What Is Theology?

Here I am asking only about Christian theology, not philosophical or theologies of non-Christian religions.

Here is the best brief definition of Christian theology I have read: “Theology…attempts critically to review the assertions Christians make. They are tested in light of the real actions of God. For Christians do not make their assertions at random; they are of the opinion that in making them they are doing justice to God; they believe they are correctly saying that God is as they say.” (A. Van de Beek, “Why? On Suffering, Guilt, and God,” pp. 253-254)

Now, having said that, the author (van de Beek) goes on later in the book that “No theology is perfect. We are always looking for a better model.” (P. 314)

Now that is what I mean by “postconservative theology,” we are always looking for better models but ones that do better justice to the whole of God’s self-revelation than ones earlier developed. That does not mean we will necessarily always find one(s).

To a very large extent, then, the theologian’s task is a thankless one, especially among Christians who are strongly committed to their own models and formulations of beliefs.

Emil Brunner acknowledged this and used the illustration of a tester of produce in a grocery store. He or she takes what is meant for consumption (eating) and examines it for its nutritional value and possible poisonous effects  caused by chemicals or etc. What would we think of someone watching this process saying “Food is meant to be eaten and enjoyed, not broken down in a laboratory and critically tested and examined!” Why, then, do so many Christians object to what theologians do?

Well, the answers are fairly obvious. Some theologians go too far, just as some food testers go too far—for example in attempting to change food. Should all food sold in stores be organic? Maybe, but maybe not. Should some foods be banned because they are dangerous for some people (e.g., peanuts)? Probably not.

But the process of theology is essential because there are so many versions of “Christianity” out there around us, in the world. Some of them are not only imperfect but downright wrong and therefore bad because God cares what we think about him.

One trend in recent years is for theologians to reduce theology to ethics; that is they test Christian messages and beliefs ONLY on the basis of what THEY think they may do—such as support abuse. (Here I am referring back to my previous post about the false claim that atonement belief amounts to “divine child abuse” and therefore justifies abuse of women and children.)

I am not saying that theology and ethics should be kept in water-tight compartments separate from each other. Far from it. I happen to believe that Christian ethics should be guided by good Christian theology. The trend is the other way, though. Various kinds of liberation theologies, protest theologies, have pushed real theology aside in many universities, colleges and seminaries.

Just saying that traditional or new beliefs labeled “Christian” need occasional new examination and consideration does NOT mean “anything goes.” A new, replacement model such as N. T. Wright’s view of justification needs to establish itself scripturally and in terms of God’s acts in history. Some theologians today would subject it to psychological and sociological analysis using their own standards of judgment that have nothing to do with scripture, tradition, reason or Christian experience (the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”).

But neither should conservative Christians react to Wright’s revision of the traditional Protestant (mainly Lutheran and Reformed) doctrine of justification by simply saying “If it’s new it can’t be true and if it’s true it can’t be new.” Think of how that would have canceled Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone.

I mentioned the book “Why? On Suffering, Guilt, and God” by Dutch theologian A. Van de Beek (Eerdmans, 1990). It’s an excellent example of what I mean by “postconservative evangelical theology.” So excellent that I have read it three times and almost every sentence in my old copy is underlined either either red, blue or green! It’s a book about God that rejects many traditional formulations of doctrine about God (e.g., “perfect being theology”) and relies solely on scripture while taking into account world events—to drive him, the author, and us, the readers, back to the Bible to reconsider whether the majority view of God among Christians is really true.

But theologians who argue that Jesus’s death on the cross was nothing more than a martyrdom and a symbol of evil are simply not reading the whole Bible but are following the example of Thomas Jefferson who truncated the New Testament to make it contain only that with which he could agree based on his own “Enlightenment” thinking.

Roger Olson

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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