many other doctrines, chances are you would answer their questions. Thus you are stating your theology; you are, at some level, a theologian. There are certainly "professional" theologians who spend their lives thinking about and teaching theology, but theology is not just for schools and seminaries; it is for life. It is for you and every other member of Christ's body, the church.
In the fairly recent past in this country theology was spoken of in both the academy and the church. David Wells, a contemporary professional theologian who is concerned about recapturing such unity, has written that at one time theology encompassed three essential elements: "(1) a confessional element, (2) reflection on this confession, and (3) the cultivation of a set of virtues that are grounded in the first two elements."(6) "Confession, in this understanding, is what the Church believes. It is what crystallizes into doctrine." Thus we are to confess our theology based on the inspired Word of God, the Bible. Then we are to wrestle intellectually with what it means to hold such theology in the present world. Finally, we are to wisely apply the truth found in the first two steps.(8) It appears that too often such steps are lacking among all but a few contemporary Christians.
For more than two years my wife and I visited worship services at many churches in the Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas metroplex, which some refer to as a major part of the "Bible belt." The churches represent a wide spectrum of denominational affiliations, and some are non-denominational. Our visits left us with many impressions, some of which are very positive. But one of several concerns is that too many of these churches emphasized appeasement rather than proclamation. That is, there was concern for relating to the "seeker" at the expense of teaching the believer; or there was an emphasis on "how to" sermons that contained little doctrinal substance; or there was stress on what is called contemporary Christian music coupled with lyrics that were often void of meaning; or there were statements of trite cliches that can do little, if anything, to lead the church to maturity. In other words, much was done to appease the "wants" of the people and little was done that would give the impression that theology is important in these churches.
On the other hand, those few churches that were the exceptions to such emphases boldly stated theological truth and genuinely worshipped God in the process. Their praise had meaning; their prayers were directed to the holy and sovereign God; their sermons contained truth that encouraged the church toward maturity; and even though individual "wants" were not stressed, true needs were met because theology for all of life had been proclaimed.
Which of these accounts is descriptive of your church? Does your church summon you to theological maturity? Or are you caught in a web of appeasement? The writer of Hebrews implored his readers to "press on to maturity" (Heb. 6:1). May God help us do the same!
A 1994 U.S.News & World Report poll of religious beliefs in the U.S. indicates that "about 95 percent of Americans say they believe in God or a universal spirit, and about 60 percent say they attend religious services regularly."(9) In addition, "more than 80 percent, including 71 percent of college graduates, believe the Bible is the inspired word of God."(10) And "68 percent of Americans are members of a church or synagogue."(11) But do such statistics mean that sound theology plays a significant part in our lives? For example, could it be "that the surprising growth of church membership rolls in recent decades may signify the ascendancy of shallower, less demanding forms of religion with wider appeal?"(12) We believe the answer to this question is, "Yes!" It appears that too many Christians are unwilling to face the demands of theological thinking, and shallowness is the result. Good theology requires contemplation, study, and even debate. It is demanding, and it is certainly not shallow.
Since we are living in a culture that believes "anything goes," distinctive statements concerning our theology are increasingly necessary. Most people are willing to accept you as a Christian if your beliefs (i.e., your theology) are not narrow. If you are willing, for example, to state that Christianity is one of many legitimate paths to salvation, you will be accepted. But if you state that the gospel is the only path to salvation, you may be labeled as a narrow-minded bigot. Although a large majority of the people in this country claim to be religious, a large portion of that majority is still thinking within a relativistic world view that attempts to reject absolutes. The exclusive claims of Christianity don't fit within such a world view.
This was brought out clearly for me during an open forum in the lobby of a dormitory on a large state university campus. For more than two hours one of my colleagues and I attempted to answer questions concerning Christianity from approximately a hundred college students. Their questions led us in many directions. We discussed social, political, apologetic, and many other issues. But the subject that disturbed them most was salvation through Jesus Christ. When I declared that Jesus was the only way to God, many of the students expressed their strong disagreement and even anger. One student was indignant because he realized that my statement concerning Christ logically meant that his belief in an American Indian deity was wrong. Even some Christian students were uncomfortable with my assertion. They had an uneasiness about it because it seemed to be too intolerant. Thus I had to quickly remind them that Christ himself said He is the only way to God. I was not making a claim about Christ; I was simply telling them what He said about himself.
