This is an updated/revised version of a post I originally wrote on October 14, 2014, "Theology: A Mosaic of Four Pictures."
In previous posts, I've written a fair amount on WHAT theology is and WHY it's valuable. I've linked to a number of these at the end.
In this post, though, I want to go a step further and try to bring the "what" and the "why" together in a few mental images that I hope come to people's minds as they consider theology. After all, the pictures we paint in our minds about certain topics play a BIG role in how we approach those topics, whether we see them as positive or negative, etc.
With that in mind, here are 5 pictures that I want you to bring to mind when you think about theology. These five images should be taken together and - when done so - show us more about what theology is and why theology really is that important.
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.
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.
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.
Theology as "Filter"
Every day and over the course of our lifetimes, there will be times we’re overcome by feelings and introduced to new experiences. And feelings and experiences can both be good! But they’re not ultimate. Feelings can be misleading, and experiences can be misunderstood.
There are times I’ve been talking with people and I could tell they weren’t processing things the right way. For some, the world and everyone in it is against them. For others, they couldn’t do anything wrong - even when they leave this wake of hurt relationships and brokenness behind them. The reason I bring these things up is just to remind us that we can’t always trust our experiences and our feelings. We need biblical truth rightly interpreted - theology! - to serve as a filter.
A growing knowledge of theology helps serve as a sort of “filter” - helping us know how to process, interpret, and act on (or not!) certain feelings and experiences, etc.
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.
Listen to this:
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, drift, 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 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 captures this:
These five images belong together. If we focus only only theology as "fence" and neglect its value as "fuel" or “fountain" (for example), we will get imbalanced very quickly. But when we keep all 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.
Looking for more posts on WHAT theology is and WHY it's so important? Check these out:
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