What Is Christian Theology?

I initially started this blog because I had some stuff to say about theology and I wanted to say it in creative, down-to-earth ways. But throughout my growth as a thinker, many of my posts have lost their down-to-earthiness. How shall this down-to-earthiness be restored? Are my blog posts no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet? Well, That’s kind of extreme- hold your horses! I don’t think my posts have become so high falutin that a lay reader can’t understand them, but the point is well taken- I could speak more like a human than I have been recently.

With this in mind, I’ve decided to get back to my roots and sporadically write these sorts of “intro to” types of blog posts. This will free my conscience up a bit and allow me to write about symmetrical supervenience, multi-nested speech acts, and other ridiculous multisyllabic words in other posts without feeling like a pompous tool.

So, without further ado, let’s talk about theology, specifically, Christian Theology- what is it? Well, there are lots and lots and lots of different definitions of theology out there. There are lots of different religions out there as well. And there are lots of different Christian definitions of theology in general and Christian definitions of Christian theology in particular. So, I’d like to acknowledge the fact that I’ve certainly been influenced by countless people and their definitions- some of which I’ll list at the end of this post- but for now, I’m going to skip all that and give you my Christian working definition of Christian theology.

The etymology of theology comes from two Greek words, theos + logia. Logia is derived from Logos which has various meanings depending on context but for our context means “a vocalized expression of the mind.”[1] And Theos means God, which is simple enough. So Theos-Logia is the vocalized expression of the mind- words, speech, reasoned discourse- about God. But the etymology doesn’t quite do justice to a Christian understanding of the word.

As image bearers of God, human beings ‘image’ their Creator in their intellects, their wills, and their affections. A common mistake in the history of theology and philosophy is to overemphasize one of these aspects (or perspectives) to the detriment of the others, which ends up warping our view of what it means to be human. So granted that we are rational, volitional, emotional beings, let’s try and do justice to those aspects in our definition of theology. Theology, then, is thinking about God, feeling about God, and acting based on those thoughts and feelings about God. Christian theology is doing those things in a Christian way. Boom! Blog post over.

Just kidding we have a little bit more work to do. Let’s ask and answer two important questions then we can be done:

  • What does it mean to ‘do theology’ in a Christian way?
  • Is there any biblical support for this definition of theology?

The second question partially reveals my answer to the first question: Christian theology ought to be biblical. After all, the Bible is where we get Christianity and its doctrines from. But being biblical isn’t enough. There are lots of cults who claim to derive their theology from the Bible, yet we Christians do not recognize them as brothers or sisters in Christ. They may follow the same “formal principle” as us- i.e., the same source of theology, the bible- but they do not hold to the same “material principle” as us, which is the Gospel. In one way or another, every cult will compromise, butcher, negate, redact, etc. essential truths of the Christian material principle. Our material principle, the Gospel, is the doctrine that God the Father sent the Son in the person of Jesus Christ to die on a cross for the sins of the world, and through the power of the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead and that all those believing in him for the forgiveness of their sins will be forgiven and enjoy eternal life with God and His people forever. Usually those who reject the material principle of Christian theology will deny the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is One God in three Persons, or some aspect of the person of Jesus Christ, who is truly God and truly man, one person with two natures (divine nature and a human nature).

So doing theology in a Christian way is to think, feel, and to act towards God in conformity to the Christian formal and material principles, the Bible and the Gospel.

With that in mind we need to answer the second question: is this definition biblical? In answering this question there are various passages we could turn to but I think Colossians 1:1-20 most succinctly hits all of our desiderata (I earned that word, back off).

Give this passage a quick read and I’ll explain why I chose it to answer our second question:

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, and Timothy our brother:

2 To the saints in Christ at Colossae, who are faithful brothers and sisters.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints 5 because of the hope reserved for you in heaven. You have already heard about this hope in the word of truth, the gospel 6 that has come to you. It is bearing fruit and growing all over the world, just as it has among you since the day you heard it and came to truly appreciate God’s grace. 7 You learned this from Epaphras, our dearly loved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, 8 and he has told us about your love in the Spirit.

9 For this reason also, since the day we heard this, we haven’t stopped praying for you. We are asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, 10 so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, so that you may have great endurance and patience, joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light. 13 He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. 14 In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

15 He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn over all creation.
16 For everything was created by him,
in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions
or rulers or authorities—
all things have been created through him and for him.
17 He is before all things,
and by him all things hold together.
18 He is also the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning,
the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have
first place in everything.
19 For God was pleased to have
all his fullness dwell in him,
20 and through him to reconcile
everything to himself,
whether things on earth or things in heaven,
by making peace
through his blood, shed on the cross. (Christian Standard Version)

Check out verses 9-12 and how they correspond to our view of humans as rational, volitional, emotional beings:

Thinking (Rational, Intellect): We are asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding,

Acting (Volitional, Will): so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God,

Feeling (Emotional, Affections): being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, so that you may have great endurance and patience, joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light.

