I have spent some time recently thinking deeply about theology–not just the formation of theology but also its value in an evolving system of belief. Consider first that theology is not salvific in and of itself. And theology succeeds belief as a function of describing and explaining a belief system. If faith is a horse and faithfulness is the cart, then theology is the explanation of the integral relationship of the two and the physics that explains why the horse must proceed the cart for the relationship to work.
I think of theology as descriptive rather than prescriptive, though it might serve both functions in some respects. This then begs the question: is theology necessary for anything beyond an intellectual exercise? What is the value of being able to effectively articulate theological concepts beyond the obvious goal of describing a system of belief? Theology is not the gospel.
Or is it?
But treat the Messiah as holy, as Lord in your hearts; while remaining always ready to give a reasoned answer to anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have in you — yet with humility and fear. (1 Peter 3:15, CJB)
When we read the Bible, we sometimes ask ourselves theological questions such as what did Peter believe about such and such or what did Jesus mean when he said such and such or how did the assembly of believers in Corinth understand Paul’s letters. Those are relevant questions pertaining to context, and we should always consider the context of Scripture. Failure to do so is a guaranty of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. And those questions all relate to how we understand the words of the Bible and the gospel it records. Understanding the theology of the Biblical characters shapes our own belief systems, as it should.
But wait, there’s more!
I have often heard it said, especially in protestant evangelical circles, that I don’t believe in religion. I believe in relationship with God–a cute phrase that is actually self-contradictory at best and totally misleading at worst. By definition, any belief system that incorporates belief in a deity and a definable mode of worship of that deity should be understood as a religion. What is usually meant by the statement is rather, I don’t believe in a liturgical system of worship. I subscribe to a less rigid, free-style, do-what-feels-right form of religion that allows me to define my own practice based on my own interpretations. (Ironically, these individuals typically still fellowship in a church congregation with its own set of mores and dogmatic ideals thus conforming to a predetermined set of allegedly non-conformist values and practices.)
So why should I work to define my theology?
Because doing so forces me to admit both what I believe and why I believe it. And sometimes that is not easy to do. If I cannot articulate these fundamentals of my own belief system to myself in a thoughtful and constructive way, then I will not be able to effectively communicate them to others. Thankfully, no man is an island. And the path of the God-follower was not meant to be walked alone. We are meant to work the difficult truths out with others who share our beliefs.
Theology is a full-contact team sport. (Figuratively. Not literally.)