Why Study Theology?
by Keith A. Mathison
Why in the world should I care about theology?
All I need is the Bible.
I can follow Jesus without having to learn all kinds of obscure words.
Have you ever heard another Christian say something like these statements? Have you ever said something like them yourself? Ever thought such things? If so, you’re not alone. The vast majority of professing Christians have little to no interest in theology. In the minds of many Christians, there is no necessary connection between theology and their everyday Christian life. Theology, they believe, is irrelevant.
The disconnect between theology and the church and between theology and the Christian has had disastrous results. One need only look at recent polls examining the level of theological knowledge among professing Christians to know that something has gone awry. When large numbers of professing Christians start telling their friends and family, “You just have to read The Shack! I learned so much about God from that book,” well then, Houston, we have a problem. When large numbers of professing evangelical Christians are not sure whether the deity of Christ is an article of the Christian faith, then we have more than a problem. We are the proverbial lemmings, rushing headlong toward the precipice.
In order for Christians to begin to understand why theology is necessary and relevant, we must understand what we mean by theology. Reformed theologians of the past defined theology as a “word about God” based on the “word of God.” In short, theology at its most basic is knowledge of God.
Knowledge of God is a dividing line between believers and unbelievers. Scripture characterizes unbelievers as those who do not “know God,” those who lack “knowledge of God” (Hos. 4:1; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 4:8; 1 Thess. 4:5; 2 Thess. 1:8; Titus 1:16). In contrast are Christians, those who know God and who are to be growing in the knowledge of God (Col. 1:10). To be growing in the knowledge of God is to be growing in our theology.
All Christians are called to theology in this most basic sense. If Scripture calls us to grow in the knowledge of God/theology, then the pursuit of this knowledge, of theology, is an act of Christian obedience. It becomes an aspect of Christian discipleship, a non-negotiable for the believer.
When we begin to think about theology first and foremost as knowledge of God, we can begin to glimpse the truth about the relevance of theology. We can begin to see that it makes all the difference in the world to our lives. We can begin to see how it is relevant to everything we think, say, and do as followers of Jesus Christ.
Love of God and knowledge of God go hand in hand.
THEOLOGY AND THE LOVE OF GOD
For those who remain skeptical, let us approach the same question from a different angle. When our Lord Jesus Christ was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” what was His answer?
He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt. 22:37; cf. Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27).
Do you love God?
If so, that is good, but do we have to choose between love of God and theology, between love of God and knowledge of God? I would suggest that the Beatles were wrong when they sang, “All you need is love.” That sentiment couldn’t even keep four guys together for more than a decade. It certainly won’t maintain a healthy church.
Love of God and knowledge of God go hand in hand. If you truly love God, you already have at least a minimal knowledge of God, a minimal “theology.” If you knew absolutely nothing of God, had no concept even of His existence, loving Him would be impossible. But if you do love Him because you do know at least something of Him, there should be a desire to grow in your knowledge of Him—to grow in your theology.
Isn’t this what happens when we first fall in love with another person? We meet a person and perhaps speak to them. Based on the little knowledge we have of this person, we are attracted to him or her. And if we are attracted to this person, if we like him or her, what do we want? We want to know more. We talk to them and say, “Tell me about yourself. Tell me about your childhood. Tell me about your likes, your dislikes. Tell me about your hopes, your dreams.” Then, we listen. And the more our knowledge of this person grows, the more our love grows.
In a sense, this is similar to what we are doing in formal theology. We are asking questions of God in order that we might grow in our knowledge of Him and thus our love of Him. His answers to our questions are found in Scripture. When we start to arrange the answers in an orderly way, we have a rudimentary form of what is called systematic theology.
We say, “Tell me about yourself, Lord.” If we arrange our answers in an orderly way, we have what theologians call “theology proper.” Or we say, “What can you tell me about myself and others like me?” When we arrange those answers, we have the biblical doctrine of man, or in more technical terms “theological anthropology.” We may ask God, “Can you tell me what’s wrong with me?” An orderly arrangement of the answers is the doctrine of sin. When we arrange the answers to the question, “Why did you choose me and how is it that I am now reconciled with you?” we have the doctrine of salvation, or soteriology. We may ask God, “What are your ultimate goals?” An arrangement of the answers found in Scripture is the doctrine of the last things, or eschatology.
Of course, this comparison is oversimplified, but the basic point should be clear. Theology is personal knowledge. Strictly speaking, it is tri–personal knowledge because it is knowledge of the Trinity. It is also knowledge we can have only because God has chosen to reveal Himself. Jesus told us that “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27, emphasis added).
FOR WHOM IS THEOLOGY?
When we have a better grasp of the nature of theology, we can better understand why it is necessary and relevant. In the first place, theology is necessary and relevant for the church. The church is called to proclaim the gospel and disciple the nations. In short, the church is to proclaim the truth. The church is to instruct Christians and combat false doctrine (2 Tim. 4:1–5; Titus 1:9). Both tasks require serious reflection on the teaching of Scripture. Theology is, therefore, indispensable to the church.
Theology is also necessary and relevant for every individual Christian. I have already mentioned the connection between the love of God and knowledge of God. A disciple of Christ is to be growing in both. The necessity and relevance of theology can also be shown by noting the importance of understanding Scripture. If understanding Scripture is important and relevant, theology is important and relevant. Allow me to elaborate a bit. Slowly read each of the following passages of Scripture:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (1:14)
For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily. (Col. 2:9)
He chose us in him before the foundation of the world. (Eph. 1:4)
In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. (2 Cor. 5:19)
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)
On a scale of 1 to 10, how important would you say each of these texts is? Would you say they have a high level of importance? If you believe any or all of these texts have a high level of importance, how important is it that you and I understand what they mean? If you said, “Very,” you are correct. Now consider the fact that the list above contains a mere six verses out of the entire Word of God. It is just as important to understand the rest of Scripture as it is to understand these six verses. It is, after all, the very Word of God. This is another reason why the study of theology is relevant. It helps us understand Scripture and to think and speak truly about what God has revealed in His Word.
Finally, it is important to remember that even those Christians who believe that theology is irrelevant are “doing theology.” They are simply doing it without being aware of doing it, and that is usually an indication that they are doing it poorly. Every time we think or speak about God, His will, or His works, we are doing theology. If we do it without awareness or reflection, the potential for error increases dramatically. We need to consider this because errors regarding God, His will, and His works are far more serious than errors in other areas of life. Errors here result in false doctrine, heresy, and idolatry.
The study of theology is necessary and relevant because it helps us to be more deliberate and careful in our thought and speech about God. It helps us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Dr. Keith A. Mathison is professor of systematic theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Fla. He is author of several books, including From Age to Age. This article appeared in TABLETALK.