From this passage, we see the Apostle Paul (the human author of the Letter to the Colossians) saying that he and his disciples pray for the Colossian Church to grow in their wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of God through His will. But Paul doesn’t stop with the conceptual, he moves immediately to the practical; the culmination of knowing is doing. He prays that they may know in order to act on their knowledge throughout their lives which will in turn lead them to grow and gain even more knowledge, which in turn will allow them to produce even more spiritual fruit and upward and onward they go in their theologizing. But again, Paul doesn’t stop there, he continues on to the affections, asking that God would give them wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of His will- and by extension of His very own nature and character- in order that they may apply said knowledge and produce spiritual fruit, in order that they may have great endurance and patience which all culminates in joyful thanksgiving to God! So theology isn’t just thinking about God, it’s thinking, acting, and feeling about and towards God. Christian theology is doing that in a Christian way.

I also quoted this section at length, from verse 1 to verse 20 in order to show that the Christian’s formal principle, the Bible, also vindicates the Christian’s material principle, the Gospel. You’ll notice in verses 3-8 Paul explicitly names all three Persons of the Trinity, The Father, The Lord Jesus Christ, and the Spirit; verses 12-14 lay out the Gospel; and 15-20 doubles down on the Gospel and then expounds on the supremacy of Christ as the God-Man. This last section of verses also informs us that all things were created for Christ and through Christ, thus there is no domain in reality that’s not in some manner connected to theology. So this also extends our definition of theology beyond God to God’s creation. I leave you then with this final working definition of Christian theology: doing theology in a Christian way is to think, feel, and act towards God, Creation, and ourselves in conformity to the Bible and the Gospel.

If I’ve missed something important or you want to quibble with my view of theology please let me know, I love to quibble!

As promised, here is a brief list of definitions of theology from various theologians as compiled in lecture notes from Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer[2]:

  • Theology is “faith seeking understanding” (Anselm)
  • “Theology is taught by God, teaches of God, and leads to God” (Thomas Aquinas)
  • True theology is not theoretical, but practical [Vera theologia non theoretica, sed practica est]. The end of it is living, that is to live a godly life” (Martin Bucer)
  • “Theology is the doctrine or teaching of living to God” (William Ames, The Marrow of Theology)
  • B. Warfield: “Theology is the science of God and his relationship to man and the world.”
  • Augustus Strong: “Theology is the science of God and of the relations between God and the universe” (Systematic Theology I,1,i).
  • Wolfhart Pannenberg: theology is the “science of God” (Theology & Philosophy of Science, 297), the “unfolding of the Christian idea of God so as to demonstrate its coherence and truth” (Systematic theology, I).
  • Charles Hodge: “Theology . . . is the exhibition of the facts of Scripture in their proper order and relation, with the principles or general truths involved in the facts themselves, and which pervade and harmonize the whole” (Systematic Theology2.i).
  • Cornelius Van Til: “Systematic theology seeks to offer an ordered presentation of what the Bible teaches about God” (Introduction to systematic theology, 1).
  • Wayne Grudem: “Systematic theology is any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic” (Basic Christian Doctrines and their Basis in Scripture, ch. 1).
  • Friedrich Schleiermacher: “Theology is the analysis of religious consciousness, the feeling of absolute dependence”
  • Karl Rahner: “Theology is the ecclesiastical science of faith. It is the conscious and methodological explanation and explication of the divine revelation received and grasped in faith” [so Tillich: “Theology is the methodical interpretation of the contents of the Christian faith” (Systematic theology 1:18)].
  • Macquarrie: theology as the study which, “through participation in and reflection upon a religious faith, seeks to express the content of this faith in the clearest and most coherent language available” (Principles of Christian Theology, 1).
  • “Theology is the attempt to hear the Word of God through biblical study and dialogue with the past and present church and the outside world; to test, correct, and depend churchly and worldly thoughts about God by correcting them by the Word one has heard; and to proclaim that Word for pastoral, prophetic, and doxological purposes” (J. I. Packer).
  • “Theology is application of God’s word to all areas of life” (John Frame).
  • “Theology is the self-critical examination of the church’s speech about God in the light of God’s own speaking of his Word” (Karl Barth)
  • “Theology is that delightful activity in which the Church praises God by ordering its thinking towards the gospel of Christ” (John Webster)
  • “Theology is faith speaking understanding, setting forth in word, and shoring in deed, what is in Christ: true God, true humanity, and their right relationship” (Kevin Vanhoozer).
  • “Christian theology is the intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual attempt to articulate the truth about God, the world, and ourselves, to appropriate this truth to ourselves, and to apply this truth to all areas of life, thereby responding to God’s word in speech, thought, and life to the glory of God” (Kevin Vanhoozer).

[1] Fredrick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 217.

[2] This list has been adopted and adapted from Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer’s ST 5201 God of The Gospel course at TEDS.

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