Published in REVIVE, May 2012 (Malayalam Edition)
A simple and literal definition of “theology” would be “the science of divine things”. It comes from two Greek words theos meaning “God” and logia meaning “discourse or speech”. In modern times, it is the stream of knowledge that differentiates the secular pursuit of knowledge from the sacred one because of its starting point: all secular studies begin with reason and experience while theology begins with faith. The starting point for all extra-theological studies is the world (Latin: saeculum); the starting point for theology is the Word of God. So, while one may say that theology is the study of God, the factual definition would be that theology is the science that rationally pursues the understanding of the self-revelation of God in the Scriptures.
It would be interesting to note that many of the universities had originally begun as seminaries and theology was once known as the Queen of Sciences. However, with the dawn of theAge of Enlightenment and a progressive revolt against all supernaturalism, the chasm between theology and the secular disciplines became wide.
From the academic and professional point of view, theology is the discipline that is pursued by someone who is seriously interested in entering full-time Christian ministry, having sensed the call of God. Generally, it is pursued as a study course in a Seminary; however, there are also those who aren’t able to attend a Seminary, so their chief means of education is through academic publications by experts in the various fields of theology. The biblical importance of such disciplined study is evident from the following Scriptures:
The Old Testament
Priest: “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.”(Malachi 2:7)
King:“his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:2).
The New Testament
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2Timothy 2:15, emphasis mine)
And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men,apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; and that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will. (2Timothy 2:24-26, emphasis mine)
Apparently, a study (knowledge) of the Law had to precede the application and execution of the Law. One must be a student of the Word of Truth before one can be a teacher of the Word of Truth. A Christian minister without theological education is like a medical doctor without medical education or a lawyer without knowledge of the Law. It is simply an impossible state of being. Knowledge and practice go together; and the Christian minister is specifically called to the ministry of the Word (a teaching/discipleship responsibility).
And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Act 6:2-4)
Christ had spent three and half years to teach and disciple the Apostles not in order that they would become caterers of food, but in order that they would teach others what they themselves had learnt from Christ.
Of course, the quality of the education process also matters a lot. A medical doctor with a wrong education could cause havocs. A pilot without aeronautics (or proper application of the science) can cause death to his passengers. It is with a sad note that we read something like this:
“When the rule of Rehobo’am was established and was strong, he forsook the law of the LORD, and all Israel with him.” (2Chronicles 12:1)
“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children. “(Hosea 4:6, emphasis mine)
In summary, by “theology” we understand the science and discipline required for a proper execution of the ministry of the Word. In modern times, the Seminary provides the best resources for the pursuit of this discipline; however, a person can also avail of scholarly publications geared for theological knowledge. Yet, theology is simply a tool that is lifeless when not combined with practical faith and proper application. Even the devil has lot of theological information, but he is the devil simply because he can’t have faith in the Truth; he chose to be the father of lies. Theology devoid of faith is diabolical.
Theology Vs Heresy
It is important here to establish the difference between theology in its pure form and heresy, which is its corruption. A heresy is a corruption of dogma and departure from biblical faith through invalid argumentations on scripture. The Apostles warned against heretics who usually corrupt truth because of sensual mindedness and illogical twisting of scriptures.
“in which [i.e. in the epistles of Paul] are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.” (2Peter 3:16)
“But you, beloved, remember the words which were spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ: how they told you that there would be mockers in the last time who would walk according to their own ungodly lusts. These are sensual persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit.”(Jude 17-19)
A study of Historical Theology will show that the rise of a heretical viewpoint would usually draw the saints together to sharp discussion on what the Bible truly teaches. Thus, through logical reflection and proper application of hermeneutic (interpretation) principles, they would give formulated expression to a doctrinal truth that wasn’t propositionally stated earlier. For instance, in the third century, when a Bishop called Arius began to teach that Jesus was not God but was a created being, a proper and systematic study of the Bible helped the other Church leaders oppose his teaching and give formulated expression to the doctrine of Trinity.
Thus, we see that heresy has its origins in people who are not only “untaught” but also are “unstable” and “sensual”. In other words, on the contrary, proper training, stability or rootedness in sound doctrine, and spirituality are essential to a servant of God so that he/she can “rightly divide the word of truth.”
Divisions of Theology
The chief theological divisions are four in number:
1. Biblical Theology:It is a study of the theology of the Old Testament and the New Testament involving also a study of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. It involves exegetical studies of the biblical text in the original languages.
2. Historical Theology:It is a study of Church History and the historical development of theological concepts, teaching, and confessions. It also studies the histories of theologies and dogmatics. The main divisions are (1) Ancient Theology (1st Century-A.D. 590), (2) Medieval Theology (A.D. 590-1517), (3) Reformation Theology (1517-1750), (4) Modern Theology (1750-Present) which also involves study of Contemporary theologies such as Liberal Theology (which usually doesn’t accept the infallibility of Scriptures, sin, atonement, and the Second Return), Neo-Orthodox Theology (which emphasizes on personal faith above propositional theology and doesn’t regard historicity and infallibility of Bible as important), Radical Theology (treats Biblical accounts as mythological and assumes an atheistic texture), Liberation Theologies (Black, Feminist, Dalit, etc that look for socio-economic emancipatory themes in Biblical Theology), and Postliberal or Narrative Theology (that emphasizes on narratives above propositions and doctrine).
An understanding of the historical developments and contexts of theological formulations helps one to see a theological viewpoint in its proper perspective. At the same time, one also notices how theological viewpoints can be largely influenced by training, stability of faith, and spiritual experience. Lack of these can highly damage a theological viewpoint and stray into worldly philosophizing.
