What is Theology

By Peter D. Anders, D.Phil. (cand.)

Defining what theology actually is may not be as simple as it first seems. The varied complex of attendant issues includes everything from questioning the possibility of theology at all, to accounting for the multitude of "theologies" now competing in the marketplace of ideas. In this short essay, we will seek to define theology through a close reflection on the term itself. We will develop our definition with three key points that follow from this reflection, and then use this as a context for making two further points that take into account theology's task. By the end, we will have established a very brief, but at least properly theological definition of theology.

"Theology," or Theos/Logos, refers in its strictest sense to the God/Word, or the Word that is, with, and from God (John 1:1-2). Taking John's use of logos in its historical and cultural context, we might expand this basic reflection to a rational discourse concerning God. By "rational" we don't mean according to pre-established norms of human reason; but rather we mean intelligible, cogent on its own terms, and able to be communicated in our language.

Moreover, by "discourse" we don't mean strictly cognitive, because this Word of God is personal, living and active. Far from being a mere communication of information, this rational discourse concerning God is a personal self-communication, wherein God speaks and acts to make himself a "Thou" to our "I." This grounds our definition of theology in the miraculous: through the Word that is, with and from himself, the incomprehensible and holy living God is cognitively comprehended and personally apprehended by finite and sinful people.

This discourse brings commands and promises, but because it judges us, heals us and opens us to a future of new possibilities, it is also profoundly life defining our lives make no sense apart from Jesus Christ. Theology, then, is the discourse personally encountered in Jesus Christ, who is this Word of God with us and for us. And therefore, on this basic reflection, "theology" is simply a synonym for "Christianity."

Let’s develop this basic reflection into three defining points. First, because theology comes from God, we can identify its source as God’s own infinite and perfect self-knowledge, which must be the archetype of all our theology and the ground for even the possibility of our theology. In love, God does not keep this knowledge to himself, but rather sends it forth as a discourse of speech and acts—as his own Theology. In grace, God accommodates his Theology to our capacity to receive it. Thus, our theology is not founded on our freedom and capacity to know God, but on God’s freedom and capacity to make himself known to us. God’s Theology always precedes our theology. For this reason, our theology should always be understood as response—before we can have anything true to say concerning God, God must have had already said something concerning himself to us: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7).

Second, God has made theology a holistic possibility for us, as the life, words and work of Christ, the incarnate Word, come to us from God as an objective discourse of divine self-definition. By the speech and redemptive acts of this objectively revealed Word, we come to know the truth that we are sinners and that God is gracious to the sinner. We know this because Jesus Christ tells us so, and because we sense it by his personal reconciling presence (Luke 5:1–11, 24:25–32; 2 Cor. 4:6). The Holy Spirit continues to make the objectively revealed Word present to us in and through his verbally inspired testimony of Holy Scripture (John 16:13–15; 1 Tim. 3:16).

The Spirit makes the risen Christ present to us also by establishing the subjective dimension of theology as the newly created capacity to apprehend this objectively revealed Word—the newly created capacity to be the knower of God that is called faith (John 14:17; Eph. 2:8–10). Theology should not be understood as a possibility we naturally possess. Rather, it is only through this quickening activity of the Holy Spirit that our sinful and distorted concepts of God are broken (Is. 55:10–11; Heb. 4:12). No longer blinded and enslaved by our sin and by the lies for which we have exchanged God’s truth (Rom. 1:25); we are made free by the Spirit to cry “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). Thus, in the wholeness of both the objective and subjective aspects of our theology, we are enabled to discourse concerning God in truth and in spirit. Theology should always be understood as a new possibility created for us in the single prior divine activity of the Triune God’s holistic work of grace: God’s downward condescension makes possible our upward apprehension. Objectively we come to know the Truth, and subjectively this Truth makes us free (John 8:32; cf. John 5:24–26; 2 Cor. 3:17).

Third, this sure twofold foundation of our theology as the Spirit’s work of inspiration and illumination is a reality for all Christians. In this way, the risen Christ, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, encounters us personally and tells us who he is and what he has done for us. And in this way, the possibility of theology as response is established and sustained from generation to generation. God’s people have been freed to engage in the activity of theology (Eph. 1:4–23). We each have been given the astonishing possibility and privilege of discoursing concerning God in spirit and truth. Following her Lord, in love the Church does not keep knowledge of God to herself, but rather sends it forth as a discourse of words and deeds (1 Cor. 2:10–13). To know God is to be engaged in theology. Whether we are intentional about it or not, everything we say and do as Christians forms our theological discourse. Thus, in the broader sense, there is no such thing as a Christian who is not also a theologian.

So theology is our individual and corporate discourse concerning God that is made possible by God himself. As such, it should be characterized by humility, thankfulness, praise and especially wonder. In this context, we can now develop our definition further by looking at theology’s task as both science and relationship.

As a science, theology uses appropriate methodology to articulate the absolutely authoritative content of Holy Scripture, for the instruction and edification of the Church and in critical response to, and compassionate engagement with, contemporary culture. All the theological disciplines (biblical, systematic, historical, philosophical/ethical and practical) work together for a comprehensive understanding of God’s self-revelation—an understanding that embraces the integrity of the biblical facts and enacts their meaning in obedient witness to Jesus Christ. Here, theology’s basic content is understood as the Word of God in the Bible, and is concerned with the great thematic declaration “that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:19). Although our theology can be and indeed is true, it is nevertheless always an ectype: a finite reflection of what may be known perfectly only by the ultimately incomprehensible and inexhaustible God himself. Thus, it will always be a theologia viatorum: a theology “on the way,” or a theology “of the pilgrim.”

As relationship, theology responds to the Triune God who has graciously made himself both present and known to us as Father, in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Theology is holy—our God-ordained task of faith seeking understanding. All the theological disciplines proceed on the humble assumption that true understanding is found in Scripture alone, and only within the sanctifying work of the Spirit and in the reality of faith; for “man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them” (1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Thess. 2:13). By the Spirit, we are free relationally to seek understanding with our whole selves and full attention, really present both to God and to one another in Christian community of love and grace. Here we gain an insight from Jesus himself: theology is incarnational (“the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” [John 1:14]); and theology is communal (“there I am with them” [Matt. 18:20; 28:20]). Thus, in this way, theology is spiritual formation. It begins in worship of the God who stands behind and reveals himself in Scripture. It continues in the prayerful seeking of biblical understanding by the illumination of the Spirit and the communion of saints. And it ends in praise for what God has done in Christ as proclaimed in Scripture, and in grateful obedience to what God has given the Church to say and do in Scripture, both in witness and mission to the world.

Our definition of theology has now taken shape: theology is every Christian’s faithful discourse concerning God, made possible by God himself. Theology is cognitive and ethical; scientific and relational, and profoundly life defining. It is a holy and prayerful endeavor of our whole person and community in the presence of the living God—marked by humility, praise, amazement and joyful expectation.

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