Does theology really matter? That question is important in the present evangelical community because the systematic teaching of the Word of God is not present in many churches. Theology is said not to be connected with real life and, therefore, it is disparaged. David Wells, in his insightful book “No Place For Truth” addresses the lack of theology in the life of the Church: “
The disappearance of theology from the life of the Church, and the orchestration of that disappearance by some of its leaders, is hard to miss today but, oddly enough, not easy to prove. It is hard to miss in the evangelical world – in the vacuous worship that is so prevalent, for example, in the shift from God to the self as the central focus of faith, in the psychologized preaching that follows this shift, in the erosion of its conviction, in its strident pragmatism, in its inability to think incisively about the culture, in its reveling in the irrational. And it would have made few of these capitulations to modernity had not is capacity for truth diminished. It is not hard to see these things; avoiding them is what is difficult. . . . The stakes are high: the anti-theological mood that now grips the evangelical world is changing its internal configuration, its effectiveness, and its relation to the past. It is severing the link to historical, Protestant orthodoxy. It is emancipating contemporary evangelicals to form casual alliances at will with a multitude of substitutes for this orthodoxy. And the reason for this is that what that orthodoxy had and what contemporary evangelicalism so often lacks is a theology at its center that defines the faith and prescribes the sorts of intellectual and practical relations is should establish in the world” (No Place For Truth, p. 95, 96).
Dr. D. James Kennedy concurs with Wells and writes:
“Ours is an era of malnourished church members who have been spoon-fed tapioca and cheesecake religion until their spiritual stomachs are bloated and their hearts are clogged with the cholesterol of meaningless ‘I wanna be me’ self-fulfillment” (How Do I Live For God? p. 9).
REASONS WHY PEOPLE DO NOT WANT TO STUDY THEOLOGY
On numerous occasions, I’ve heard Christians attack the study of theology. They say, “I just want to know God and live a Christian life. I don’t need to carefully understand what the Bible says about God or Christ or the plan of salvation.” I’ve often wondered how they think they can know God or have a relationship with God when they don’t want to know his self-revelation in Scripture.
There are a myriad of reasons why many people react against the idea of studying theology. Let’s examine some of the more common arguments that are given against theology and a systematic study of the Scriptures.
“I don’t want to study theology because theologians simply attack the Bible.”
Sometimes people equate the term “theology” with liberal theology that denies the central truths of Christianity. They, therefore, have an adverse reaction to the word “theology.”
It is true that liberal theology attacks the Bible at almost every point. Besides attacking the truths of Scripture, liberal theology has redefined almost every gospel truth. For example, if Peter had been a modern, liberal theologian when Jesus asked, “Who do men say that I am?” the following response could have occurred: Jesus asked, “Who do men say that I am?” The disciples replied, “Some say Elijah, others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus said, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, the modern liberal theologian answered and said, “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of being of the faith community, the kerygma manifested in conflict, the self-realization of personhood, and the motivational encounter for the socialization and humanization of mankind.” Jesus replied, “I’m what?” And then he strictly charged his disciples to tell no one who he was. Many people react against the idea of theology because that is their concept of theology.
True Christian theology is not some liberal attack on Scripture or an intellectual exercise that is divorced from practical Christian living. The word, “theology” is derived from the Greek word for God, theos. Therefore, theology is simply the study of God and what he has revealed in his Word. Christians are commanded in Scripture to be engaged in the study of what God has revealed.
“I don’t want to study theology because it’s not practical.”
Often people think of theology as some dry, dusty, academic exercise which has little to do with practical Christian living. The Puritan writer William Ames rightly observed that theology is supremely practical for the Christian life because it is that which enables us to live well unto God (The Marrow of Theology).
