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In Defence of Theology

Sep 26, 2006

We live in an age that is hesitant about, or indifferent to, the use of reason, study, mental discipline and religious education. Truth is under attack, religion is despised, and logical thinking is often ignored. Needless to say, in such an environment, these are not good days for theology.

We would expect, of course, a secular world to have no place for theology. The really worrying thing, however, is the fact that so few Christians see the need for theology. Not only are many believers not interested in theology, but many are even opposed to it.

One hears many such objections to theology, to doctrine and to study. Believers will often say, “Why study theology? All we need is the simple gospel. Why make it so complicated? Just rely on the Holy Spirit.”

For some believers there is a real aversion to theological education and the emphasis on doctrine. “No creed but Christ” is a popular expression. Why waste time with doctrine and theology? After all, Christ unites but doctrine divides, or so we are told.

And they can even find what they think is Scriptural support for being suspicious of theology and learning. After all, didn’t Paul say: “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.” (2 Cor. 11:3) Or, “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2)

Other passages could be mentioned. Of course these sorts of passages are not saying that there is no place for theology or right belief. One can have a simple faith without being simplistic. One can single-heartedly follow Christ, yet still be mature in theological understanding. A pure faith and a sound mind are not a contradiction in terms.

Yet the anti-theology bent in the church remains prevalent and resilient. And it needs to be challenged. Thus this paper.

Twenty Reasons Why Theology Matters

What response can be made to those who frown upon theology? What case can be made that there may in fact be a place for Bible schools, commentaries, serious biblical study and theology? I here offer twenty reasons for the need for theology.

One. If all we need to know is “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”, then why did 40 authors write 66 books of the Bible, with over 31,000 verses? Wasn’t that a real waste of time and ink? Wasn’t that a bit of overkill? Indeed, why have four gospels? Isn’t one enough? Why was so much biblical revelation given if the Christian message is so simple?

Two. Why did the biblical authors write major detailed and somewhat complicated theological writings, such as Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians, or the epistle to the Hebrews? There is a lot of complex and deep theology going on there. These writers were clearly trying to convey some elaborate and systematic theological truths. If they thought such theological discussions were necessary, then so should we.

Three. Biblical writers even admit that their writings are not always easy to comprehend. For example, consider the remarks of Peter about the teachings of Paul: “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Pet. 3:15-16)

Or consider what the writer of Hebrews says concerning Melchizedek in Heb. 5:11: “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn.” Some issues simply seem to be complicated enough that further explanation and teaching are necessary.

Four. We are in fact told to move on from the more basic and elemental truths of Scripture. Thus Paul says we should go beyond the milk of the word: “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready”. (1 Cor. 3:2) The meat of the word that we are to aim at would seem to imply some heavier theological content.

Or as Paul says elsewhere: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” (Eph. 4:14)

The author of Hebrews makes a similar point: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.” (Heb. 5:12-13)

Five. The Bible says some were given the gift of teaching. Thus some members in the body of Christ are teachers. This presupposes that there is a need of teaching, and God has chosen to use other Christians to meet that need. Everything isn’t so clear cut and black and white. We all need instruction, training and teaching.

The importance of teachers is illustrated in the story about Phillip in Acts 8:30,31: “Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked. ‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.”

Six. If everything is so clear and easy to understand, why does Scripture say that we should study to show ourselves approved? (2 Tim. 2:15) Presumably if we do not study, we will not earn God’s approval, at least in this regard. And the importance of study is mentioned elsewhere. We are informed that the Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonians because they studied the Scriptures daily, to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11).

Seven. No one has a direct pipeline to God via the Holy Spirit. We need each other. We are all members of one body and we rely on each other as Paul instructs us in 1 Cor. 14 and 15. None of us has all the truth. We can learn from others. Protestants in general, and Pentecostals in particular, need to overcome their rugged individualism, and see the importance of the Christian community. Yes we can directly commune with God and have direct access to the truths of Scripture. But God has designed us to live, grow and flourish in a body. We are incomplete without each other. And that is true of our understanding of Scripture as well.

Eight. We are part of a great stream of Christian history. We can learn from our forebears. Others have gone before. We do not need to always reinvent the wheel. We can learn from how God has spoken to others in the past. We should learn from the mistakes of history, so we do not repeat them. Thus the importance of studying the great Christian thinkers and writers of the past.

And that can include the need of consulting good Bible commentaries. While it is not to take the place of individual Bible study, it is a good supplement to it. Just as we learn about the Word through the exposition of a pastor on a Sunday morning at church, so too we can learn about Scripture from the exposition of past saints in the form of commentaries and other Christian learning tools.

Nine. God is infinite and we are not. To study theology is to study the most complex, mind-blowing, humongous topic ever. Is God really all that simple and easy to figure out? A lifetime of study and learning will not get us close to fathoming the depths and riches of God. And theology is simply that: the study of God. If we are in a love relationship with someone, we desire to know all we can about that person. In the same way, our love relationship with God should include the desire to know more and more about him. Thus the need and importance of theology.

