Surprised by Theology

Sometimes, it seems apart from sin, theology is the other thing Christians try to steer clear off. It’s like the maths class you want to avoid in school (unless you’re into that sort of thing.) Theology is often obscure and opaque, a dusty ancient tome hidden in the recesses of a grand library that only a few adventurous souls dare to visit. When one decides to take a serious look at theology you are actually in for a treat. I have been pleasantly surprised by it and I want to share with you some of these discoveries I have made about the “Queen of the Sciences.”

Theology is…

Accessible. How we access information in the 21st century has radically changed how we live. It is no wonder people call this the Information Age. For the average layperson theology was something that resided purely in the ivory tower, was sometimes referenced from the pulpit, and a couple of things you had to get right so you wouldn’t be labelled a heretic. With the advent of the internet we do need to go to the seminary to gain theological education. Now the seminary is coming to us.

Formal theological training at the academy is indispensable. The Christian community is indebted to scholars both past and present for their contributions to our understanding of the faith. Now it is not only the scholarly elite who have access to the tools and information to do good theology. Many professional theologians like Craig Keener, N.T. Wright, John H. Walton, R.C. Sproul, produce work that is easily digestible to the layman. For many theologians a major part of their agenda is translate their work from the seminary class room to the church picnic. The internet has become an indispensable resource in this new vision of popular theology. A discerning Google search can give you access to high quality, well researched, world class material.

Theologically becoming accessible to the laity is a reclamation of sorts. From the beginning theology was actually something the follower of Jesus just did. The average Christian is capable of having sophisticated theological views without a degree even though having a few letters after your name is certainly helpful.

I think it is actually the nature of Christian faith that makes it possible for every believer to do theological reflection. If we believe the Gospel it means we recognise that not only human history but the cosmos itself has been irrevocably changed through the resurrection. This new status quo means we have to re-evaluate everything, the past, the present and the future. Today we are better resourced than ever before to actually do this.

Diverse. Theology is not monolithic. When many people hear the “T” word they automatically think of systematic theology. Dogmatics, however, is not the only branch of theology there is. There is Christology, eschatology, pneumatology, apologetics and a host of other bizarre names. People often look on in despair when they encounter such names in similar manner to how they are dissuaded from learning a language like German when they see words like weltanschauung. These big words actually mean simple things even though the subjects they discuss are often complex. Eschatology for instance is basically the study of the end (eschaton is the Greek word for the end.)

Apart from the various branches of theology it interfaces and intersects with a lot of other disciplines. Theology often interacts with science, philosophy, archaeology, history, art, literature, sociology, law, politics and a host of other fields and sub-disciplines. Theology was called the Queen of Sciences in the medieval era because it stood as the centre piece of learning. It is the scholastic period that gave us the modern concept of universities. Theology challenges us to interact with other disciplines and other disciplines to interact with the Christian worldview. Theology has sufficient depth and range to have something for everyone.

Engaging. Variety, as the old adage goes, is the spice of life. The diversity and dynamism of theology make it interesting. Once you know that theology is accessible (i.e. doable) and diverse (i.e. there are a lot of different things to be done) it begins to look like something worth investigating.

Theology is not a group of wizened scholars who issue decrees as to what you ought to agree with. It is far more messy, far more involving. Theologians hold differing views on different things. The theological world is full of lively debate and interaction. Things that people once thought they understood very well are no longer held with such confidence. The New Perspective (or Perspectives) on Paul, the Jewish Reclamation, the Empire and Early Christianity and the quest for the Historical Jesus are all examples of movements that are challenging how we think about traditional subjects

In this highly nuanced world it is sometimes hard to keep up with what is going on in the seminary. Instead of a slowly moving, battered, old brontosaurus we have a very different animal so to speak. It is a place for fresh thinking and analyses. As cultures change every generation has the task to rediscover theology for itself.

Human. The diversity in theology at least tells us one thing: people do theology. No two theologians are ever the same. Theology is as dynamic as the people who do it. Like the sciences it is not as cold and clinically detached as some people might like you to think. Differing theological views exist because people differ from one another. This is very important in understanding theology. Everyone has an axe to grind and theologians are not exempted.

Earlier in my life I was put off from theology because I read stuff with some views that were diametrically opposed to mine. This sometimes can come off as a bit of a shock. Recognising the human element serves as a disclaimer. This means when we do theology we must be careful and discerning. There is both good stuff and bad stuff out there.

All humans are equal but not all ideas are equal. We should take care not to unnecessarily attack the person when we disagree with their views. Theological papers do not bleed but people do. When I look at the historical schisms in the Church like the Protestant Reformation there is a lot left to be desired about how Christians treat one another. We can still be brothers and disagree but our differences should be on the nuanced subtleties of the faith and not the foundational elements.

Essential. I mentioned In Defence of Theology that historically speaking theology is a distinctively Christian practice. Christian theology is quite peculiar and it is hard to find equivalents in other worldviews, even in Judaism. I also earlier mentioned the very nature of Christian faith gives rise to theology.

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. When we study the New Testament we find that theological thinking was fundamental in shaping the Church. Not only that but it was a communal activity. At both the personal and corporate level the Church was asking questions about what the Gospel means.

True Christian theology is not an exercise in speculation and abstractions. If we understand the central role of the mind in the New Testament, theology is not merely incidental. It is the transformative reflection on the meaning and impact of the Gospel. With this way of looking at Christian theology it is an essential task that the individual Christian and the Church at large is responsible for.


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