Theology is not separated from practical Christian living. For example, if a person wants to know Jesus, he must learn about him from the Scriptures. For a person to engage in true worship of God, he must know about the God he is worshipping from God’s self-revelation in the Scriptures. God did not send us feelings from heaven; he gave us oracles, commandments, and propositional statements about himself and his plan of salvation. For a person to have a strong faith and trust in God, to engage in worship that is honoring and acceptable to God, to pray properly, or to pursue any spiritual activity, he must have an understanding of what God has said in his Word. In the Scriptures, God has spoken concerning himself and his nature, he has instructed us on how he is to be properly worshipped, and he has revealed his plan of salvation through Christ. Without the revelation of God’s Word, there can be no true worship of God or a relationship with God. Without knowing who God is and how we can have a relationship with him from Scripture, all so-called worship, prayer, or religious activity is idolatry because it is supported only by man’s speculations about God, not by God’s self-revelation in the Bible. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “Holy affections are not heat without light, but ever more arise from some information in understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge.
The child of God is graciously affected, because he sees and understands something more of divine things than he did before, more of God or Christ, and of the glorious things exhibited in the gospel. He has a clearer and better view than he had before, when he was not affected; either he receives some new understanding of divine things, or has his former knowledge renewed after the view was decayed.” Edwards then cites: 1 John 5:7; Phil 1:9; Rom. 10:2; Col. 3:10; Psa. 43:3,4; John 6:45. He continues, “Knowledge is the key that first opens the hard heart, enlarges the affections, and opens the way for men into the kingdom of heaven; Luke 10:52: ‘Ye have taken away the key of knowledge.'” (Religious Affections, in The Collected Writings of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1, p. 281, 282).
A “Peanuts” cartoon pictured Lucy and Linus looking out the window at a steady downpour of rain. “Boy,” said Lucy, “look at it rain. What if it floods the whole world?” “It will never do that,” Linus replied confidently. “In the ninth chapter of Genesis, God promised Noah that would never happen again, and the sign of the promise is the rainbow.” “You’ve taken a great load off my mind,” said Lucy with a relieved smile. “Sound theology,” pontificated Linus, “has a way of doing that!” Linus is right; the systematic study of the great truth of Scripture put iron in the Christian’s backbone when it comes to facing daily trials and struggles.
“Theology and doctrine are not important; I just want to know Jesus.”
How can a person know Jesus, if they do not know who he is or what he has done in God’s plan of salvation? The only way a person can know Jesus is through a systematic reading and studying of the Word of God. Theology is simply the systematic study of what God has revealed; it is a technical term for the careful and systematic study of the Word of God. God commands every Christian to know his Word. The study of theology is the discipline of learning, in a systematic way, what God has spoken. D. James Kennedy, in his book Truths That Transform, writes: “Away with vain words . . . Christianity is life – not doctrine. . . . Our only creed is Christ . . . . Let us be done with dogma and go on to duty.” Familiar words? Do you believe them? Millions have. And with such shibboleths as these, the ax has been laid to the root of genuine Christianity by Satan himself. “For as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he (Prov. 23:7).” If there is anything peculiar to the Protestant churches which emerges from the Reformation, it is this: All life must be grounded in truth. That which a man believes is going to determine what he does, and the life we live will spring inevitably from the beliefs that we hold. This is why we are saved by faith, and faith is the belief of the truth and the reception of it as such.
Christianity, indeed, is not only life, but also doctrine. It is a life which is produced by belief. Those who would castigate creed and dogma and doctrine should perchance take a look again at what these words mean. The word “doctrine” comes from the Latin word docere, which means to teach. The word “creed” comes from the Latin word credo, which means I believe. The word “dogma” comes from a Greek word dokeo which means to think. Therefore, a person who has no dogma, no creed and no doctrine is a person who neither thinks, believes, or teaches. But if you are going to think anything, believe anything, and teach anything, then, my friends, you need dogma, creed, and doctrine. This is the substance which forms the foundation of the Christian faith. The problem with so many today is that they do have dogma, doctrine, and creed, but they are usually of their own making. They have mixed them up and brewed them in their own minds. The problem is not that they do not hold such, but that which they hold is corrupted by untruth and falsehood. This is the reason for the low state of morality and the apathy which is rampant in this country and the Church today. If we are going to have a vital life in the Church, then that life must spring from the truth” (p. 79,80).
