The way we think about theology is important. I've heard theology described as "dry," or like "a brick wall keeping us confined to a small space," and more. All of these pictures influence how we approach theology and the value we place (or don't place) on it.
In this post, I'd like to suggest four images we should picture in our minds when we think of theology. These four images should be taken together and - when done so - show us why theology really is that important.
(Oh yeah - just to make sure we're on the same page, my super-short-and-probably-simplistic-30,000-foot-definition of theology is this: "Looking to God's Word for both (1) guidance on/answers to key questions we're asking, and (2) a framework for knowing which questions to ask.")
With that said, here are four ways to picture the value and health "doing theology" can bring:
Theology as Fence
"Theology as fence" reminds us that there are boundaries to the Christian faith that can be crossed. There are clear markers of belief that indicate whether one is in line with Christian belief or out of bounds. Questions like "Is Jesus fully God and fully man?", "Will Jesus return again?" and "Is sin a real problem that separates me from God?" are all questions that should be answered a certain way if someone is to fall within the boundaries of orthodox Christian theology.
Jude reminds us of "theology as fence" when he writes for his readers (and us) to "contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God's holy people" (v. 3). This faith is a body of content that was entrusted to us - we don't get to invent it! This faith needs to be contended for - there are markers of the faith that can be threatened and must be protected. Theology has a "fence" component to it that we should not overlook.
Just to be clear, though, the space within this fence is not as small as some want to make it. Nor is the fence a barbed-wire prison or a 20' wall of brick. No - the fence is more like a fence of wooden posts. We can see through it enough to know that the space we have to roam is best; the space outside the fence is fraught with peril. The fence is not primarily restrictive - forcing us to live small lives or think small thoughts. The fence is protective - helping us know when intruders have entered and keeping us in safe territory.
Theology as Foundation
I've walked into plenty of hospital rooms in my role as a pastor, and some of these visits have been to see people who just had the bottom drop out of their lives: cancer, death, loss, pain. For some of these people, a foundation of trust in God has already been laid (that's theology, by the way). They believe God is good and sovereign. Even in their struggle and in their pain, they look to Him (this doesn't take away the struggle or the pain, by the way). Other people I've seen don't have this foundation. They may respond in anger, or paralyzing fear. Or they may just "shut down" - not having the categories in place to deal with suffering and tragedy. They don't have the truth of the Bible informing how they navigate tragic circumstances.
Good theology gives us a foundation on which we can stand firm against all the raging storms and shifting soils that are a reality in this life. Without this foundation, we can crumble, teeter, or get battered about.
Theology as Fountain
Here I simply want to communicate the truth that theology should feed our faith and can be life-giving. Theology doesn't suck the life out of our faith. Rather, it's water that nourishes and grows our faith. Just think how many life-giving truths are embedded in rich theology:
Obviously, many, many more examples could be listed. But hopefully my point has been communicated: A life-giving Christian faith isn't one that is devoid of theology, but one that is rooted in theology that takes shape in life!
Theology as Fuel
Theology isn't just a fountain that gives us life; it's fuel that propels us forward. Theology should fuel our faith - our faith is grounded in rich truths that should keep us coming back again and again. Theology should fuel our worship - the great truths in the Bible should overflow in responding to God in praise and adoration (among other responses). And theology should fuel our obedience and mission - the Person of God and what He's doing in the world have tremendous implications for the sort of people we should be and the things we should be about!
I love how this excerpt from I. Howard Marshall's Pocket Guide to New Testament Theology (pp. 8-9) captures this:
Christian doctrine [a word that is pretty much interchangeable with theology] feeds the soul of the believer and enables him to grow in Christian faith and understanding. Although the study of doctrine can be merely a matter of the mind, the mind can be the route by which the Word of God reaches the heart and influences the life. Christian doctrine, studied in a spirit of humility and prayer, opens up the mind to the revelation of God and provides spiritual food for the believer. He learns more of the character of God whom he worships, he understands more fully the tragic situation from which he has been saved, he appreciates more fully the wonder of the divine grace which saved him, and he realizes more of the spiritual possessions which God wishes to bestow upon him.
These four images belong together. If we focus only only theology as "fence" and neglect its value as "fuel" or "fountain," we will get imbalanced very quickly. But when we keep all four of these pictures of theology firmly in place, we will want to keep returning to the great truths of God's Word because of the protection, stability, life, and fuel they offer.
What "picture" of theology was most helpful for you? As we think about the value of theology, are there other pictures you'd suggest we include?
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