The Nature and Goal of Theology

Definition

The word “theology” means the Science of God or the Study of God. It is the religious systematization of such beliefs as that involve God and the viewing of the universe with such a theology of God. Thus, it also involves every such doctrine in the universe that streams from or streams towards God, e.g., anthropology, soteriology, etc. Basically, it is the study of the divine things.

Ground

Deciding a starting point for theology is often dilemmatic. Should it be Scripture, nature, experience, or God Himself?

The theologian attempting to develop a systematic treatment of Christian theology early encounters a dilemma regarding the question of starting point. Should theology begin with the idea of God, or with the nature and means of our knowledge of him? In terms of our task here, should the doctrine of God be treated first, or the doctrine of Scripture?”[1]

The dilemma is more intensified by the intrusion of evidentialism, which may even endanger the concept of absolute God. Some would have professed the ground of philosophical deduction from nature, as did Aquinas, to be more appropriate, and later conform to the picture of the Scriptures.

We shall follow the Lutheran model:

Theology builds around the three fundamental doctrines of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), sola gratia (grace alone), and sola fide (faith alone).[2]

Development by Function

Theology develops by functioning in the following three areas:

  1. Cogitation. Philosophical and experiential reflection, as, some believe, Paul had opportunity to during his prison terms. The revelation, illuminated, is systematized.
  2. Clarification. This is to clarify the meaning of certain terms of theology that may have come to be used, but inadequately, e.g. “substance” or “subsistence”, “there was a time” or “there was” etc.
  3. Counteraction. This is the development of theology by opposing the heretical controversies, the statement of the counteraction being vouchsafed crystallizingly in creeds and dogmas.

 Goal

The goal of all theology must be soundness of doctrine (faith) and thus the edification of the believer.

The quest must be for clarity and consistency of truth. It must not be an abstract, rationalizing specter but a life changing, living experience.

Theology must not just remain a map of guidance but, becoming relevant to life, become an experience entailing life-transformation.

The goal of theology is and must remain the preservation and systematization of Biblical Truth, truth that sets one free.

THEOLOGY IN ACTION

Philosophy and Theology

We all know that philosophy influences the doing or making of theology to a great extent.

Augustine (354-430), Clement, and Origen (c.185-254) were well influenced by Platonism. Augustine is considered to be “one of the great Christian Platonists.”[3] Diogenes Allen notes:

Both he (that is, Augustine) and Gregory of Nyssa (d.394) as well as other theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries began to use the ideas of Plotinus about the three divine hypostases to gain a deeper understanding of God. The modifications they made to Plotinus are vital, and they arise because of Christian doctrine. The Christian doctrine of creation in particular made it impossible for them to think in terms of degrees of divinity. There is a sharp division between the Creator and all else in Christianity.[4]

Thus we see how Plotinus influenced Augustine’s and Gregory’s theology. Plotinus, believing in cosmic unity or non-dualism, founded Neo-Platonism. Though Augustine et al made use of certain thoughts of his they were careful to maintain the distinction of the Creator from the creation. Pantheism could not be permissible. A certain amount of Plotinism may be found in writers such as Paul Tillich. Aquinas and the leaders of the Scholastic movement were greatly influenced by the natural theology and logic of Aristotle (384-322 BC).

In the Indian continent, the influence of Indian philosophy on Christian theology is expressive in the writings of Brahmabandhav Upadhyaya (1861-1907, Advaita Philosophy), A. J. Appasamy (1891-1979, Vishishta advaita), and P. Chenchiah (1886-1959, Yogic evolutionism).[5]

Thus, we have seen theology in action in the philosophical context.

The quest of Augustine, Aquinas, Brahmabandhav, Appasamy, Chenchiah, etc is clearly seen to be that of achieving a greater and deeper experiential knowledge of God. For once the mind experiences something, it is not an impossibility for the heart to experience the same. But these theologians prove that their theology didn’t just flip over their minds. The heart was also involved; as Augustine put it:

Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.[6]

The goal of such philosophical theology was not just explanation and justification with notable competence, but also quest to know God experientially. Whenever philosophy erred in achieving that goal there was segregation.

It is noticeable that theology has never erupted on a virgin soil. There needs to be some background to the understanding of it.

Theology and Religious Experience
Significance

The gospel which is not significant and relevant to the human need of the moment is worthless. It is like bringing a cup of the choicest wine to a person who is direly in thirst for a cup of water. The theology of Christianity must be relevant and meaningful to the believer. It should serve to give him that which would help his spiritual life grow, not just junk food. It should instill in him life.

Theology is significant. The Bible doesn’t just talk of abstract things. It speaks of concrete, relevant issues. So must Biblical theology be. Historical theology, Biblical theology, Exegetical theology, Philosophical theology, and Systematic theology must serve, not just give a junk of thoughts, reflections, ideas of Truth, but must present the Truth so significantly that the person being united to this Truth is set free from error and estrangement from God.

The person who comes to Christ after listening to the Gospel (soteriology) comes so because he finds the doctrine significant. The God of the philosophers may be abstract, but the God of Christian experience is a friend, a father, one with whom we can relate, one to whom we can pray, one with whom we can walk, talk, and share our deepest feelings and desires, one to whom we can commit. Theology brings the Truth significantly home, that God is a Person to know, to love, to obey. “Knowing God is crucially important” said J.I. Packer.

