ALL Christians are theologians. If we believe anything about God, we’re theologians. If we teach anything about God, we’re theologians. There’s just no escaping it. Why is it then, that a love for theology is often looked upon as a bad thing by many Christians and churches? There seems to be a false dichotomy among many Christians/pastors/churches here in rural South Carolina that one cannot love Jesus and people and be a theologian, as if a robust love of the things of God somehow prevents one from being loving. My hope is to prove why it’s okay to be a theologian, – it’s part of the normal Christian life to be a theologian.
What do we mean by theology? Theology is not a high and esoteric knowledge that only a few “super” Christians can aspire to or attain. The word theology is often misunderstood. For many it conjures up images of a nerdy, robed, old, BORING guy locked away in a room full of books obsessing over things like infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism, in scary-sounding and arcane languages such as Koine Greek and Hebrew, all the while revering men with funny-sounding names like Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Kierkegaard, Schleiermacher, Barth, Machen and van Til. I’m convinced Christians who wear the “I’m no theologian” badge with pride have this caricature in their heads when they dismiss theology as being unimportant. Knowing the original languages, reading theologians from church history, and studying deeper biblical concepts have their place, but are not required to be a theologian. However, this still doesn’t negate the fact that if you’re a Christian, you’re a theologian.
Our word theology comes from two Greek words: theos (“god”) and logia (“the study of” or “idea of”). Put them together and we have the most basic definition and concept of theology: the study of God or ideas about God. (There are deeper concepts and disciplines involved in theology, and they all are useful, but let’s concentrate on the basics for now.) As Christians we certainly should study about God and have an idea about God, wouldn’t you agree? All Christians should seek to know about God, fine-tune their ideas about God, and develop right thinking about God. This goes double for those who teach others about God, be they pastors, worship leaders, or Sunday School teachers.
Theology is inescapable and unavoidable to the Christian. Theology should be embraced by every Christian.
Where is the biblical proof that all Christians are theologians? The Bible should always be the source and ultimate authority for our theology. Reading theologians is helpful to put a finer point on some things, but they should never supplant the Bible. Thankfully, the Bible itself encourages Christians to be theologians. In Matthew 28:19-20, otherwise known as The Great Commission, Jesus says,
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Did you catch all that? In this passage (which is most often used to teach missions and evangelism), Jesus laid the foundation for Christian theology. He said we should make disciples, baptize, teach. It is obvious that if one is not a theologian, then one cannot teach — and if one cannot teach, one cannot make disciples. One cannot do either without a fundamental understanding of the gospel and God’s redemptive plan. Knowing both will require basic theology.
Here’s another biblical example: In the Book of Acts there was a fiery young evangelist named Apollos. The Bible says he was “competent in the Scriptures” (18:24) and “taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (18:25). However, he suffered from a deficient theology. A more spiritually mature couple, Priscilla and Aquila, took Apollos aside and “explained to him the way of God more accurately.” In other words, this couple corrected and broadened his theology so that he could be even more accurate and effective in his ministry. Afterwards we’re told that he went back to his preaching and “show[ed] by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus” (18:28). See then, theology is a good thing! It’s not just to make us smarter, but it is useful in making us more truthful, powerful, and effective in our ministries. When souls hang in the balance, as they do daily, it’s good to be able to accurately convey the gospel rather than to give an incomplete gospel or — God forbid — false gospel. We know the gospel because we’re theologians.
This brings us to another question:
How else is theology helpful? Let’s briefly examine a few more ways that theology is helpful for us. I’d also like to note this section is derived and adapted from the Systematic Theology lectures of Dr. Walter Johnson of North Greenville University.
1. Human beings are rational thinkers, and therefore must have a rational belief system. Studying theology fine tunes our thinking about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church, salvation, etc. It keeps us from “fuzzy thinking” in all these areas and more.
2. Theology leads to a greater understanding of God. What Christian doesn’t echo with the Apostle Paul, “that I may know Him [that I may progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, perceiving and recognizing and understanding the wonders of His Person more strongly and more clearly]” (Amplified Bible). We want to know God and his will through his Word. To do this, we must utilize theology as a vehicle in which to do so.
3. Theology allows Christians to grow. The New Testament offers several commands for believers to grow via theology: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Theology is necessary not only for making disciples, but also for being a disciple and growing more Christlike.
4. Good theology keeps us from bad theology. This goes without saying. There are many warnings throughout the scriptures that plead with Christians to stay away from false teaching. Ephesians 4:14 says this: “Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth” (NLT), and “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Having a good theological foundation not only protects us from false teaching, but it also prevents us from teaching false doctrine!
How is theology harmful? Theology is harmful when it becomes and end unto itself and not a means to an end. If the pursuit of theology is anything other than knowing God, growing in grace, growing in holiness and obedience, discipleship and evangelism, then the proverbial boat has been missed. If the glory of Jesus in theology isn’t our goal, we fail. Theology is also harmful when it’s used pridefully. When we belittle and demean others because they’re not as knowledgeable in the scriptures as we are, or aren’t as well-read as we are, we sin. Theology is harmful when it is twisted or incomplete. If our personal theology doesn’t square with the Bible, we are in grave danger of falling into error. Worse, a faulty theology ensures we are leading others into error.
Torching the straw man. The last thing I want to touch on is the straw man argument that one cannot be devotional, that one cannot love people and love theology. I’ve heard this argument in many churches over the years. This is a straw man, and is often an excuse for poor theology and laziness. There is an unnecessarily barrier that’s been erected in which those who love theology, talk about theology, and examine things theologically are viewed as cold, indifferent, unmoved, and detached. In my experience this has been a million miles from the truth. I’ve never met a person who loved theology for the right reasons who wasn’t warm, devotional, loving, compassionate, and zealous for Jesus and his kingdom. Throughout church history the greatest and most influential Christians — those with enduring legacies — always took theology seriously. On the other hand, some of the coldest, lazy, and most judgmental Christians I’ve known did not think theology was important.
ALL Christians are theologians. We all believe something about God. What we believe about God is theology. We’re all little Augustines and Calvins running around believing and teaching something about God. Let’s do our best to ensure that something is a solid, devotional theology based on the Bible.