3. Systematic Theology: It is a systematic and logical presentation of the content of Christian faith (dogmatics) and the foundation of the Christian way of life (ethics). The chief disciplines within it are Apologetics (defense of faith which also involves studies in philosophy and religion), Dogmatics (content of faith), and Christian ethics. The chief divisions are Bibliology (Doctrine of the Bible), Theology Proper (Doctrine of God), Christology (Doctrine of Christ), Pneumatology (Doctrine of the Holy Spirit), Angelology and Demonology (Doctrine of Angels and Demons), Cosmology (Doctrine of Creation), Anthropology and Hamartiology (Doctrine of Man and Sin), Soteriology (Doctrine of Salvation), Ecclesiology (Doctrine of the Church), and Eschatology (Doctrine of Last Things).
Theology has usually been systematized with regard to dogmatic perspectives into various systems of Dogmatic Theology, some of which are as follows (1) Catholic Theology (theology of the Roman Catholic Church) (2) Calvinistic or Reformed Theology (emphasizes Sovereignty of God, Predestination, Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of Saints), (3) Arminian Theology (emphasizes on Freewill, Original Sin, and Universal Atonement, and personal responsibility), (4) Covenant Theology (views theology from the perspective of God’s Covenant of Works with Adam and His Covenant of Grace with the Elect. Some also talk of the Covenant of Redemption, but it is not to be considered different from the Covenant of Grace), (5) Dispensational Theology (that looks at theology from the perspective of God’s division of human history into various dispensations of time emphasizing on salvation by grace through faith. The literal method of interpretation and maintaining a distinction between the Church and the nation of Israel are crucial to Dispensational Theology), (6) Renewal (Pentecostal/Charismatic) Theology (emphasizes on the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the spirit-filled life, the baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit, and Power Evangelism).
In recent times, advocates of Narrative Theology have expressed dissatisfaction with systematization of biblical revelation into propositions or dogmas. However, one understands that the statements of faith and the propositions of Truth revealed by God cannot be disregarded. God’s revelation is both personal and propositional.
With regard to classing Apologetics as a discipline of Systematic Theology, I think Mortimer J. Adler was right to a great extent when he observed that the Natural Theology that Systematic Theologians talk about is nothing but apologetics from a Christian vantage point. It is not pagan at all, despite the fact that it makes use of natural reason to defend the faith of Scripture. However, there is another stream of Theology that is closely connected to the Philosophy of Religion, and it is called Philosophical Theology. Philosophical Theology, according to Adler, differs from Sacred or Dogmatic Theology in the sense that it is a theology based on philosophical reasoning rather than on the revelation of God. It is usually pagan in its origin and purely philosophical in nature. Thus, whenever a Christian theologian attempts to provide a rational basis for a theological tenet of faith, he engages not in philosophical theology but in apologetics and, what is generally known as, natural theology.
4. Practical Theology: It is the theological study of ministerial practice. The chief disciplines within it are Worship (Liturgy), Sermon (Homiletics), Pastoral Care (Poimenik), Community Care (Diakonie), Administration and Leadership (Cybernetics), Educational Work in School and Community (Pedagogy of Religion), and Missiology (A study of the nature, history, purpose, and procedure of Missions).
Which Theology is Right?
This question is often asked with reference to dogmatic theologies and some of the contemporary theologies. There are, at least, three chief criteria to judging the validity of methodology and argumentation of a theology:
1. Self-Consistency. Theological study is a peculiar discipline in its own right. It has its own methodology, source of information, and objectives. One can’t apply the historical method to biology. One doesn’t study plants and animals in order to study history. Similarly, any method of theological study that doesn’t conform to proper and practical theological principles of research is inconsistent to its very nature. For example, Science is basically materialistic and deterministically oriented. Therefore, supernatural events and miracles cannot be accepted by it (as they fall beyond its rangeof possibilities). Of course, one cannot dissect the divine in a laboratory room. Attempting to apply science (in its materialistic and deterministic form) to Bible can result in unnatural consequences. A theology that doesn’t naturally conform to its nature is unnatural and false. Also, we have stated earlier that theology begins with the Bible. Therefore, any theology that has undermined or undervalued the Bible has actually cut away the branch on which it was sitting. It is lost.
At the same time, consistency also means that the argumentation (interpretation) is not fallacious and doesn’t commit logical blunders but is consistent throughout. It must be consistent in form and nature.
2. Doctrinal Coherence.Truth in essence cannot be diversified. It is a unity. Therefore, theological conclusions cannot contradict known truths. It must be able to produce a coherent worldview of true beliefs about God, the world, man, sin, salvation, and final things.
3. Practical Consequences. Jesus said that a tree is known by its fruits. Similarly, a theology is known by the results it produces. What kind of a believer does it produce? How is it profitable for the Church as the Body of Christ? Are its conclusions practical? The Scripture is not given for vain speculation but for spiritual edification.
Finally, one must remember that theology is only the study of and interpretation of divine truths communicated in Scripture. Therefore, it is not exhaustive and terminal. The study continues.
Berkhof, Louis. The History of Christian Doctrines, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1937.
Enns, Paul P. The Moody Handbook of Theology, Chicago: Moody Press, 1989.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985.
House, H. Wayne.Charts of Christian Theology & Doctrine, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992.
Pearlman, Myer. Knowing the Doctrines of the Bible, Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1995.
Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology, Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1988.