One of my goals while attending seminary was to study theology, a word derived from the Greek word theologia (theos means ‘God’ and logos means ‘speech’). Theology is a language or discourse about God. It is faith seeking understanding. Theology has a unique vocabulary which must be understood before one becomes proficient in the subject. All fields of study have developed words to describe the investigated phenomenon and theology is no different. In my first theology class, we were assigned 100 theological terms to define, memorize, and use in context. All my theology exams contained questions about these theological terms, a required foundation to be able to think theologically.
When I first started reading the theological writings of the great theologians (St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth, etc.), I struggled with both the terminology and verbosity. Why didn’t these theologians just get to the point? Where are the pearls of wisdom in these lengthy passages? How can theology be applied to my contemporary life? Hundreds of written pages might be devoted to a single theological topic! To an engineer trained to be precise, the laborious process of extracting salient points undermined the hidden theological treasures.
About two weeks prior to my first theology final exam, I sat down and started organizing the readings and lectures. Since the course was in systematic (orderly and coherent) theology, this proved easier than I first imaged. Our professor gave the class eight essay questions in advance of the final, of which three would be on the final exam. As I researched each question, the theological concepts started to gel and resonate within me; the micro writings distilled into macro concepts. Each of my professor’s essay questions addressed a specific theological concept: creation, soteriology, Christology, eschatology, the Trinity, etc. Disorder became order and a light started to shine within my small brain.
Dr. Alister McGrath, the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, recently wrote What’s the Point of Theology: Wisdom, Wellbeing, and Wonder (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, UK, 2022). As a technical person with a theology degree, I can relate to McGrath because he has a biophysics doctorate from Oxford along with a Ph.D. in theology and history. He was an atheist and scientist before converting to Christianity. In his introduction, he states: “Most of my Christian friends at Oxford at the time [1970s] saw theology as pointless speculation irrelevant to the life of faith. Others, particularly those studying philosophy, argued that theology was simply meaningless.” (page 1) I appreciated his candor as I thought the same thing during my early weeks of study.
Why does theology matter? It “unpacks the core themes of faith. It tells us how these were developed, illustrates how they may be explained and preached and shows us the difference they make in real life. Above all, theology sets out the Christian understanding of how we can achieve wisdom, enjoy wellbeing and nurture a sense of wonder. … Theology thus captures and puts into words the moral, intellectual and spiritual vision that is the heartbeat of the Christian faith — a way of seeing things that delights and overwhelms us and leads to worship and adoration rather than mere understanding.” (pages 8–9) For example, the theological term Trinity is not found within Scripture, yet was derived from Scripture verses that discuss the Creator, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit. Theology blends Scripture, reason, and experiences into a coherent understanding of God — as best as humanly possible since humans cannot fully understand God.
Preaching the Word is a theological event of great importance. Scripture is first read, then the Word is preached. The Word is made fresh and alive through a sermon. Without theology, the past remains the past. “Without theology, Christian churches are simply custodians of memories and habits that might once have been meaningful, but now seem outdated and pointless to outsiders — and to some insiders. Theology allows these memories and habits to be revitalized. It provides a bridge between past and present, allowing the riches of the past to connect with the present and transform it.” (pages 10–11) Pastors make Scripture’s truths alive today. “What is a sermon? At its heart, it’s an act of theological translation and application. … A sermon attempts to lodge some core realities of the Christian faith in the minds and hearts of the congregation, to expand their vision of their faith or to make a connection with a local concern or issue.” (page 45)
The Bible is a large and complex document written by various inspired people over centuries. How does one weave these various strands into a macro understanding? “Theology is biblical, but it is more than biblical. Theology can be understood as discerning the big picture that holds together the complex biblical witness. Yet this grander vision of things is not itself directly disclosed in the Bible; it is created by bringing together the multiple biblical threads in our minds and discovering the overall pattern that they reveal when woven together.” (page 27)
When we envision wisdom, perhaps we think of some brainy person or a particular historical writing. Theology transports past wisdom into the present age and the Kingdom to come. Theology is rooted in the past, but “not retreating into this past.” (page 68) My son majored in economics because he said it was a relatively new science. Theology is an old field made fresh in the present. McGrath appropriately concludes: “Theology explains what Christianity is all about to those beyond the churches; it enables individual Christian believers to deepen their faith and understanding; and it enables the churches to be refreshed, renewed and challenged continually by the vision of reality that brought them into being in the first place.” (page 135)