Ten. We all need to have our idols shattered. God is the grand iconoclast. He shatters our distorted and narrow images of Him. We are all limited and stunted in our knowledge and understanding of who God is and what his revelation is all about. Thus theology helps us to gain a more accurate and biblical understanding of who our Lord is.

Eleven. We all see through a glass darkly, as Paul says in 1 Cor. 13:12. We all come with blinders on, with biases, with pre-conceived ideas, with limited perspectives. No one has all the truth. We are all fallen and finite, so our understanding is always imperfect and limited. Theological reflection helps us to refine and clarify our perception of God.

Twelve. If everything is so simple and clear cut, why are there so many major debates on so many issues? Issues of debate and controversy include: the nature of salvation; the relation between grace and works; law and gospel; election and human choice; the role of women in ministry; how we understand the early chapters of Genesis; different views of eschatology; the Lord’s supper; the gifts of the spirit; church government; baptism; etc. These are all weighty matters that need to be thought through.

Thirteen. If everything is so clear, why are there tens of thousands of different denominations? Why so much disunity in the world-wide church if doctrinal matters are so plain? If it were all so simple, why can’t we all agree? Of course not all of these disagreements have to do with doctrinal differences, but perhaps most do in one way or another.

Fourteen. If the message of salvation is so simple, why can’t the churches agree? A major reason for the Reformation and the split with Roman Catholicism was the question of the nature of salvation. Salvation is obviously basic to the Christian faith. But even this core doctrine seems to be subject to debate, confusion and division.

Fifteen. While the gospel message does not change, our understanding of it does, and our cultures change. Each generation needs to wrestle with Scripture afresh, and seek to understand it and make it known clearly. An unchanging gospel always needs to be re-examined by each new generation of believers.

Sixteen. A little humility goes a long way. We need a humble and teachable spirit. Yes knowledge puffs up, but so too does a lack of a teachable spirit. To say we don’t need others or that we can’t learn from others is a sign of pride, not godliness. Theologians and teachers are given to us for our good, and we need to acknowledge our indebtedness to them.

Seventeen. Even though the gospel message stays the same, the application of it to new issues and developments requires careful biblical thinking and theological reflection. For example, how do we understand nuclear war, human cloning or genetic engineering from a biblical viewpoint? New issues need to be assessed by the timeless truths of Scripture.

Eighteen. If the Bible really is so clear and simple to understand, then presumably the meaning of the following passages and ideas should be apparent to all:

What is baptism for the dead? 1 Cor. 15:29
Should women teach? 1 Tim. 2:11-12
Who are the spirits in prison that were preached to? 1 Pet. 3:19
How do you explain the Trinity?
How can people make free choices if God knows the future in every detail?
Can God create a rock so big that even he can’t lift it?

I dare say that if just one of these passages were given to a group of twenty people, and they were told to go away and come back with the meaning, there may well be twenty different understandings and interpretations of the passage given. Being a spirit-filled Christian, in other words, is no guarantee that one will always interpret Scripture properly. The tools of theology help us as we approach God’s word.

Nineteen. Christianity is in large measure distinguished from other religions by its truth claims. That is, Christianity is based on propositional content, and this content distinguishes it from other religious worldviews. Thus that content and body of truth claims must be understood and proclaimed. It is not enough simply to offer a personal, subjective experience. Sure, our experience is important, but it must be validated by truth claims. Plenty of religious experiences can be found in other religious traditions, cults, and the New Age Movement. It is not enough simply to compare stories. Stories must be assessed by how they measure up to truth and reality.

Twenty. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he said that we are to love God with the fullness of our being; that is with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. All three Synoptic Gospels feature this saying. Thus God must be loved with our intellect as well as our emotions and will. Loving God intellectually includes the need to study, to learn, to wrestle with the great theological truths of Scripture.

Two Closing Caveats

Having said all this, there are still two issues that need to be mentioned in order to properly round out our discussion.

The first has to do with what is known as the perspicuity, or clarity, of Scripture. This theological doctrine states that Scripture can be understood by all believers, not just an elite few scholars. The basic truths of Scripture are open to all believers, and need not be mediated through others. Thus Jesus said the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth (John 16:13; 14:26).

This doctrine arose in part because of differing understandings of how we come to Scripture. Catholics have tended to say that we need the church, tradition, and papal authority to help us understand Scripture. Protestants, on the other hand, have emphasised the priesthood of believers, and the fact that each individual has full access to God and his word. Thus Protestants have especially emphasised the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture.

But this doctrine does not negate the twenty reasons offered above. It simply offers a corrective balance to those who would insist that the Word of God is closed to the common man, and must be explained by certain elites. The biblical position lies in between: all believers can come directly to the Word, yet there is nonetheless a need for teachers to help educate us about its wonderful truths.

