What exactly is theology? If the question is posed in a multiple-choice format, we could choose from the following options.
a. The name of the eighth full-length album by Sinead O’Connor, released in 2007.
b. What my father tells me to stop doing and to get a real job.
c. The study of God.
d. All of the above.
The answer is option (d), “All of the above.” However, option (c), “The study of God,” is technically the more correct answer, and we can unpack that a bit more.1 The Compact Macquarie Dictionary
defines theology this way: “The science which treats God, His attributes, and His relations to the universe; the science or study of divine things or religious truth.”2
Augustine defined theology as “rational discussion respecting the deity.”3
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth contended: “Dogmatics is the self-examination of the Christian Church in respect of the content of its distinctive talk about God.”4
Reflecting Barth, John Webster says, “Dogmatics is the church’s evaluation of its own utterance by its own given norm of revelation.”5
The Anglican theologian Alister McGrath asserts that “theology is reflection upon the God whom Christians worship and adore.”6 Kathryn Tanner surmises that Christian theology is trying to figure out “what Christianity is all about, what Christianity stands for in the world.”7 Robert Jenson said that “theology is the thinking integral to the task of speaking the gospel, whether to humankind as message or to God in praise and petition.”8 Sarah Coakley calls theology “an integrated presentation of Christian truth . . . [that] must attempt to provide a coherent, and alluring, vision of the Christian faith.”9 All of these definitions are generally correct, however, my favorite definition of theology, especially dogmatic theology, is given by Jaroslav Pelikan, who regarded theology as, “What the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches and confesses on the basis of the word of God: this is Christian doctrine.”10
To put things simply, theology is the study of God. It comes from the word theos
, which is Greek for “God,” and from logos
, which is Greek for “word.”11
It is the attempt to say something about God and God’s relationship to the world. It is thinking about faith from faith. In a sense, theology is very much akin to the study of philosophy, worldview, religion, ethics, or intellectual history; it is a descriptive survey of ideas and the impact of those ideas.
But there are at least two key differences that distinguish theology from other intellectual disciplines like philosophy and religious studies. The first difference is that theology is not the study of ideas about God; it is the study of the living God. Christian theology, then, is different from the study of seventeenth century French literature, ancient Greek religion, and medieval philosophers because the Christian claims that he or she is in personal contact with the subject of inquiry. It is one thing to debate the political thought of Cornel West or to discuss religious themes in the novels of Marilynne Robinson in the classroom. But it would be quite another thing to do that if West or Robinson were sitting in the classroom beside you. Theology, then, is not an objective discipline (i.e., a detached study of an object) like the physical sciences, nor is it a descriptive discipline like the social sciences. Theology is speaking about God while in the very presence of God. We are intimately engaged with the subject of our study.
Second, theology is studied and performed in a community of faith
. Theology is something that is learned, lived, sung, preached, prayed, and renewed through the dynamic interaction between God and his people. Theology is the conversation that takes place between family members in the household of faith about what it means to behold and believe in God. Theology is the attempt to verbalize and to perform our relationship with God. Doctrine is corporately professed, prayed, and practiced. Theology can be likened to the process of learning to take part in a divinely directed musical called Godspell
To do theology is to describe the God who acts, to be acted upon, and to become an actor in the divine drama of God’s plan to repossess the world for himself.13
Evangelical theology, then, is the drama of gospelizing
. By “gospelizing” I mean striving to become what the gospel declares believers to be: slaves of Christ, vessels of grace, servants of the kingdom, a people worthy of God’s name, so that we might participate in the life and mission of God.14
Dedication to the drama of gospelizing is crucial because, as Kevin Vanhoozer declares, “evangelicals need to recapture a passion for biblical formation: a desire to be formed, reformed and transformed by the truth and power of the gospel.”15
To pursue Vanhoozer’s image, the task of theology is to enable disciples to perform the script of the Scriptures, according to advice of the dramaturge the Holy Spirit, in obedience to the design of the director, Jesus Christ, with the gospel as the theme music, and performed in the theater of the church. The company of the gospel shows what they believe in an open-air performance staged for the benefit of the world. The purpose of gospelizing is to ensure that those who bear Christ’s name walk in Christ’s way.16