At first, the very concept of ‘theology’ sounds grotesque. Letter of schoolgirl to the Church of England Enquiry Office: “Dear Sir, we are doing God this term. Please send full particulars.!” Yet God has deliberately presented himself to us and has invited us to apprehend him by our three higher sense of sight, hearing and touch, 1 Jn 1:1. Theology, writes John Stott, remains a rich multidimensional discipline.
1. Christian theology is biblical theology (theology and revelation)
Notwithstanding the real diversity between the different books of the Bible and the authors, their is an underlying unity as well, because it is the same God who is speaking through the many mnids and mouths of the human authors. Christian theology, then, is a response to this divine revelation. We would know nothing about God if he had not taken the initiative to make himself known. ‘Without revelation theology would inevitably degenerate into idolatry’.
Revelation is of two kinds: general and special. Roughly speaking, what theology is to Scripture, science is to nature. In both theology and science, we are ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him’ (Kepler).
Theology limits itself (or should limit itself) to what God has revealed in Christ and in Scripture. If truth may be divided into ‘the secret things’ and ‘the things revealed’ (Deut 29:29), then agnosticism is as appropriate to the former as dogmatism is to the latter. Speculation may have a place in theology, but only when it advertises itself as such. Although we seek to move from childlike to mature knowledge, 1 Cor 13:11f, our understanding is never complete. ‘Since God is infinite in his being, we shall never come to the end of him.’
2. Christian theology is historical theology (theology and tradition)
The God who has revealed himself is the God of history, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, of judges, kings and prophets, the god and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God of the apostles and of the postapostolic church.
Developing our historical sense is one way of heeding Jesus’ warning to ‘watch out for false prophets’ (Mt 7:15), for ‘what claim to be new versions of Christianity prove to be the old ones, dredged up from the past, deceptively reclothed and re-presented.’
Historical theology is the church’s developing understanding of the meaning of Scripture. The interpretation does not possess the authority of the text being interpreted. Jesus distinguished sharply between the Scripture as the Word of God and tradition as the teaching of men, and insisted that all the traditions of the elders must be subordinated to the supreme authority of Scripture, Mk 7:1ff. This means ‘that we always have the duty and the right to appeal back from the tradition to the Scripture which it claims to be interpreting.’
3. Christian theology is systematic theology (theology and reason)
Over the past century, Anglican leaders have tended to argue that authority is a ‘threefold cord’, consisting of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. But the historical formularies of Anglicanism plainly attribute supreme authority to Scripture. The role of tradition and reason is to elucidate, synthesize and apply Scripture. ‘If it is historical theology that the importance of tradition is seen, it is in systematic theology that reason comes into its own.’
Systematic theology is an attempt ‘to collect the teaching of Scripture on different themes, to trace their development, to relate them to each other, and to weave them into a coherent whole.’ ‘It is clear in the New Testament itslef that the apostles recognised the existence of a body of doctrine which they variously caled “the truth”, “the faith”, “the tradition”, “the teaching” or “the deposit”, and which had to be guarded and passed on. This came to be condensed in the creeds and confessions of the church, and to be elaborated with growing sophistication in the later patristic, medieval Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, Lutheran, Independent, Purtian and modern systematic theologies.”
Two warnings: 1. God did not see fit to reveal himself in neat orderly fashion, but rather through the profusion of nature and the cultural riches of the 66 books of the Bible. We are therefore taking something of a liberty when we attempt to structured the unstructured. 2. There is a danger of attempting to make the data of revelation fit the theological system rather than the opposite.
But the task of systematic theology remains, because God has constituted us as rational beings, with minds that seek to make sense of our beliefs and experiences. Moreover, God’s revelation, although presented unsystematically, soon yields its logical consistency and internal coherence, because all comes from the one mind of God.
Let us retain, however, a sense of openness and flexibility. Because God is infinite, his revelation may be expected to contain truths which seem to us to be incompatible. For example, human responsibility and divine sovereignty are both taught in Scripture, and so we accept them both, even if our efforts to reconile them feel inadequate.
4. Christian theology is moral theology (theology and ethics)
God’s revelation is not simply in order that we might know and believe, but in order that we might also obey.
God’s quarrel with the human race (see Rom 1-3) is that, knowing something of God and his goodness, they have not lived up to that knowledge. Their disobedience renders them inexcusable. Conversely, God’s people come to know God’s will because they have resolved to do his will, Jn 7:17; 1 Jn 1:6.
As false teaching is linked to a bad conscience, 1 Tim 1:19, so the true teacher will always promote sound doctrine and sound ethical conduct, Tit 2:1. ‘We must never teach either an ethic without theological foundations, or a theology without ethical consequences.’
The Christian theologian, according to John Mackay, should not occupy the balcony, observing without passion or commitment, but should be on the road, making decisions and taking action.. ‘Truth is in order to goodness; the great touchstone of truth is its tendency to promote holiness.’
5. Christian theology is contextualised theology (theology and mission)
If it is wrong for the theologian to merely observe from the balcony, it is worse for him to escape to the ivory tower. Detached objectivity is an inappropriate goal in theology: just as God’s revelation was given in social and cultural context, so must its interpretation.
Despite all the errors of liberation theologies, they have left an enduring legacy of theology that relates to the market-place rather to the monastery. We can have no quarrel with their longing to liberate human being from all that dehumanises them, even if their radical reinterpretation of salvation in socioeconomic, ethnic, political, or even sexual terms is deeply misguided.
The main danger with the contextualizing agenda is its tendency to make a fetish of modernity (or post-modernity). It is not necessary to move with the times in order to address the times. But address the times we must do, and agree with James Denney when he said, “I have not the slightest interest in theology which does not help us to evangelise.” If its Master came down to earth, so must theology. C.S. Lewis said that “You must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular…if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused.”
But our task is not merely to communicate the gospel in a modern idiom. Our task is also apologetic. We have to persuade a cynical world that what we believe and stand for is something more than a harmless delusion.
And in all this we need to practice ‘double listening’ – tuning in to both the voice of God and the varied voices of the modern world in order to relate the one to the other.
6. Christian theology is doxological theology (theology and worship)
If mission is to proclaim God’s name, worship is to glory in his name as proclaimed, Psa 105:1,3. Thus mission and worship belong together. ‘It would be impossible to know God and not to worship him.’ Note how Psa 103 exults with ‘Hallelujahs’ in the doctrine of God’s grace in redemption, and hos Psa 105 does the same with the doctrine of creation.
The preeminent aspect of discipleship is the worship of God, not just in church services but with our whole lives, Rom 12:1.
Theology itself should be carried on in a spirit of humble praise. Note how Paul so readily turns from exposition and exhortation to pryaer and praise. Thielicke warns us about moving too readily from reference to God in the second person (“you”) to reference to him in the third person (“he”): the latter being the language of merely technical reference, whereas the former is the language of personal relationship.
Putting all of the above together, we may conclude by saying that ‘Christian theology is a serious quest for the true knowledge of God, undertaken in response to his self-revelation, ilumined by Christian tradition, manifesting a rational inner coherence, issuing in ethicalconduct, resonating with the contemporary world and concerned for the greater glory of God.’
Based on Stott, ‘Theology: a multidimensional discipline’, in Lewis & McGrath, Doing Theology for the People of God, 3-19.