By Matt Capps, Pastor, Fairview Baptist Church, Raleigh, NC
RALEIGH, N.C. (BP) — Have you ever heard someone in your church dismissively say, “Theology isn’t for me” or “I don’t think theology is important; we just need to love Jesus and love people”? While I understand the sentiment behind these statements, as a pastor it grieves me.
Though many people in the church see theology as an abstract academic discipline with no bearing on the day-to-day Christian life, theology is inescapable. Simply put, every Christian is a theologian. Every Christian, by definition, knows God, thinks about God and makes statements about God. The very word “theology” means a word (logos) about God (theos).
Christian theology is simply talking about God in a distinctly Christian way based on the Scriptures. And if everyone is a theologian, the central question becomes: Is his or her theology distinctly Christian? Recent findings give cause for concern.
True theology points to God
LifeWay Research recently studied the theological knowledge of 3,000 adult Americans. The study focused on key theological areas of the faith and revealed several areas where many Americans differ from historic, orthodox Christianity.
Almost half (45 percent) believe there are many ways to get to heaven. The same percentage says the Bible was written for each person to interpret as he or she chooses. More than half (59 percent) of evangelicals believe the Holy Spirit is a force, not a person. And 29 percent of evangelicals believe God the Father is more divine than Jesus. Where are Americans, and especially evangelicals, getting their theology?
Human beings didn’t invent God, and because God exists independently from human experience, theology cannot originate from human thought or experience. Distinctly Christian theology — what the apostle Paul called “sound doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:3) takes its starting point from the belief that God has revealed Himself in His authoritative Word, the Bible.
This is significant because the Bible stands as a testimony to the free and intentional act of self-disclosure on the part of a transcendent God. The task of theology has to do with knowing the true God and developing an integrated knowledge about Him in light of His self-disclosure.
A distinctly Christian theology is also focused on Christ. In John 5:39, Jesus says the Scriptures testify about Him. Christian doctrine is deeply personal and redemptive — not an outline of abstract formulations or a morality code. The Bible is the unfolding story of God’s rescue and subsequent commissioning of His people through the person and work of Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God.
Theology is practical
Theology is undertaken so our hearts might respond to God and that our lives might be conformed to His will. All of life’s central questions are deeply theological. Theology speaks to inquiries as wide-ranging as the meaning of life and as specific as particular events in life.
Our questions about the everyday ups and downs of guilt, joy, doubt, peace, suffering, justice and injustice all require a solid biblical and theological grounding to grasp them from a distinctly Christian perspective. And whether our theology is biblically sound or flawed, its implications will undoubtedly be felt because theology affects lives — both ours and those around us.
Theology and the Christian life are not competing interests, but two sides of the same coin. This is why theology is so important to the local church. The church is a community of people on mission with God. And it’s a community where the passing on of the faith, or sound doctrine, is central to its purpose (Matthew 28:16-20; 2 Timothy 4:1-4).
Theological formation should be esteemed in the church because the church itself is a Gospel-formed theological community. The church is centered on God’s Word, and God’s Word is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). In other words, theology is eminently practical.
Theology also engages our emotions and shapes our living. It is not an exercise in head-scratching puzzles, but a discipline that should lead to heart-stirring emotions, which in turn leads to worshipful obedience in every area of life. It is by knowing God that we come to love Him, and by loving Him that we come to know Him.
This is why J.I. Packer has long said theology is for doxology and devotion — that is, the praise of God and the practice of godliness. In other words, loving Jesus and loving people are made possible by a theological vision of God and the Christian life.
Theology fuels our devotion to God and our passion for sharing the Gospel. A solid theological vision of God and the Christian life is a powerful tool for mission.
Imagine if every Christian were a good theologian. Not just a good theologian, but a good theologian in the distinctively Christian sense. Theology matters for your church because theology is for everyone. Every Christian is a theologian.