Five Reasons Theology is Important
Lately, I’ve heard a lot of people bad-mouthing theology. Whether in comments from friends, complaints of disgruntled seminary students, or dismissive remarks from church pulpits — it seems like many Christians just don’t see the point of theology. Some even think it does more harm than good.
Now, I’ll be the first to critique ivory-tower types who theologize in a vacuum, divorced from the believing community. But that’s a stereotype and (generally-speaking) a pretty inaccurate one. The majority of theologians I know are passionate followers of God who care deeply about the church.
So it hurts a bit when we see the discipline to which we have devoted a significant portion of our lives thrown under the bus.
Theologians can take solace in the fact that our area of study is not the first to wind up on the shit list of many Christians. Evolutionary biology, philosophy, psychology, cosmology, etc. — a number of fields are treated with suspicion by certain sectors of the faithful.
But it’s time for academics to stand up for ourselves; and in that spirit, here are five reasons I think theology is important:
1. Theology is biblically mandated.
When Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment, he replied with, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mk 1:29-30, NIV). This is the opening verse of the Shema — a prayer repeated by faithful Jews every morning and evening — and would have been recognized by many as the “right” answer.
Jesus famously added on to this verse by citing Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” linking love for God with love of neighbor. But this is not the only thing he added.
The original command from Deuteronomy only specifies loving God with one’s heart, soul, and strength. Jesus added the command to love God with our minds, putting forward a holistic picture of divinely-oriented devotion that includes the mental dimension. Paul does something similar in Romans 12, linking bodily worship with the renewal of the mind:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:1-2a).
What does it look like to love God with our minds? And why is mental devotion connected to the physical? I think the authors of Scripture were on to something. They understood the importance of reason to faith and human nature. Human beings are intellectually-attuned creatures. Thus, Scripture calls us to think through our devotion in order to worship God more fully.
St. Anselm called it “faith seeking understanding.” I’d call it theology.
As a discipline, theology is concerned with relating the whole of human knowledge and experience to God. If God is the author of all things, the all-determining reality, then every source of information we have about reality must be traceable to the divine. That sounds an awful lot like Paul’s command to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).
2. Theology is interested in truth.
To outside observers, theology often appears speculative. We ask seemingly unanswerable questions and grapple with the most elusive subject matter known to humanity — God. But in reality, theology is concerned with statements human beings make about God. We investigate doctrines, testing them to determine their truthfulness.
Theologians are not comfortable with the passive acceptance of dogma or the maintenance of belief without proof; we put our most cherished convictions through the wringer, testing them for coherence and believability. Theologians do this by asking questions like:
- Do our beliefs make sense?
- Are they reasonable?
- Do they fit within tradition and square with Scripture?
- Do any of our doctrines contradict each other?
- Does that which we hold true about ultimate reality (i.e. God) make sense in light of what we know to be true about the reality of the world around us?
These questions are not posed for the sake of being iconoclastic, but because theologians are concerned with truth. We take Jesus seriously when he declares that, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Rather than fearing the truth, Christians need to embrace it –wherever it lies — so that our faith can be strengthened.
While apologetics takes the truth of Christianity as a given and argues for its reasonableness, theology uses reason to diagnose weaknesses in our belief structures and construct more accurate proposals. Like lifting heavy weights, theology tears down the “muscle” of our faith so that it can be rebuilt into something more true and reasonable.
3. Theology is an expression of worship.
The Jewish tradition has a long history of embracing theological study as an act of worship. This was retained in early Christianity, embodied by generations of teachers, preachers, monks, and mystics who devoted their lives to theology.
But at some point in the modern West, theology became a career. No longer the calling of all Christians, theology morphed into a specialized field pursued by a select group of affluent professionals. But I think it’s high time for the church to reclaim theology as a spiritual discipline and commission all disciples to engage in this ancient act of worship.
Like all spiritual disciplines, theology is a practice that is never mastered. It demands time and patience, uncovering the darkest parts of our souls in the hope of bringing us closer to God. Like Jacob wrestling with the Lord, theology is a struggle that can leave us marred even in victory. As German theologian Jurgen Moltmann affirms, “to know God is to suffer God.”
Similar to fasting and prayer, theology tests us, exposing our true selves. To do theology well, one must enter into the fear of God, bask before the glory of God, and participate in the joy of God, emerging (hopefully) with a deeper knowledge of God. It is in this sense that theology is an act of worship, a calling for every person to commune with the divine.
4. Theology is liberating.
Missionaries have recognized for generations that in order for Christianity to take root in a new land, churches must become self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating. About 25 years ago, missiologist David Bosch pushed this formulation further, adding a revolutionary fourth step: self-theologizing.
Bosch realized that while Christianity was flourishing in a number of new contexts, the theology in many native churches was little more than a regurgitation of the doctrine imparted by foreign missionaries. It’s not until people begin grappling with the tough questions of faith — and articulating their own responses — that the gospel has truly taken root a new culture.
This is because there’s something liberating about theology. For a community that was once alienated from God to begin grappling with God, reflecting on historic doctrines and re-articulating them in their own cultural garb, indicates that they are coming into their own as a Christian people.
Theology’s liberating effect can also be seen in minority groups right here in the USA. Women, African Americans, Latin@s, etc. — all have found empowerment by formulating theologies that are no longer tied to the presuppositions of their oppressors.
Just think of Christianity’s transition in the African American community from a religion imposed by slave masters to a vibrant, native expression of worship and freedom in the Civil Rights era. For oppressed groups, self-theologizing is one of the keys to self-actualization.
As a teacher of theology, I have witnessed this effect time and time again. From the young Christian, growing up in a church where doubt was the enemy, who saved his faith by learning to ask tough questions, to the soft-spoken woman who discovered that she too had what it takes to construct a strong theological argument.
And I’ll never forget the Latino student who approached me after discovering the writings of Justo Gonzalez, confiding with tears in his eyes that, “I never knew my people could do theology.”
Now that’s liberating.
5. Theology is inevitable.
I’ll keep this one short and sweet. If you think you’re living and operating in this world without theology, you’re wrong. Everyone (even atheists) proceeds through life with certain ideas about ultimate reality and meaning. Whether it’s God, your career, unrestrained consumerism, or something else entirely, we cannot get by in this life without relating ourselves to something ultimate.
There is a lot of bad theology out there — theology that is destructive, untrue, oppressive, etc. And one of the most proactive ways to deal with bad theology is by countering it with good theology. That’s what I’m trying to do, and I commission you all to do the same.