The Survivor's Guide to Theology


Chapter 1

Who Needs Theology Anyway?

The great nineteenth-century evangelist D. L. Moody was at one time challenged by a woman who reportedly said, “I want you to know that I don’t believe in your theology.” Moody’s response: “I didn’t know I had any!” [1] Which goes to show that even great men of God can be wrong.

The word theology is a compound of two Greek terms: theos ( God) and logos (word, statement, discourse, a line of argument). Therefore, in simple terms, a theologian is someone who knows about or speaks about God, and theology is what is thought or said about God.

When I was about five years old, my beloved pet dog died. Shortly thereafter I was talking with my friend Chuck about death and what happens afterward. As we dug in the dirt and filled our toy dump trucks, we came to the conclusion that when you died you went to heaven and lived there. Then when you died in heaven, you went to the next heaven and lived there, and so on. Even as young children, confronted with questions of life, death, and God, we were in the most basic sense practicing theologians developing a theology (a rather unusual one, but a theology nonetheless) even as we dug in the dirt and played with our trucks.

Whenever we think about God we are involved with theology. The question therefore is not whether we will be theologians—we have no choice in the matter. Rather, the question is what kind of theologians we will we be—good or bad, responsible or irresponsible.

But, you say, if we are all theologians anyway, can’t we be good and responsible theologians by just being good and sincere Christians? Most Christians over the last two millennia (including D.L. Moody!) have hardly been aware of the discipline of theology, and if they were, they saw it as something abstract, theoretical, more than a bit daunting, and unrelated to everyday life. Theirs was a practical faith. So why should we even study theology? Why isn’t it enough to just love Jesus and obey him? [2]

Scripture calls us to disciplined learning. Paul admonishes in 1 Corinthians 14:20, “Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.” Yet many of us never take the responsibility for theological maturity seriously. While we may put forth great effort into our profession, perhaps even earning a Ph.D., many of us are like the astronomer who said to the theologian, “I don’t understand why you theologians fuss so much about predestination and supralapsarianism, about the communicable and incommunicable attributes of God, imputed or infused grace, and the like. To me Christianity is simple--it’s the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” (To which, incidentally, the theologian replied, “I think I see what you mean. I get lost in all your talk about exploding novas, expanding universes, theories of entropy and astronomical perturbations. For me astronomy is simple: It’s ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star…’ ”)

We can illustrate the importance of theology by means of the skeleton and the jellyfish. When we look at a skeleton we can be reasonably sure that it is dead. The life that once held these bones together is gone, and these bones are now held together with pins and wires. This is how many people view theology: lifeless, and a collection of ideas that are held together by the artificial means of complex rationalizations and arguments. Then there is the jellyfish. A jellyfish can live for a time on the beach, but cannot do anything. It lies on the sand in a pulsating blob, unable to do anything except possibly sting a passerby. The jellyfish, like the skeleton, has a problem. While the skeleton has structure without life, the jellyfish has life without structure. The lack of structure, or a skeletal system, causes it to be ineffective at doing anything on land.

While it is true that theology alone may be lifeless, spiritual life without structure is at best ineffective and is for all practical purposes useless. The answer to the dilemma is to bring together the life with a structure that will support it.

A structure such as a skeleton will allow us to accomplish the task of living life, but this does not mean that just any structure will do, that one structure is as good as another. Years ago I worked with a person who as a child had fallen from a tree and broken his arm. The physician who attended to him was drunk and set the arm improperly, so that in the healing process a deformity developed. My colleague could still use his arm but it was not fully functional, because the structure that supported his arm inhibited his movement.

Improper theological structures may give the illusion of being intellectually and spiritually harmonious and in line with Scripture, but the reality shows otherwise. In the pilot episode of the original Star Trek series, broadcast as “The Menagerie,” Captain Christopher Pike (Captain Kirk’s predecessor) is imprisoned on the planet Talos 4. The inhabitants of the planet put him and a beautiful young woman as exhibits in their zoo. The plan is for them to mate and ultimately populate the planet. Pike learns that the Talosians are experts at illusion and that this is why his escape attempts keep failing. When he is finally successful and is about to leave the planet, he tries to take the young woman as well, but she refuses to leave. He discovers that she, like everything else he has experienced, is not as she appears. She is human, but she is not young and beautiful. She is the sole survivor of a scientific expedition stranded on the planet years before. Badly injured in the crash of her spaceship, she was nursed back to health by the Talosians. But they had never seen a human before and consequently did not properly set her broken bones so that she ended up hunched over with twisted limbs. In this ugly condition, she could not face other humans. She could live a functional life, but the underlying structure of her body could not support normal existence. Her twisted structure cut her off from contact with normal humans.

