Word of the Week: Theology (it’s more than academic)

A tale of two Januaries.

January 2020. I began a Bible study series at my church teaching theology, or the doctrine of God. That series was cut short because of the way the pandemic affected our church programming. Due to scheduling, we have not yet been able to bring that series back to an in-person study though we are hopeful we can in the future.

January 2021. I began posting a word of the week where I defined a theological term. In previous word of the week posts, I’ve dealt with terms associated with the doctrine of Christ (Christology) and the doctrine of salvation (soteriology). In today’s post, I’m going to back up and highlight the broader subject of theology and its importance for Christian living.

Theology is the study of God and God’s relation to the world. It is important to note that everyone does theology, though not everyone does theology well. Whenever we speak to an issue from the perspective of God or Scripture, we are doing theology.

When you say, “God wouldn’t be happy with a particular word or deed,” you are doing theology. 

When you say, “God wants you to live a certain way,” you are doing theology. 

Theology is a course of study in Bible Colleges and Seminaries. It is taught for pastors, missionaries, and ministers. But because everyone who discusses God’s relation and expectations in the world is doing theology, any follower of Jesus can and should learn basic biblical doctrines. These word of the week posts that I share weekly are one of my attempts to help us as followers of Jesus better understand God and Christian doctrine.

There are different theological disciplines that shape how we understand theology as both an academic pursuit and as a practical guide for Christian living. 

Biblical theology—Investigates how each author or book of the Bible considers a particular doctrine. 

Historical theology—How different doctrinal ideas arose and were developed in history. 

Systematic theology—Is a collection of Bible doctrines that flows out of an organized, logical framework. These posts and the terms they define flow out of systematic theology.

Practical theology—Connects doctrines to daily living. 

We need each discipline for clear understanding of God, his Word, and our place in God’s plan. Think of these four disciplines as different perspectives. If one explored the contours of a metropolitan city like New York from a helicopter, this would be like our view of theology from a systematic perspective. Driving through the Burroughs of the city would be like exploring the of the city from a biblical theology perspective. Searching out how the city’s history shapes its current makeup would be exploring the city from the perspective of historical theology. And walking through the city engaging with cab drivers and local shop owners would be exploring the city through the perspective of practical theology. When it comes to Scripture and theology, we need each of these four perspectives to best understand who God is, who we are, and what God expects of us.

It is right to think of theology as a basis for knowledge. But it is not correct to categorize theology as a primarily academic or intellectual pursuit.

We take our understanding of knowledge from the Greek worldview. Gnosis in the Greek language emphasizes cognitive or intellectual understanding. Much of our educational model in the West is shaped after this academic paradigm.

But the Old Testament in particular and the Bible in general offers another, deeper perspective on knowledge. The Hebrew word for knowledge that is used extensively for knowing God is da’at. This term means relational knowledge. While it does not exclude an intellectual component for knowledge, the cognitive is not the primary means of knowing.

One of the classic verses on knowing God stands out here.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7

The word for knowledge is the Hebrew word da’at. The verse indicates that reverential awe and respect of God for who he is is the beginning of the relational knowledge of God.

This biblical view on knowledge is important for our theological understanding in at least two important ways.

First, knowing God relationally as well as intellectually shapes our understanding of salvation. Salvation is not just an intellectual assent of the facts of the gospel. Salvation is not less than this assent. We need to know the facts about Jesus (his person as God and man, his perfect life, sacrificial death, victorious resurrection, and ascension into heaven) for our salvation. But merely acknowledging facts is insufficient biblically. This is because knowing God is more than intellectual. It is relational. Trusting in Christ for salvation is a personal and relational response to the gospel. Salvation necessitates confession and repentance acknowledging the broken relationship between man and God. Salvation necessitates trusting in Christ alone to repair that broken relationship granting us the privilege of knowing God relationally. Salvation also anticipates the expectation that trusting Christ alone brings us into relationship with God whereby we follow him with our life and choices.

Second, knowing God relationally underscores the practicality of theology. Knowing more about God intellectually, doctrinally, or academically is only part of the equation. As a professor at Bible college, I try to instill in my students this important recognition. If we know about God academically so that we can pass a class, but fail to grow in knowing God relationally, we’ve missed the point. Knowing about God rightly can help us to know God better relationally.

Right knowledge is both relational and intellectual.

Sarah P. Sumner, “Intellectual Discipleship and the Value of Theological Education” in Theology, Church and Ministry: A Handbook for Theological Education

I believe that growth in our knowledge of God and his work in the world is vital to the Christian faith. My hope is that these posts help you to know God better intellectually, but more than that inspire you to know God in a deeper way relationally.

Photo by Hieu Vu Minh on Unsplash

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