Theology is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented disciplines in the world even among conservative Christians. Personally it is only relatively recently that theology has appealed to me. Comments from the pulpit, things that I had read, generally turned me away from formal theology on my quest to have an authentic experience of God.
My interest in theology came through the back alley entrance of Christian apologetics. Apologetics (a funny sounding discipline if you ask me) is the branch of theology about questions and the answers the Christian worldview offers. It is through the door of questions that I have been pleasantly surprised by theology.
In a way I am offering an apologetic of theology itself. I believe Christian theology as a discipline needs to be defended as much traditional doctrines such as the authority of the Scriptures and the resurrection. I think it has an equal footing with traditional dogmas because it is essential to being a Christian. Theological reflection has been at the heart of Christian living from the very beginning. Right in the New Testament believers are taught to think about God, who he is and what he wants from us.
Eminent Paul scholar N.T. Wright discusses in his massive tome Paul and the Faithfulness of God the peculiarity of theology in the world of the New Testament as a distinctively Christian practice. He goes so far as to say that Paul in hindsight invented what we call Christian theology today. Personally I am not so sure “invented” is the right word even though it is hard to argue St. Paul’s colossal influence. Being an apostle writing under the inspiration of the Spirit I cannot fully commit to the idea of it being Paul’s initiative entirely.
Paul often talked about the mind and the importance of it being renewed. I believe the reason why he spoke that way is the fact of the Gospel. The resurrection of Jesus forced the early believers to completely rethink everything. Their understanding of the scriptures, their ethnicity, the creation and even God himself had been radically altered by the person of Jesus. A new creation had begun which meant a new way of thinking about things. Becoming a Christian meant being placed in an entirely new paradigm.
Theology was therefore a natural consequence of what had happened to them. The God whom they were so familiar with, the God of their ancestors spanning over a millennium, had completely caught them by surprise. The New Testament can itself be thought of as the first theological corpus. All of its books are serious reflections on what God has done in Christ Jesus.
Theology is often thought of as inaccessible and esoteric but from the New Testament it is rather the opposite. Theology did not begin as a formal academic discipline neither is it confined to it even today. Theology was done in the Church at the popular level. Before the doctor of divinity theology was.
Perhaps theology needs a PR makeover. There are films and popular media about scientists and mathematicians. I have never heard of theologians (or philosophers for that matter) as the main characters in a film or series. Theology needs to get its street cred back primarily in its own neighbourhood of the Christian faith.
Theology as a discipline is indispensable. Anytime you pick up a Bible or hear a hymn a particular aspect of theology is being espoused. We need to be taught to recognise theology, to identify it in our conversations and activities in the church. We should not reduce it to an almost arbitrary list of boxes you need to tick to belong to a certain party. Labels are important because they tell us what is in the bottle. The trouble is when the label acts as a seal and prevents us from opening and examining what is actually in the bottle.
Perhaps one reason why theology is sometimes ignored is that it is often seen to be divisive. There are many denominations out there and even more doctrines. Christians seem to be divided among hard theological lines. The debates that sometimes rage on in the Church are so loud and raucous it is hard to imagine we are all one people in Christ. Important figures in the Reformation such as Luther and Calvin have notorious and sometimes violent episodes in their saga.
As Ravi Zacharias once said, unity does not imply uniformity. Differences in how we understand God and the Bible are inevitable. It is not something we should shun but rather embrace earnest and sincere dialogue on these issues. We do not need to descend into animosity because of these differences neither does this mean we should hold what we think dispassionately.
Not every single result of theological enquiry needs to be embraced though. There is good theology and bad theology and everything in between. We need to exercise discernment as in every other discipline such as science, history, sociology etc. It is the activity of theology that needs to be welcomed and advocated.
Somethings that were thought of as scientifically sound in bygone years is questioned or even refuted today. Similarly, bad theology or bad experiences with theology, should not serve as a deterrent to the discipline itself. It is not only an academic enterprise, it is an essential part of the historical Christian faith.