A series of recent discussions I’ve seen has prompted me to offer a few thoughts on what theology and whether it is either necessary or obligatory.
Firstly, let me say theology proper at its most basic is a study, pursuit, or inquiry into the being and personhood of God and everything about him (his character, attributes, words, deeds, etc.), but more comprehensively how everything else relates to God – hence also topics like creation, humanity, sin, salvation, redemption, glorification, etc.
We might illustrate what theology is by saying that theology is philosophy, but philosophy is not (always) theology. Philosophy literally means love of knowledge, and knowledge is the key issue and topic I wish to boil this down to. Perhaps some people do not ask questions in regard to ‘doing theology’ in terms of pursuit of knowledge, but they should. Given the ambiguity of the English use of the verb ‘do’ perhaps it would benefit some to use the term ‘theologize’ instead, but I endeavor to unpack that further to a meaning approaching something like “pursue knowledge of God”.
Someone mentioned the following in an online discussion:
Certainly, we all have thoughts about God, and none of us can avoid systematizing the concept of God in a way or another. But we are also all, to an extent, psychologists, philosophers, physicians, and so on. We have thoughts about what diet is best for us, we have a decent grasp on who we think we are and how we should and do operate, and so on.
Is the belief that we should all study theology and strive to learn theology, be it systematic or biblical, really a “need/obligation”?
There is a common denominator to all the disciplines mentioned: growth in a given area comes only by knowledge. Without knowledge what do you have? What if a kid never went to school, nor ever interacted with nature, and was locked up in a room with no one else and wasn’t allowed to explore? How would they develop with such a dearth of stimulus? Would they develop mentally at all if they remained in that state for years? Would they rather deteriorate in what little knowledge they had to begin with without reinforcement or new knowledge added to it?
Similarly, you would be locking up your mind and spirit from all sense perception and interaction of the divine, and the purposes attending that, if you don’t pursue theological knowledge, or more precisely seek to know the being toward whom theology is directed – God – as if locked in a room. The mind locked in solitary.
Now, this is a general observation, but a further question arose whether Christians specifically, having already believed in Jesus and currently walking in light of that belief, need to do theology.
Although the staring point of this question is with ‘the Christian’, this is nobody’s real starting point. Several things have implicitly happened to reach the point of becoming a Christian which become relevant to think about to answer this question.
- Everyone is born an unbeliever.
- Everyone is born depraved and unable to seek God, hence in need of his initiatory grace which enables us to comprehend any revelation we encounter and accept the gospel by faith.
- Given the grace to actually respond, we yet cannot respond unless we obtain knowledge (i.e have something to respond *to*). In Romans 10:14 the epistemological question is raised (cf. my emphasis on ‘knowledge’): “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?”
- The content is made clear: A preacher must “preach the gospel of peace” (Romans 10:15). The good news conveys information and hence knowledge on which basis and at which point a decision may be made.
- It follows then that no person becomes a Christian WITHOUT knowledge of God.
So then, given 1-5, once one does actually have faith and become “a Christian” based upon the knowledge they have acquired in order to even come to a point of faith in it, what then (we should ask ourselves) is that person’s continued relationship to knowledge (which was so essential to them becoming Christians to begin with)?
I. Firstly, they must continue believing, and believing, and believing on that same knowledge as a relationship of trust and response to it. If they cease believing they fall away and become disobedient, then are no longer Christians. This is not a one-and-done scenario as regards knowledge and process/growth then. If Christians are those who have eternal life, by theological definition, then if they cease to do what is requisite for eternal life (thus not/no longer having it) they cannot be Christians any longer; and then the question of what a Christian has to do or needs to do becomes inapplicable, for they are no longer a Christian (or never one to begin with).
Jesus said: “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). So a Christians as “one who has eternal life” is wholly dependent upon sustained knowledge of God (which I would further say can’t remain static and must build upon itself over time in the recipient).
II. Let’s further consider what the testimony of Scripture says. Compare this to your belief that there is no need or obligation to pursue theology.
“Man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3; cf. Matt. 4:4) – Talk about ‘need’. Life/eternal life is requisite on this dependence on the words of God.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16)
“And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment…” (Philippians 1:9)
“For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God;” (Colossians 1:9-10)
That verse from Colossians speaks to ought-ness, what we ought and are expected to do and be as Christians. I argue one cannot call themselves a Christian if they do not GROW in knowledge of God.
Abstract philosophical theology is not theology proper. Theology is pursuit of the knowledge of God and all things in light of that. Philosophy itself means “love of knowledge”, so knowledge is exactly at the core of both that and theology and what is at issue.
There are similar verses in Ephesians, but this is probably sufficient to illustrate the importance of knowledge and knowing God for the Christian. This teaching on knowledge shows necessity (need) to even be a Christian ontologically (to have eternal life) and behaviorally (what a Christian ought to do).
So I would say a Christian has both a need and a obligation to seek a knowledge of God.