LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Webster’s dictionary defines “theology” as “the study of the religious faith, practice and experience.” Generally speaking, theology is God (theo) talk (logy). We are doing theology when we talk about God.
But it’s so much more than that. Moses, inspired by the Holy Spirit, said that God’s people are to love “the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus picked up on that theme again in the Gospels, going so far as to say that is the greatest commandment of them all. That love to which we are exhorted includes our minds as well as our affections. When we do theology, when we think about the difficult teachings of the Bible, we are loving God. In fact, theology is an act of worship.
Yet, many in our pews enjoy an impoverished form of worship because they’ve divorced orthopraxy (right practice) from orthodoxy (right teaching). Doing so is wrong-headed and dangerous.
Years ago, a church member who became a dear friend told me that he wasn’t interested in theology. He told me that he was just a good ol’ country boy. He said his faith was simple and that he liked it that way. Unfortunately, lots of Christians seem to agree. Some argue that they’re evangelists, not theologians. The running joke among seminarians is that there are those who “do” Christianity and those who talk about it. The implication is that there is a difference between knowing and doing, between thinking and loving, that you can somehow have one without the other.
To the spiritual detriment of our churches, many Christians seem to agree and the results are deadly. Pollster George Barna recently reported that 33 percent of born again Christians think good works will get someone into heaven. Another 26 percent responded that it doesn’t matter what faith system you hold, just so long as you believe something. Worse yet, 28 percent believed that Jesus committed sins just like the rest of us when he was here on earth.
Where’s the theology? Where’s the Christianity?
We cannot talk about Jesus without doing theology. Who is Jesus? What does it mean to be the Son of God? Was He God or was He man? You cannot describe the ministry of Jesus without doing theology. What was the incarnation? What does atonement mean? These are no small matters. These things form the very foundation of our faith. Without proper theology, the Christian Jesus is no different than the Mormon Jesus (brother of Satan) or the Islamic Jesus (just a good teacher).
Without theology, we cannot fully appreciate the glory of God. We cannot understand the depths of His mercy nor the extent of His wrath. Grace has little meaning in a religion devoid of biblical theology. God’s goodness pales when the darkness of our sin is overlooked and undervalued. The result? Our desire to be “simple” Christians simply robs God of His glory.
Jesus, the Word, knew a little bit about theology. He taught it to His disciples. He taught it to His followers. He even taught it on the road to Emmaus.
He also talked about theology during the encounter with the Samaritan woman. “We worship what we do know …” (John 4:22). This knowledge, personal and intellectual, drives us to worship God. “But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). God wants informed worshippers. How do we do that? Theology.
The Apostle Peter warned the church that there are “false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you” (2 Peter 2:1). These prophets and teachers, he wrote, bring into the church “destructive heresies.” They undermine the Gospel and they drag the church down. How will we recognize these false teachers? How can we combat their teachings? In a word: theology.
As Christians we do theology when we study the Bible. We do theology when we hear a sermon. We do theology on Sunday night. We do theology even during our prayer time. We do these things not because our pastors are theologians. We do them because we love God and we want to know more about him.
Whatever became of my friend, the “simple” Christian? Last I heard he was reading a book about the theology of Paul. He had fallen in love with the Bible. He studies more now than any other time in his 40 years as a Christian. You see, this 80 year-old man had finally dug deep. He had mined the great riches of God’s word. He learned something new about God and now he can’t get enough.
You see, in the end, theology is not just for theologians. It’s for the children of God. It’s for worshippers.
Peter Beck is pastor of Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., and a Ph.D. student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also located in Louisville.