Definitions – Theology

In my thought world nothing is as important as theology. In my spiritual family, nothing is as ridiculed and dismissed as theology. Which makes for some interesting self-talk. Some might question why I spend so much time doing something that no one believes is important. In providing an answer I return to my mantra for this series – it is all in how you define – and understand – the meaning of a word.

In the history of the Churches of Christ, no word is as abused as the word theology. Virtually every promoter of the American Restoration Movement dismissed it, and it would be very difficult to find any prominent leader who would embrace it. The first college associated with the Disciples of Christ/Churches of Christ (Alexander Campbell’s Bethany College) included a specific clause that prohibited the establishment of a professor of theology. Theology, to many early Restoration leaders, was anathema. Their hatred of the practice, and even of the word, has had lasting influence. In my university training we did not have courses in theology – we took courses in The Religious Teaching of the Old Testament, but nary a word about Old Testament theology.

This dismissal of a perfectly good and useful word is one of the great mistakes of these spiritual giants. I will defend Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Moses Lard, Walter Scott, David Lipscomb, et. al., even when I disagree with them, but in this instance they just made a horrible mistake. The huge irony with their mistake is that they were all – every bloomin’ one of them – exquisite theologians. They wrote, and preached, some of the best theology this world has read and heard.

The fact is that any time God, Jesus, the Bible, or any topic mentioned therein, is under discussion, there is theology. Everyone who says or thinks about God or the Bible is practicing theology. If you say God created the world, you are making a theological statement. If you say that baptism is necessary for salvation you are practicing theology. If you make a comment in Bible class that you believe the book of Revelation describes what happens after the day of judgement, you are making a theological judgment.  You just cannot be a student of the Bible and avoid being a student of theology.

As with so many other disciplines, there are a number of sub-groups within the larger field of theology, and here is where Campbell (and his co-workers) made their big mistake. They were reacting against one sub-set of theology, but they “threw the baby out with the bathwater” as the old saying goes, when they dismissed the entire discipline because of the abuse of one small part of it. Theology in its largest sense is made up of a bewildering number of smaller subjects – just a few of which are:

  • Christology – the study of Jesus.
  • Pneumatology – the study of the Holy Spirit.
  • Eschatology – the study of the “last days.”
  • Ecclesiology – the study of the church.
  • Soteriology – the study of salvation.

To expand the horizon ever further, there is the formal study of Old Testament theology, New Testament theology, Biblical theology, the study of human sin, of grace, of prayer, and even of ethics. In fact, the study of theology is truly extensive. To continue to expand the horizon, each and every one of these smaller segments of theology can be performed on a number of different levels – from the coffee shop table, to the preacher’s study, all the way to the academician’s ivory tower, and a number of stops along the way.

To return to the early leaders of the Restoration Movement – what they were objecting to can be described as dogmatic theology, as opposed to systematic theology. They were all engaged in systematic theology – Campbell and Lipscomb both wrote volumes that could be called systematic theologies. Campbell even called his book The Christian System! So don’t try to argue with me that these leaders were not theologians.

So, what were these pioneers objecting to? While some use the words dogmatic theology and systematic theology synonymously, there is in the most specific usage a significant difference. Dogmatic theology is written for a specific religious group, it is authoritative, and those who are given the power to promote and defend that group are not allowed to stray from it. It is basically creedal in form – “This is what we believe, and if you do not accept this teaching, you cannot be a part of this church.” Thus you have Catholic dogmatic theologians, Lutheran dogmatic theologians, Anglican dogmatic theologians, etc. What Campbell, et.al., recognized was that dogmatic theology is divisive theology. They believed, correctly, I would agree, that the only authoritative word is the Word of God. We might opine on any number of subjects, but we cannot demand that anyone bow their knee to our understanding – only to the inspired Word of God.

Systematic theology, on the other hand, is more general, and does not purport to be authoritative, although it does attempt to be thorough. Systematic theologians say, in effect, “This is what the Bible says about “X” subject, and while I have attempted to be complete, there may be more to be said on this subject.” Campbell, Stone, Lipscomb and many others were consummate systematic theologians. Every preacher who has ever delivered a sermon is a systematic theologian. Every Christian who has ever had a conversation about God, Jesus, the church, sin, salvation, the Holy Spirit, prayer, or the meaning of the parables is a systematic theologian – just in varying degrees of expertise.

Let us be done with our rejection of the word theology. It is a great word, and an even greater discipline. Let us be wary of being dogmatic, but let us never weary of promoting the proper and necessary study of the Word of God.

**For those who are interested, there is a marvelous little book devoted to this subject entitled, Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God by Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, published by InterVarsity Press, 1996. It is perhaps one of the finest books introducing theology that I have read. I have some other resources that you might be interested in – if you are curious just comment here and I will provide those titles as well.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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