For the past week, I’ve been thinking about the question: “What good is theology?” I started thinking about it after skimming this post by Michael Spencer. Later, when I had the time, I went back and read what he said more closely and began to think about a similar (yet rhetorical) question that he posed: “How does theology matter….” particularly to Christians?
I think one way to understand how theology matters is to look at some specific theological positions (opinions, beliefs, etc) and examine their impact. Attempting to answer the question in this manner runs the risk of being perceived as overly pragmatic. By that I mean that some might get the impression that so long as the impact is positive (an admittedly subjective term) the theological position in question is acceptable, without regard for whether or not it is Biblical and / or true. This is not what I think, but I’ll follow this tact and take the chance of being misunderstood.
Before looking at the impact of specific theological positions, I want to take a moment to explain what I mean when I use the word “theology”. Theology is one of those words that get a lot of use within certain communities where people assume that they’re talking about the same thing but they really aren’t. For example, “theology” to some is an academic term used to speak about a particular kind of study, perhaps even a course or program of study. For others, “theology” is whatever opinions / beliefs that a person has about God and / or religion. Recently, I read one blogger who seems to use the word “theology” to speak about a particular way of living one’s life. For the sake of clarity, I think it’s important for me to state up front that I’ll be using “theology” in the academic sense…unless I decide to use it in the sense of an opinion because doing so serves my purpose. 🙂
Let’s start out by looking at the Pharisees. The theology of the Pharisee articulated an understanding of God as one who loved Jews and hated Gentiles. They characterized God as favoring the ritually clean over the ritually unclean. they also saw God as one who materially and physically rewarded righteousness while inflicting poverty and illness upon the wicked. To put in the KJV vernacular, they considered God a “respecter of persons”. Jesus apparently thought that the Pharisees’ theology mattered enough to address it in both His actions and His speech. To counter their erroneous theology, Jesus touched the unclean, ate with sinners and took on the religious establishment’s misuse of the temple. He also characterized the impact of the Pharisees’ theology as tying “heavy burdens and laying them on they people” while they were not interested in bearing the same burdens themselves. Jesus also said that the Pharisees on one occasion “condemned the innocent” and characterized converts to their religious views as “twice the son of hell that you are.” The theology of the Pharisees mattered because it left people who followed them burdened, condemned and cursed.
Christians do the same thing to each other today with our ill-conceived theology. A contemporary example of a poor conception of God and its impact on Christians can be found in the book, “The Power of a Praying Parent” by Stormie Omartian. One anecdote in the book tells of her teenage son’s survival of a horrible car accident which she credits to her diligent prayers for his safety which began at his birth. Ok. The problem comes when she says;
“Of course, Satan can do a lot of damage if we don’t teach our children God’s ways and God’s Word and help them to respect God’s laws, and if we don’t discipline them, guide them, and help them learn to make godly choices. The Bible tells us, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it”. When we don’t do these things, our children can fall into rebellion and make choices that take them out from under the umbrella of God’s protection. Prayer and proper instruction in the ways and words of God will make sure that does not happen…”
While it is entirely possible for a parent to do all of the things stated and still have children who “fall into rebellion”, you don’t get that impression from her. Instead, she leaves the clear impression that God protects those children whose parents do these right things and pray for them. Conversely, it sounds like God won’t protect those children whose parent don’t do these things. Doesn’t it sound a bit like the Pharisees’ belief that God afflicts the religiously deficient and the wicked, while He favors the pious? So, what happens if the child of the devout parent turns “bad”? Is the fault with the parental training? With the parental prayers? To be completely fair, Omartian makes a statement in her book that she doesn’t mean to say that failure to pray “against” specific evils in her childrens’ lives will result in God not protecting them. Yet, this is precisely what she seems to indicate repeatedly. God comes across as a meticulous micro-manager whose hands are tied until we say a prayer. Until we do our children are vulnerable. Consequently, when we fail to pray, we are culpable when bad things happen to our children and ourselves. Again, the impact of the theology behind these teachings is Christians who are “harassed and helpless”.
Despite how it might seem, theology does have a positive impact on Christians. Predictably, the best illustration of this is Jesus who fully manifested the character of God when He lived among us. In the miracles of Jesus we see that God is powerful. In His choice of companions, we see that God is welcoming. In the teaching of Jesus we see that God is wise. Through the parables we learn that God is both loving and just. Jesus unburdened those who trusted Him. Their guilt was erased and their shame was taken away. As it was when He lived in a body, so it is today when He lives through His Body, the church…at least, when the Church is at her best. It’s easy to see why Michael Spence advocates a Christocentric theology.
Theology is necessarily limited. Some aspects of God are knowable through nature. Other aspects are only knowable by revelation. Eternity will be spent experiencing other aspects of God’s character which are not knowable by mortals as we are now. Yet, despite our limited ability to comprehend God, theology is important because what we believe about His character affects how we relate to His creation, particularly His “new creations”, our fellow Christians.