“Theology isn’t important because it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.”
This objection fits well into the subjective and relativistic culture of our day. The greatest villain of our culture is the person who says that something is absolutely true and conversely its opposite is false. The study of Scripture in a systematic way informs the Christian’s mind of what is true and what is right before God. True faith has true knowledge and content about its object. Without knowledge content, faith reduced to subjective speculation that usually ends in idolatry. R. C. Sproul writes,
“A popular aphorism repeated ad infinitum (and indeed ad nauseam) in our day is this: ‘It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.’ This ‘credo’ is on a collision course with Christianity. It preaches another gospel of ‘justification by faith,’ which reveals, after a momentary second glance, that it is the very antithesis of the gospel of sola fide. This reduces justification by faith along to justification by sincerity alone.
The distortion is easy to see. It is a counterfeit concept that rests and depends on a genuine truth for it currency value. The genuine element is the element of sincerity in faith. An insincere faith justifies no one. It is a sham and has no redemptive value. Saving faith must be and is sincere faith. But it is sincere faith in a true object, in true content, not a sincere faith in false content. A person may believe that Baal is God. His faith is ‘sincere’ insofar as he truly believes the proposition ‘Baal is God’ is true. Yet my believing that a proposition is true does not make it true.
To say it does not matter what we believe as long as we believe it sincerely is to drive a sword into the heart of Christianity. It is the crassest form of relativism and subjectivism.
We live in an era that boasts of its vehement resistance to propositional truth. Truth is said to be a ‘relationship’ or ‘personal encounter.’ Existential philosophy has placed so much stress on the personal and relational character of faith that an allergy has developed against propositional or objective truth.
Again, the distortion of the counterfeit rests on the genuine for its persuasive force. Christian faith certainly does involve and require a personal, relational, subjective response. Faith is not the activity of a disinterested spectator. The passion of personal involvement and commitment of which Soren Kierkegaard wrote is certainly necessary to saving faith. But personal encounter does not negate objective and propositional truth; indeed it presupposes it. I cannot have faith in nothing. My faith must have content or an object.
Before I can have personal relationship with God or anyone else, I must first be aware of them to some degree. I must have some intelligible understanding of what or whom I am believing. I cannot have God in my heart if he is not in my head. Before I can believe in, I must believe that.
It is possible to be aware of a proposition and even affirm the truth of that proposition and still lack a personal faith in it. But I cannot have the personal relationship without any understanding, information, or knowledge of the object of my faith. A faith without an object is sheer subjectivism.” (Faith Alone, p. 76, 77).
SCRIPTURE COMMANDS SYSTEMATIC STUDY
Numerous passages in Scripture address the importance of systematic learning in the Christian life. Ephesians 4:11-15 speaks of certain ministry offices in the church and their purpose: “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ.” God has appointed teachers in the church and the implication is that God’s people are to be involved in learning and growing with the result that they would not be deceived.
The writer to the Hebrews gives a sharp rebuke to the recipients of his letter because they had neglected systematic learning: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:12-14). Notice that he says they have come to need milk and not solid food. The youngest babies need milk and not solid food. A baby is just a few months old when he begins to eat cereal and baby food. This group of people had been Christians for enough time that the expectation was they would be teachers. Instead, they needed the most elementary teaching concerning the oracles of God. This is a sharp rebuke which tragically can be applied to many who profess to know Christ today.
In the great commission, Jesus tells the disciples to take the gospel to the world, making disciples of all the nations and teaching them all that Jesus had commanded them (Matt. 18:18-20). The disciples were not just to evangelize, but to make disciples and teach them all that Jesus had commanded them. At this crucial point in redemptive history, when Jesus was giving his apostles his last instructions, he commands them to be engaged in teaching the nations what he has commanded. Systematic study and learning are a normal part of biblical Christianity. There are repeated commands in Scripture to the Christian to read, study, and build into his Christian life a systematic understanding of what God’s has spoken in his Word.
