Updated: Feb 9, 2022
The Spiritual Discipline of doing Theology Well
I’ve heard it said before that the average church-goer is not interested in theology.
Think for a minute, how would you respond to that statement?
-In one sense, I get the statement and agree to a point. The average church-goer is probably not interested in academic theology. That is, reading the big, thick theological textbooks, learning and using the big five-dollar words, and writing pages-long essays on various topics.
Those interested in that type of theology tend to be fewer than the number of weekly church-goers. And that’s understandable.
The problem, however, is when we limit our understanding of theology to academic theology. The word theology simply means, “the study of God.”
And that’s what Christians do…they study and know God.
Theology can take on several forms:
-There is Academic theology, which tends to live in the Seminaries and other academic settings. It concerns itself with theological positions and systems, and lives in big books. It is necessary, but not overly accessibly to most people.
There is Pastoral theology, which is what Pastors do in their day-to-day ministry. They wrestle with how to understand and apply God’s Word in the real lives of the people they shepherd and lead.
And then there is Practical theology. This is the real life, ground level, lived experience of following God in the world day-by-day. This is what we're talking about.
Practical theology concerns itself with things like...
How do I pray?
How do I understand the Bible?
What is heaven?
How do I handle stress and anxiety?
What does it mean to be a good husband/wife?
What is the Church?
How should I think about burial practices?
Which holidays are okay to celebrate and which aren't?
These are the practical, real-life questions of theology.
-When we say no to theology simply because we lump all theology under “academic,” it's basically like preparing for a marathon by cutting our legs off. We need a solid, thorough, and stable understanding of God in order to live the Christian life.
If most Christians were asked, “Do you want to grow in your faith?” I think most would respond positively. We want to grow, mature, and be more faithful to the Lord.
But if Christians were asked, “Do you want to read theology?,” would the response be similar? I don’t think so…and I think this because there seems to be a breakdown in how we understand studying God.
In Titus 1:1, Paul gives an incredible reason for his letter stating, “...for the sake of the faith of God’s elect, and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life…”
When Paul says he’s writing for the sake of the faith of God’s people, his point is that his letter and teaching are meant to grow their faith; to increase it. He desires that they grow strong and become sturdy in God.
We need to pay attention here…
If faith is to increase—and Paul says that it is (Eph. 4:15)—it will increase not with less Bible, but with more. The more we know God through His Word, the more we know God Himself, the greater our faith will become.
Biblically, faith in God is linked with knowledge of God. The word translated “knowledge” in Titus 1:1 literally means “recognizing what is true.” It’s a mental activity.
The Christian faith is not a blind faith; it is not a faith that shuns the life of the mind. On the contrary, it is a faith that is grounded in knowledge of what is most true.
So, we are to study, press in, explore, and understand. God desires to be known. And in knowing God, we grow in our faith.
In fact, Hebrews 5:11-6:1 tells us that not studying theology harms our faith; when we do not pursue the deep things of the faith we remain as spiritual infants unable to properly care for ourselves, helpless in every way.
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God…”
So, theology is not something to be avoided. Rather, it is the path to life for the Christian. Theology is what gives us strong legs and conditioned lungs for the marathon of faith. The maturing Christian understands that the goal of theology is learning to apply God’s Word specifically to all of life.
For example, it does no one any favors to generally believe that God has mercy on sinners. But it makes all the difference when we reflect deeply on all the ways God has been merciful to us; and then do the work of making sure we are actively promoting God’s mercy by how we live.
Are we merciful people? Are we being merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful?
The spiritual discipline of doing theology well means that, day by day, year by year, we are learning to apply God’s truth to our lives more and more faithfully and thoroughly. And as we grow in our knowledge of God and maturity of faith, the more deeply we will see our need for Him.
How does God’s forgiveness apply to my life? My marriage? My parenting? My past? My personal regrets? Etc.
Am I forgiving as God does, or am I behaving more like the ungrateful servant of Matthew 18 who really didn’t understand what he had been forgiven of? He was grateful to have received forgiveness himself, but he failed to apply it throughout the rest of his life.
He did not understand forgiveness because he did not understand the Master.
Theology gets into the weeds of our lives and helps us to know what things like mercy, grace, forgiveness, patience, long-suffering, joy, mean…but also how they change us and shape us.
Theology helps us to see how the truths of Scripture connect very meaningfully to our everyday lives.
It helps us to get really specific with our faith, because when we learn to get specific, we find the real help of Jesus.
The Christian life is about getting honest and specific about applying the specific Truth of God’s Word to every area of our lives:
God’s Word speaks specifically to each of these. Are we listening? Are we applying it? Are we submitting to it?
One final thing…
One other aspect of this that bears mentioning is this: God intends for us to do this theology in His community, in His Church.
Theology is never meant to be an individual activity only. In fact, it is more of a group activity than it is an individual one. In saving us, God places us within His community where Christian brothers and sisters are working out the things of God together.
I’ll be exploring this idea more in a future post.