One can find several different dictionary definitions of theology. Perhaps the best comprehensive answer is that theology is “the rational and systematic study of religion and its influences and of the nature of religious truth.” More particularly, for the Christian, theology is a situated system of teachings; "Roman Catholic theology" or “Protestant Theology,” etc. In an academic context theology is a profession acquired by specialized courses in religion and Christian studies (usually taught at a college or seminary); e.g. "He/she studied theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.”
Now, theology is a needed and useful discipline. I am not only committed to theological study but I believe it is a properly recommended course of study for ministers, priests and many non-clerical leaders (elders, deacons, teachers, etc.) In the most broad sense everyone who thinks about God at all is a theologian, professional or not.
But here’s the problem—theology is often very cold and sterile, especially when it is limited to intellectual forms and human systems of thought. What changes all this is when theology serves as a means to understanding God. In this instance it can result in a healthy understanding that we will never possess a precise sense of God thus we cannot define Him or limit Him by human concepts or systems. Joseph Girzone says about his own theological training as a Catholic priest: “I . . . saw from our extensive study of Scripture that God had a sense of morality that was much more open than the narrow, rigid morality of moral theologians, or even the Church itself” (Never Alone, 1994, 6). Because Girzone read the Scriptures and understood them in this way he writes: “That was to effect radically my understanding of people later on when they came to me with very disturbing moral problems. I could always see abundant goodness alongside the very severe moral weakness in people, and learned to treat them as whole persons and not as sinners, the way Jesus, for example, treated the Samaritan women who was married five times and did not even bother to marry the last person. Jesus still saw goodness in her and chose her to announce the Good News to that Samaritan village. Churches do not treat people that way. Sinners are very carefully avoided in our churches and not allowed to take part in the real life of the church. We do not feel comfortable with sinners and we make them feel uncomfortable by not allowing them to perform services and ministries that are open to others whose lives superficially are more in keeping with Church standards (Never Alone, 6-7).
If that paragraph doesn’t resonate with you I seriously doubt that you’ve been around the church for long. It is so self-evident that a growing number of Christians are actively serving Jesus, and clearly love him deeply, but cannot relate to the church any longer. There is, in other words, growing evidence that the church actually hinders the growth and ministry of many serious Christians.
In contrast to many of us Jesus could actually look at bad people and see their great potential for good. He could see their confusion and respond to them with love. He could embrace them and thus give them hope. He continually reached out to broken people and treated them like bruised and broken sheep who were invited to approach him even though they felt unworthy in his presence. If you do not think this observation to be correct you need to put down your theology book and read the four Gospels anew.
Fr. Girzone concludes that this is the reason why a precise understanding of Jesus is more important than all the theology courses in anyone’s curriculum. “If Christianity is merely a theological system, it will at most produce a highly educated elite devoid of anything resembling the living Christ in their personal lives (Never Alone, 7-8). Ouch, that seems very close to the reality of our own time.
Sadly, much of the theology I’ve seen taught and studied over the course of my lifetime was done to validate certain positions, biblically or socially (usually both), with regard to other Christians and (sometimes) non-Christians. It was not done to foster deep love and spiritual development and formation in souls. Adds Fr. Girzone, “We teach theology, we explain Scriptures, we enact nice liturgies, we debate public issues, we parade the streets in protest marches. . . .
I have been in at least 1,000 different congregations over the course of my lifetime. I have pastored three different congregations. The first was a small Baptist church I served while I was doing graduate work. The second was a church-plant begun in 1972, long before the modern church-planting movement. The last was a sixteen-year ministry in a fairly healthy church that was disrupted in my early years and then put back together over time. Over nearly forty years of public ministry I have preached in congregations and large evangelistic settings in South America, India, Europe and North America. I have preached in all but a few of the 50 states of America and almost every province and area of Canada. I have been in churches of almost every denominational variety, large and small, and spoken to rallies where nearly 20,000 were present. I have also taught in house churches to 5 or 10 and lectured in numerous seminaries and colleges. The problem that Fr. Girzone writes about is so obvious, at least to me, that it is not to be seriously questioned.
Theology that serves people by showing them how to know God in Jesus Christ is good theology. Theology that helps people develop their unique mind and spirit (so that they can stand on their own in the freedom of Christ not simply in a system or a denominational expression) by forming them inside and out by the person and word of Jesus Christ is good theology. Theology that brings people to Jesus, the person revealed to us in the four Gospels, is always central. Ask yourself, if you are a teacher/minister/priest: “Do I truly bring people to the feet of Jesus?” And if you are not charged with teaching and leading a church then ask yourself when you go to church: “Does this bring me to Jesus or to religion and cultural norms?” Very likely this will rattle you and drive you to Jesus if you allow the Spirit to disturb you deeply enough.
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Thanks for this post, John. I share your concerns on this topic! Good theology is needed as a grounding for our faith, but theologians have not always offered “good theology” to the church!
I see dangers on both sides here – on the one hand there is an anti-intellectual pop Christianity out there that could care less about theology; on the other hand academic theologians often get lost in obscure debates that only concern a select few of their friends and colleagues.
Maybe some of the “anti-theology” attitude comes from the fact that, as you say, much theological work in the past has been done as a way of reinforcing a particular denominational identity. As people care less and less about denominations, overly “denominational” theologies will likely be marginalized. The problem is, if there isn’t anything there to replace the denominationalism of the past, the church will drift.
Hence the need for a renewal of theology that is focused on formation of people as followers of Christ, first and foremost, as you suggest. I’m hopeful about this prospect, but it seems there is a lot of work to be done.
Thanks for your ministry. I enjoy reading your blog, and share many of your convictions.
I could not agree with this more. I’m certainly not a theologian but have studied it personally for years. It once bothered me that most Christians I knew not only knew no theology but didn’t want to know. Yet, my “knowing” it didn’t seem to be making me a better Christian. I now understand that whatever doesn’t bring me to the feet of Christ, theology included, is something I’ve turned into a weight, and I don’t mean a weight of glory.