To extend our analogy a step further, our theology should not only have a functional structure but also a beauty and attractiveness that reflects the beauty of God, who is himself the source of beauty. Astrophysicists who are searching for a “unified field theory” that will explain and unify our knowledge of how the universe came into being and how the fundamental forces of nature are related speak of the “beauty principle.” They have discovered in their advancing knowledge significant new insights that have an “elegant simplicity” about them. It is this very elegance that is a compelling feature in the acceptance of the new theory. Likewise, our theology should have a compelling beauty about it. If it does not, we probably need to do more reflection to grasp more fully who God is and what he has done.

During our first trip to England, my wife and I visited the medieval walled city of York and the York Castle museum. Particularly fascinating was the exhibit showing the history of warfare, with displays arranged in chronological order, beginning in the Stone Age. We saw the progress in weaponry during the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age, including spears, bows and arrows, and chariots. In the medieval displays, we saw broadswords, body armor, and chain mail. Then, in a display that was dated only fifty years later than the preceding one, we saw a profound shift. The armor was nearly gone, and now cannons and muskets were used. The defensive weaponry of recent decades was ineffective against the new gunpowder-powered weapons. In order to survive under these new conditions, both the defensive and the offensive weapons had to change.

While theology is rightly seen as an intellectual activity that seeks to bring all things under the lordship of Christ and is rightly seen as an act of worship, it also involves interaction with our contemporary culture. In this sense, we might think of our theology as an armory that provides us with weapons to do battle with a world that is hostile to the lordship of Christ. If we do not retool our weapons to meet the current battlefield conditions, we face defeat. This has been a real problem for the evangelical community in that we have not recognized changing conditions and have carried muskets into battle when the opposition totes M16s and AK-47s.

Our theological understanding comes from the Bible but not from the Bible alone. Many of the questions, categories, and thought forms that are incorporated in our understanding are drawn from the dominant philosophy of the culture we inhabit. Professional theologians have recognized this fact for centuries and have acknowledged that it is unavoidable. When the culture changes, as it does continuously and is doing now at an unprecedented rate, persisting in using the thought forms and categories and explanations and defenses of the faith that have been effective in a previous generation is akin to charging into battle astride horses with sabers drawn, only to be met by machine guns, tanks, fighter jets, bombers, heat-seeking missiles, and the like. While it may be courageous, it is hardly wise.

Our theology has consequences. What we believe matters. History reveals that our belief system determines whether we live wisely or naively. One of the most tragic events of the medieval crusades was the Children’s Crusade. Since the previous crusades had ended in dismal failure, some reasoned that it was because the crusaders were sinners and God would not bless a venture undertaken by sinners. If an army of pure individuals were raised, surely God would bless and give victory. Who is purer and more innocent than children? So an army of children was put together with the objective that they would rescue the Holy Land from the infidel Turks. But when the army of children reached the Holy Land, instead of defeating the Turks, they were captured and sold as slaves.

Love of Jesus, while vital, is not enough. Theology is not just for the professional, the professor, the pastor, or even the Sunday school teacher. Each of us is responsible to become a competent theologian. Rather than viewing our theology as propositions to be learned, we ought to view it as an act of worship. God has entrusted to us his divine revelation in all its multifaceted richness and fullness, but he has not given us a theology. He has revealed himself through his works and his words in human history, in his encounters with individuals at various times and places. He has revealed himself most fully in the person and work of Jesus Christ, but that revelation is in narrative, or story, form. Our job is to organize the material and bring it into a coherent whole so that we can more fully grasp who God is and what he has done. We offer back to him the fruit of our labor in understanding him and his work. The task of theology is to bring all things under the lordship of Christ. While we may rely on the work of others who have gone before us, we have a personal responsibility before God for our understanding.

Our call is not to remain babes but to grow continuously. While there is far more to spiritual maturity than theological knowledge, this knowledge is a definite part of maturity. Jesus commanded us “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37, italics added). The goal is to always be ready to give an answer to those who ask us about our faith (1 Peter 3:15). This demand puts us squarely into the midst of the discipline of theology, a discipline that is and will always be dynamic, a work in progress, because our finite human understanding cannot by definition grasp completely and once and for all infinite truth.

[1] Cf. Stanley N. Gundry, Love Them In: The Life and Theology of D.L. Moody (Chicago: Moody Press, 1976, 1999), 67.

[2] By our basic definition of a theologian, one need not even be saved to be a theologian. Scripture itself testifies that every human being has some knowledge of God, a knowledge gleaned from the created order as well as from conscience (see especially Psalm 19 and Romans 1:18–20) . The theology being spoken of here is not formal or technical, but it is nonetheless real theology. Thus, while it is possible to be a theologian without being saved, it is not possible to be saved without being a theologian, since salvation involves not just a mystical spiritual experience and encounter with “spiritual reality,” but is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ.