I’m not sure at what point I can officially call myself a theologian. On one hand I kind of think that every follower of Jesus is a theologian, whether they want to use that term or not. On the other hand, not everyone is a trained or good theologian, so I tend to use that word sparingly. Yet regardless of whether one is a theologian in the professional sense, they do theology (even atheists!). Since everyone does theology, I like to reflect on what the goal of theology is. This question is often addressed by systematic theologians when they talk about Prolegomena. The Prolegomena of a theology (often found in systematics) is basically the introduction where a theologian can lay out his methods and presuppositions and things of that nature. Sometimes a theologian will even talk about what she or he believes to be the goal of theology. So how do theologians answer the question of the purpose or goal of theology?
Here are some different voices to consider. We start with Michael Horton’s recent contribution:
“Theology simply means “the study of God,” and doctrine means “teaching.” Since the main message of Scripture is the unfolding mystery of Christ, who reveals his Father and reconciles us to him, theology is a central concern of every believer. It would be odd if we told our spouse or other loved ones that we wanted to spend time with them and experience their fellowship regularly but did not want to know anything about them… Yet when it comes to God, people often imagine that it is possible to have a personal relationship with God apart from theology. In fact, some Christians assume that knowing doctrine and practical living are competing interests. The modern dichotomy between doctrine and life, theology and discipleship, knowing and doing, theory and practice has had disastrous consequences in the life of the church and its witness in the world. I hope to change some readers’ minds about systematic theology and its relevance by first changing our working assumptions about its nature, goals, and methods.” (Michael Horton, The Christian Faith)
While Robert D. Culver states that he sees it better to place his prolegomena remarks within relevant portions of his work, he writes,
“One may rightly say Christian theology is study or organized treatment of the topic, God, from the standpoint of Christianity. To leave the matter there, however, would be grossly misleading, for theology is not merely an interpretation of the meaning of God from the outside; theology is a part or aspect of Christianity itself. On a deeper level theology is of the essence of Christianity. It is so much of the essence that to dispense with theology is to dispense with Christianity.” (Robert D. Culver, Systematic Theology)
Another simple explanation can be found in Erickson’s evangelical offering:
“A good preliminary or basic definition of theology is “the study or science of God.” The God of Christianity is an active being, however, and so this initial definition must be expanded to include God’s works and his relationship with them. Thus theology will also seek to understand God’s creation, particularly human beings and their condition, and God’s redemptive working in relation to humankind.” (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology)
Grudem explains why people should study systematic theology when he writes,
“The basic reason for studying systematic theology, then, is that it enables us to teach ourselves and others what the whole Bible says, thus fulfilling the second part of the Great Commission.” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology)
Calvin interestingly starts his infamous Institutes by referring to both the knowledge of God and of self in relation to a starting point:
“For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty. In particular, the miserable ruin into which the revolt of the first man has plunged us, compels us to turn our eyes upwards; not only that while hungry and famishing we may thence ask what we want, but being aroused by fear may learn humility. For as there exists in man something like a world of misery, and ever since we were stript of the divine attire our naked shame discloses an immense series of disgraceful properties every man, being stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness, in this way necessarily obtains at least some knowledge of God. Thus, our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us, that in the Lord, and none but He, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness. We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God…” (Institutes 1.1.1)
One of my personal favorites statements about the purpose and methods required for theology is made by Sinclair Ferguson, who has said,
“The goal of theology is the worship of God. The posture of theology is on one’s knees. The mode of theology is repentance.”
I love that summary. We do theology to worship God; we do theology humbly in prayer; and we do theology by way of repentance. I love it.
What are your thoughts about these different ways in which theologians talk about the why of theology? How do you explain the purpose, goal, or reason for theology?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.