THE BENEFITS OF SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY
What are some of the benefits of a systematic study of God’s Word? There are a myriad of benefits, but I want to mention five main areas where the Christian profits from the study of theology.
First, the Christian who systematically studies the Word of God knows truth. When a Christian knows what the Bible says about something, he knows the very mind of God on the subject. Whether he is studying the person and work of Christ, the accomplishment of our salvation, or the ethical commands of God, when he knows what the Bible says, he knows what God says and, therefore, knows truth about the subject. The systematic study of Gods Word is vital for Christians to know and grow in the truths of the Gospel.
The lack of systematic study is evident in the evangelical community. For example, in the area of basic gospel truths 84 percent of evangelicals embrace the idea that in salvation God helps those who help themselves, 77 percent believe that human beings are basically good and that good people go to heaven no matter what they believe about Jesus Christ, and more than half surveyed affirmed that self-fulfillment was their first priority.
Knowing the truth of Scripture protects a Christian from falsehood whether it is the false teaching of the cults or the falsehood of irrationalism and relativism of truth that pervades our culture.
Second, the Christian who systematically studies the Word of God has a strong faith. Strong faith is based on the integrity and promises of God. As a Christian understands the attributes of God, he knows that God is faithful and able to do that which he promises; he can do what he promises in our salvation and in his care for us in our lives. The Scriptural truths of God’s sovereignty give us strength and confidence in our Christian living.
Third, the Christian who systematically studies the Word of God is able to grow in obedience to God. It is impossible to obey what you do not know. Part of systematic theology is the study of God’s ethical commands. When a Christian knows the commands of God and they are inculcated into his thinking and worldview, he is able more effectively to grow in obedience to God. Scripture informs and binds his conscience not subjective speculation.
Fourth, the Christian who systematically studies the Word of God will be equipped to teach others and make disciples. As we observed earlier, the Hebrew Christians received a sharp rebuke for not knowing the basic teachings of the gospel. They were told that by that time they should have been teachers. There is an expectation that every Christian is to grow in his knowledge of the Word of God so that he can use his particular gifts in the body of Christ. The Christian is to positively influence others for Christ and help younger Christians grow in their faith and understanding.
Systematic study prepares the Christian to instruct others and make disciples.
Finally, the Christian who systematically studies the Word of God will be equipped to influence our culture. The foundation for ethics and moral action is what God has spoken. Research done by Gallup, Barna, and Hunter indicate that, in the realm of ethics, there is no statistical difference between evangelical Christians and non-Christians in the United States at large. The study of theology directly addresses the philosophical pressures our culture brings against the Christian. The Christian who knows the Scriptures is not easy prey to the anti-Christian thought patterns of a culture that does not know God. In 1961, Peter Berger spoke of the danger of churches abandoning theology: “When churches abandon or de-emphasize theology, they give up the intellectual tools by which the Christian message can be articulated and defended. In the resulting chaos of religious ideas the principal criterion left to the community as it seems to find its way is, quite naturally, that of expediency” (Noise Of A Solemn Assembly, p. 121). Without a strong and systematic understanding of the Word of God, the Christian is not equipped to resist the culture or influence it positively in terms of a Christian worldview.
At Covenant of Grace Church, we have a concern to help Christians systematically grow in their understanding of the Word of God. We want to help and challenge God’s people to know and apply what God has revealed in Scripture. We encourage you to get involved in some of the Bible study opportunities in the church and to take advantage of some of the books and videos available in our church library. In this regard, we want to fight against the tendency in present American Christianity to de-emphasize or ignore theology.
Theology does matter! It is vital to a healthy, productive, growing Christian life and to an effective church that desires to influence this culture.
Recommended resources on this subject: No Place For Truth by David Wells; No God, But God edited by Os Guinness; Dining With The Devil by Os Guinness; Essential Truths of the Christian Faith and Knowing Scripture by R. C. Sproul; Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman.