What is Theology?

What is Theology?

Being an American in Scotland has afforded me a few really unique opportunities. Two people from widely divergent backgrounds asked me the same questions yesterday, one at the Apple store (young guy helping me out) and a couple days ago at a fish and chips shop (a lady in her late 40s and early 50s frying up my fish). They both wanted to know why I was in Scotland.

Now when I lived in the States I would often pause when the question of what I do for a living was asked. The thought would go through my head, "Should I lie?" Telling people I am a pastor just opened the door for a 10 to 15 minute conversation of why religion was stupid and they didn't believe in God or they believed that all roads lead to the same place. No, I didn't lie. I would kindly listen, offer some thoughts, and then try to share the Gospel.

However, my experiences here have been different. Every time I have been asked why I am in Scotland my immediate response has been, "To study at the University of Edinburgh." The follow up question is, "What are you studying?" When I tell them I am studying theology. The answer is met with blank stares and the question, "What is theology?" I explain to them that it is by definition the study of God. Then I am asked, "What do you believe?" I let them know that I am a Christian. I have found that then leads to a conversation about God, church, the Bible, and the Gospel. It has been really fascinating. One time I got to explain to a Scot what presbyterianism is. It felt weird explaining this to someone from Scotland, ostensibly the home of presbyterianism.

That question, what is theology is a fascinating one. It seems like every theologian has a different answer to it. The etymology of the very word would define it pretty simply as theo - God and logia - the study of. Put together theology etymologically means, "the study of God." That is a bit general and board. Abraham Kuyper says that theology is the knowledge of God. That is a bit more focused in that we are talking about something to know. However, it is still hard to get your head around. Herman Bavinck has two different yet related definitions in his Reformed Dogmatics (note he uses the word dogmatics as opposed to theology, but he means basically the same thing). The first he says:

[D]ogmatics is the knowledge that God has revealed in his Word to the church concerning himself and all creatures as they stand in relation into him.

He goes on later in the same volume and says:

[D]ogmatics can be defined as the truth of Scripture, absorbed and reproduced by the thinking consciousness of the Christian theologian.

Those two definitions are superb. However, they can be a bit confusing and when talking to most people, they aren't going to mean too much. That's why John Frame's definition is helpful:

The application of God’s Word by persons to all areas of human life.

What Frame is getting at (and I think Bavinck as well) is that theology is practical. That is to say it must be applied. It must be applied because it is also authoritative. However, that authority is a derived authority. It is an authority that comes from the Word of God. Theology is also personal. Theology does not exist in a vacuum, but comes to people. For those people it is also comprehensive. Theology touches every area of a person's life, not just their religious life but everything. Yet in all of this, it is pastoral. Theology guides people through their human lives. Good theology helps us to know how to live and instructs us in the way of truth.

Frame's definition is helpful, but I think that what Frame misses and Bavinck helps to clarify is that theology is not just a personal pursuit (i.e. it is not individualistic), but something that is picked up by the whole church. You see if the individual sets his mind to the study of theology, he will only see lasting benefits when he connects himself to the church. This is both the historical church and the contemporary communion of saints. The reason for this is that the end goal of the church is to learn to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge (think about that one for a moment, we are to know something that surpasses all knowledge). That knowledge is theological knowledge. As the church learns this, it is then supposed to make this love known to the world around (they are to make their theology public). The telos or final end then of theology (as with all things) is that God's name be glorified. As Bavinck says, "Theology and dogmatics, too, exist for the Lord's sake."

I am loving the opportunities that being a foreigner living in Scotland is affording me. It is amazing how giving an honest answer to honest questions opens doors for Gospel conversations.  People don't really get why anyone would want to study theology, but they really want to talk and find out more. The great thing about all of this is that the end goal of theology is always in view. I am not studying this just for my sake. I am not studying just so that I can know more or have better knowledge. I am studying that I may encourage the church to press on toward the goal of learning to know the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge. I am studying theology so that I might better engage my neighbor and see them come to glorify God. I exist and my studies exist ultimately for the Lord's sake. I pray I get more opportunities to let people know why I am studying. I pray that that leads to more Gospel conversations. I pray that we see more people come to glorify God through this time. And, I trust that the Lord will answer these prayers.


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