The Bible is interpreted according to an existent world-view. The terms and ideas are influenced. That’s how we got a Roman Catholic Theology, Indian Christian Theology, an Existential Theology, a Black Theology, etc. Often it’s a desire for revolution, for freedom from the old, stale, tyrannous theology (e.g. feminist theology). The desire is for theology to be made alive; the vitalization of theology form human existence.

During the ages of renaissance and enlightenment, Western theology underwent great changes which consequently led to its death.[7] The root of all this lies in the scholastical movement following Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Space won’t suffice to trace the lengthy process of decay. But following are some points to note:

  1. Aristotelian influence was purely logical and quite nature-oriented. The stress of rationalism and scientism in contradiction to Platonic, mysticism and spirituality. The laws of nature emphasized.
  2. The rise of rationalism when Aquinas posited that natural theology is possible and Faith is to be distinguished from reason. What cannot be accepted by reason (which is natural) must be accepted by faith in the Scripture.
  3. This proved to be blind. Some desired total rationalism in contradiction to so-called blind faith. Natural theology popularized.
  4. The God of Christianity began to become an abstract being with no great significance for humans. This was effected by the problem of theodicy. Miracles were considered untenable, impossible. Thus, the fixity of natural laws was popularized.
  5. The introduction of skepticism, empiricism, and pragmatism by philosophers such as Descartes, John Locke, William James etc aggravated the Western climate.
  6. The advance of science, the stupendous discoveries and inventions unleashed an era of materialism and scientism. The greatest blow was the theory of evolution by Darwin in the Origin of species.
  7. Nietzsche announced the death of God.

Theology died. God became insignificant. Marx, Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin resulted. Man tried to become God at last, the wisdom of the serpent.

The modern climate is such a tensified one where the schools, universities, and political systems are plagued by such materialistic concepts all because Christianity did not take a stand for the Gospel; because this Church tried to exalt its rational mind above the experience of god. Theology was not kept alive.

Some revolutions must be noted: monasticism, mysticism, Pietism, Pentecostalism—all who tried to keep the flame of Theology alive in their hearts by separation from the world (the natural) and dedicating to God (the Supernatural, the divine.

Theology and Faith

Whereas philosophy, beginning with the nature and pure rational-empirical deductivism, tries to understand the world logically, Theology, beginning with the revelation of God and experience, tries to know oneself in relation to the Creator by faith.

The dictum stands true: the just shall live by faith (Rom.1:17). The Christian is to walk by faith – faith based on past experience and sufficient reason.

Now, faith is man’s response to God’s revelation.

…it means both assent to what God has said about his redemptive purposes for man and obedience to the demands stated. The first is faith as reasonable, and is concerned with truth – belief that. The second is faith as commitment, as concerned with obedience – belief in.[8]

The truth of God is not abstract theory. It is a gospel which has truth – content, to be sure, but which above all is a claim upon us. It is a call for trust, commitment, and obedience. In his commentary on Romans C.H. Dodd states that, for the apostle Paul, “Faith is that attitude in which, acknowledging our complete insufficiency for any of the high ends of life, we rely utterly on the sufficiency of God….” Nor does it mean belief in a proposition, though doubtless intellectual beliefs are involved when we come to think it out.[9]

Theology can be alive as Christ is alive in a believer and a believer in Christ. Now, Christ is alive in us by faith (Eph.3:17) and we are alive in Christ through our actions in commitment of faithfulness to Him (Jn.15:1-12).

Theology too can thus be alive in one’s life – by faith in action or active faith.

The English language handicaps us when we try to speak of faith. It gives us no verb form of the word…. The Greek verb pistuo and the Latin verb credo permitted writers and speakers to say, “I trust, I commit myself, I rest my heart upon, I pledge allegiance.” All of these paraphrases show us that faith is a verb; it is an active mode of being and committing, a way of moving into and giving shape to our experiences of life. They also show us that faith is always relational; there is always another in faith. “I trust in and am loyal to…”[10]

J.I. Packer points out that knowing God (theology) is life.

What were we made for? To know God. What aim should we set ourselves in life? To know God. What is the “eternal life” that Jesus gives? Knowledge of God. “This is life eternal that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent (Jn.17:3).”[11]

© Domenic Marbaniang, March 2000.


[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Michigan, Baker Book House, 1996), p.30

[2] H. Wayne House, Charts of Christian Theology and Doctrine (Michigan: Zondervan, 1992), p.4
[3] Diogenes Allen, Philosophy for Understanding Theology (Georgia: John Knox Press, 1985), p.82
[4] Ibid, p.82
[5] Cf. “Development of Christian Theology in India” by J. Russel Chandran in Readings in Indian Christian Theology I, ed. R.S. Sugirtharajal and Cecil Hargreaves (Delhi: ISPCK, 1997), pp.7-10.
[6] The Confessions.
[7] Nietzsche announced the death of God with the uprise of rationalism and scientism. The fact was that theology was insignificant. With the death of God, theology also died.
[8] Exploring our Christian Faith, ed. W.T. Purkiser (Missouri: BHP of Kansas City, 1978), p.25
[9] Ibid, pp.25-26
[10] James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith (NY: Harper San Francisco, 1978), p.16
[11] J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Illinois: InterVarsity, 1973), p.29

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