Those Christian students are indicative of the need for more demanding thought concerning theology. To claim to be a Christian and at the same time be immersed in the shallow pond of theological tolerance is antithetical. Perhaps the non-Christian students have an excuse; they don't know better. But the Christian students should know better; they need training in theology. And the same is true for all of us.
People continue to seek Jesus. But which Jesus? Is it the Jesus who was born of a virgin, who performed awesome miracles, who claimed to be God, who died on a cross for our sins, who rose from the dead, who ascended into heaven, who said He would return? Or is it the Jesus who died as a disillusioned revolutionary peasant? Or is it the Jesus who was a great religious teacher on a par with Buddha?
All these questions are very old, but at the same time they are very contemporary. And they indicate that theology, in this case the theology of Christ, continues to be important. As Christians, we are still challenged to think theologically. Long-held, foundational, orthodox theology is being contested, not just within academia, but in more public venues. Let's consider a prominent example.
In 1991 a book was published by the title of The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.(13) John Dominic Crossan, the author, then published a second book in 1994 entitled, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.(14) Then the third book in his trilogy about Jesus, The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images,(15) was also published in 1994. Such titles are filled with indications that Crossan is anything but a believer in an orthodox doctrine of Christ. Jesus may have been a Mediterranean Jewish peasant, but was He something much more? The second title indicates that the author believes there is need for a new biography of Jesus, so he has provided it. And the third title boldly asserts that the "original sayings" of Jesus have been isolated from all other sayings so that we can discover the "essential" Jesus.
I have brought Crossan and his books to our attention because he is a prominent member of what is called the Jesus Seminar. This much-publicized seminar is composed of scholars who "used to meet regularly to discuss and vote on the originality of Jesus' sayings (1985þ92) and are now evaluating his actions and deeds in a similar manner."(16)
Crossan's view of Jesus is exposed in a meandering passage that follows his perspective of the surrounding Roman Empire in which Jesus lived. He writes:
Jesus lived, against the systemic injustice and structural evil of that situation, an alternative open to all who would accept it: a life of open healing and shared eating, of radical itinerancy, programmatic homelessness, and fundamental egalitarianism, of human contact with discrimination, and of divine contact without hierarchy. He also died for that alternative. That is my understanding of what Jesus' words and deeds were all about.(17)
Please note that Crossan has painted a picture of Jesus as a revolutionary whose primary concern was with things of this life. In fact his last phrase, "divine contact without hierarchy" (a confusing idea), is as close as he comes to stating that Jesus was anything more than a political radical. There is no mention of Jesus as the sacrificial Savior who takes away sin and gives eternal life.
In light of the fact that such perspectives are in vogue, and in light of the fact that they are taught to future pastors and professors, can we afford to leave theology in the back rooms of our minds?
A recent book asserts that God "learns something from what transpires" in this world. The same text also asserts that "God comes to know events as they take place," and that we should see God "as receptive to new experiences and as flexible in the way he works toward his objectives in the world."(18)
What is your reaction to such statements? If you have a reaction at all, you are to be commended. You are thinking theologically. As was true with me, your doctrine of God may have been challenged, and you may want to ask the author various questions. Those questions would probably have a lot to do with how you perceive God in your daily life. For example, you may want to ask if God is somehow dependent on you. If so, in what way?
Such thoughts demonstrate that theology is practical. If we stop a few minutes and concentrate, it is not difficult to see that our theology affects us, whether we are conscious of it or not. Let's consider a few questions that can lead us to see how this is true.
In a cursory way these questions have touched the major categories of theology. It is our hope that you will study such categories seriously. What you believe about them is important to you and those who follow after you. Theology matters!
© 1995 Probe Ministries
1. Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley
Forge, Penn.: Judson Press, 1907), 1.
2. Ronald H. Nash, The Concept of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1983), 23-25.
3. Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger, The Openness of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1994), cover notes.
4. David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993).
5. Charles Colson, with Ellen Santilli Vaughn, The Body (Dallas: Word, 1992).
6. Wells, No Place for Truth, 98.
7. Ibid., 99-100.
9. Jeffery L. Sheler, "Spiritual America," U.S.News & World Report (4 April 1994), 50.
13. John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).
14. John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).
15. John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).
16. Ibid., 22.
17. Ibid., 12.
18. Richard Rice, in The Openness of God, 16.
1. Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley
Forge, Penn.: Judson Press, 1907), 1.