The second has to do with a balanced use of theology. I am the first to admit that theology is not the be-all and end-all of the Christian life. There are plenty of people who have theological degrees coming out of their ears, but show little of the Spirit of Christ. We all know of loveless and Spirit-less Christians who have a great deal of theological knowledge and understanding. Thus I am not arguing that if we just devote more attention to theological training, we will all turn out to be ideal Christians. But what I am saying is that without some proper theological grounding, we will be left blowing around by every wind of doctrine, as Paul warns about (Eph. 4:14,15).

Thus theology alone is not enough. But neither is an uninformed faith. Faith and reason go together. Right living and right understanding need to go in tandem. Orthopraxis needs to be married to orthodoxy. We need to love God with our mind as well as our heart.

Paul nicely summarises the importance of this combination when he writes to Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim. 4:16). Both must be emphasised in the life of the believer.

In sum, there is a place for theology. The church today has many deficiencies, and a lack of theological understanding is clearly one of them. It is hoped that we can see this area turned around, for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom.

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7 Responses to In Defence of Theology

  • Doesn’t eschatology come into play? After all, if one believes that Christians are about to be raptured any minute now from a world that’s sinking, then there clearly isn’t much point to polishing brass on a sinking ship. Why focus on the jots and tittles of theology when matters call for our ushering all we can into Christianity’s lifeboats by means of moving personal testimonies. Quick, the ship is sinking! Put down the Brasso of theology and get as many people as you can into the life-boats! Quick, there’s no time to waste!

    I think the eschatological question needs to be settled before we can hope for Christians to again start loving the Lord our God with all our minds. Otherwise we should expect to be greeted with the incredulous look we would expect to get were we to insist on polishing the brass while the Titanic sank.

    Francis Gamba, Melbourne

  • Thanks Frank
    Yes one’s eschatology can well have an influence not only on whether one takes theology seriously but a whole lot of other things as well. It may influence the way one sees the need to transform society for example.

    Some pre-mil, pre-trib types are, as you say, waiting around for the end. They have their bags packed and are waiting to go home. But Jesus said “Occupy till I come”.

    Eschatology need not have a negative impact on our impact in the world. Interestingly, two of the great British Christian social reformers, Wilberforce and Shaftesbury, held quite different eschatological viewpoints: Wilberforce was post-mil, while Shaftesbury was pre-mil. Yet both were up to their ears ion Christian social action.

    I have written more extensively on this in my 1999 article “End Times and Christian Responsibility” in the theology section of this website.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Excellent article Bill. I’m reminded of the saying that much of today’s Christianity is “about a mile wide and an inch deep”. Today’s ‘mega-churches’ especially need to pay much more attention to theology and doctrine.

    On the matter of eschatology I agree with Bill that the “Occupy till I come” statement of Jesus should mean that Christians, regardless of their eschatology, can agree upon the need to seek to transform society. I personally don’t pay much attention to eschatology, yet am convinced Christians must be social reformers and seek to apply a biblical worldview in every area of life.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  • Great article Bill. Churches are too often fed with the ‘pastor’s teaching’ rather than the Word of God – It’s a worry when these leaders deviate from the truth.
    Annette Nestor

  • Thanks Ewan and Annette

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • A lot of new believers, especially in the Charismatic and Pentecostal group, tend to be on what’s called a “Joy Bubble” ride when they first believe the Gospel. And really, why not? Most haven’t heard anything that speaks to their soul and spirit in ages. They’ve recited the Apostle’s Creed for years, “from whence He [Jesus] shall come to judge both the quick and the dead,” without grasping the ‘return’ truth in it. They are gobsmacked when they realize that it’s meant as a literal, future event. But having believed, the ‘joy bubble’ eventually wears off and the new child of God is left hungering for solid food…for roots, something that will take them through the trials that are bound to come.

    I thank God that when I came to that particular crisis, my Pentecostal pastor directed me to Francis Schaeffer. That was a bold move since FS was often scorned as too intellectual…as though intellect is kryptonite to the believer. I no longer attend a Pentecostal or Charismatic church, but that’s a whole other story. I can’t kiss my brains goodbye when I walk through the church door. I can understand wolves discouraging their devotees to avoid churches where the pastor has a theological degree, but not churches that are solid and Biblical. Wolves can’t afford having their flocks learn the truth. But what’s with the whole, “We be stupid,” nonsense coming from some of the more groups? Can you imagine telling the Apostle Paul to ‘dummy it down?’

  • Thanks for this most informative blog Bill. Yes it can be easy to think well Jesus is coming back soon let’s just pack our suitcases and wait. But like getting public transport you need to study the routes of the various trains and times to know how you’re going to get to your destination. Isn’t it the same with studying theology? Yet I’m still looking for something that’s simple and I don’t go huh? When I read it. Two supposed how to read your bible books for all it’s worth was way too complicated for me . 🙁 simple foundation and truth is what I need to read. Yet my mind also needs positive reinforcement, as Paul said “whatever is good, whatever is noble, whatever is lovely and so on in Philippians chapter 4:verse 18+ to keep out not Godly thoughts and habits, concentrate instead on anything that inspires and uplifts me in God. Though I may not understand a lot of theology does not mean I should not attempt to try to understand it and at the same time keep the devil at bay from my mind.

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