What is Christian theology, and why does it matter?
What is Christian theology? In order to address this question, let us also look at the meaning of the term Theology. Theology is made up of two Greek words: theos, meaning God; and logos, meaning word. McGrath (2011),
Christian theology means the systematic study of the ideas of Christian faith, this includes: sources, development, relationships, and application (see pp. 101–102).
These four elements are vital in providing context and relevance for worship, apologetics and development of ideas for the Christian faith, in a time of advancement in science, psychology, philosophy, technology; growth in Eastern Religions and Islam. They also help in addressing the second question: why does it matter?
This definition works very well in highlighting the fundamental difference between the studies of religions (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Folk religions, etc.) in broader terms, and the study of the logos (written texts) of the God of Christians.
The texts in Jesus’ time (the Old Testament)
Giving consideration to the logos, let us capture a glimpse of the major ideological, philosophical, social, economical and spiritual influences in Jesus’ era. Firstly, the Jews were under Roman occupation, with the Romans building an empire off the back of a Greek legacy — traditionally known asGreco-Roman, the influence of Greek philosophers like Plato and Socrates who taught that knowledge is virtue still had a profound impact on the cultural values and attitudes of the Romans.
The Romans built theirs on piety or duty; expressed in relation to their duty to the state, family, friends, and gods. Most theologians also allude to the fact that Greek philosophy also had an impact on Jewish spiritual trajectory especially in relation to studying, analysis and interpretation of the scriptures. By the time the writer of Acts was writing, there were already two dominant groups taking shape within the church in Jerusalem, namely: the Hebrews and the Hellenist, the latter — Greek speaking Jews from Asia, Alexandria, Cilicia and Cyrene (Acts 6:1, 9).
Secondly, there were four major Jewish sects: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and Zealots. Thirdly, twenty-four books of inspired texts. These books were divided under the following headers: the Torah (the first five books of Moses), the prophets (the former prophets and the latter prophets), and the writing (a compilation of other books that did not fit into the first two categories). We have records in the Gospels of Jesus making reference to relevant aspects of these books in his teaching and preaching, for instance after his resurrection he said to those very discouraged disciples he met on the road to Emmaus,
“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses (Torah) and all theprophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Luke 24:25–27 NRSV)
Matthew also recorded a profound statement by Jesus, in which he said,
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17–20 NRSV).
So, after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension; his disciples continued with this tradition. They used his teachings, while studying and drawing from these books for inspiration and exegesis over the course of their ministry. For instance, Paul wrote in similar vain to Timothy,
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15 NRSV).
And in the same letter he wrote,
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16–17 NRSV).
That last sentence, “so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work”, clearly sums up how integral scriptures are to Christian theology.
As the faith began to spread abroad, mostly due to persecution, the apostles were faced with opposition from different variants of Christianity which were mostly steep in Old Testament legalism. Therefore these writings became crucial ammunition in consolidating: teaching, doctrine, worship and morality; as these communities grew. They helped in strengthening boundaries, providing authenticity, and for the development of liturgy. As time went on, more writers wrote. However, some of them were later discovered to be overzealous forgeries. The ones that passed the test and survived various upheavals are traditionally known as the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. Their writings were dated between 95 to 150 CE, most of them drawing inspiration from the biographical accounts and letters of the apostles. In the second and third century, divisions began to emerge due to varied understanding, interpretation and opinions of the texts. As a result of these developments, the need to: review, discuss, debate and formally agree on a set of authoritative text became increasingly necessary. This was made possible through the use of three main agenda items: the rule of faith, apostolic origin, and extent of use; traditionally known as — canonization. Today, the Bible as we know it consists of thirty nine Old Testament books, and twenty seven New Testament books.
Theological training or education?
In examining the subject at hand, Viola and Barna (2012) argue that Greco-Roman influence is widely evident within the four major strands of theological education, namely: episcopal (training of Bishops in performing liturgy, ceremonies and rituals), monastic (similar to the much earlier Essenes; monasteries were run by monks, they lived in communities, some were sent as missionaries), scholastic (the early emergence of what we know today as universities, starting with The University of Bologna), and seminaries (these emerged out the scholastic strand, but unlike their broader curriculum, seminaries were specifically designed for ministers of the faith).
The ideological, philosophical and academic tensions which eventually led to the developments of seminaries and Bible schools, is still very much part of the conundrum we face in the field of Christian Theology. Agreement on dates, authors, contexts, history, validity, interpretation, archaeological evidence; continues to pose a challenge among scholars.
Perhaps most damaging is the quest to provide something sensational that refutes orthodox beliefs. For instance, Ross Douthat’s (2012) mentioned in his book, how these headline grabbing discoveries cause collateral damage within Christendom. He cited an example in 2006, when the National Geographic Society held a conference just before Palm Sunday to announce that they were going to publish the ‘The lost Gospels of Judas’. According to them, The Lost Gospel of Judas challenged orthodox traditions about Judas, especially in relation to Jesus’ betrayal. Thankfully, it was later revealed by April DeConick (Professor, Rice University), that it was a botched work. In her words:
several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars’ fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field” (pp. 149, 150, and 151).
There are also cases where ‘Christian’ theologians have challenged core beliefs of the faith like: the resurrection or the virgin birth, making these claims based on empirical evidence. With this in mind, another question to consider might be: How much Christian theology do we need?
This question is addressed to a very large extent in Cornel West’s essay: The crisis of theological education,
The demystifying of European cultural hegemony, the deconstruction of European philosophical edifices, and the decolonization the third world has left theology with hardly an autonomous subject matter (hence a temptation to be excessively frivolous and meretricious in its enactments) and with little intellectually respectable resources upon which to build (Cornel West, The crisis of theological education, 1988, p.273)
This question becomes perhaps more pertinent when we consider the fact the disciples, most theologians will agree, only spent between two to three years with Jesus. They forsook all (follow me, and I will make you: Matthew 4:19), for an apprenticeship. They had on the job training (watched, served, and observed Jesus), off the job training (had regular reviews and assessments with Jesus, sometimes in groups, other times individually). If there was a curriculum, it would have been in the mind of Jesus, but as far as the evidence goes, they faced everyday challenges, mostly random — perhaps no two days were the same (Luke 10:1–12).
This method of training was first mentioned in the book of Samuel,
you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre playing in front of them; they will be in a prophetic frenzy (1 Sam. 10:2–5).
In perhaps the same way Hannah handed over young Samuel to Eli in line with her vow to Yahweh, in later scriptures we see the term the sons of the prophet being used to describe a company or band of students or disciples of prophets. (1 Kings 18:4, 1 Kings 22:6, 2 Kings 4:43).
Also when Jesus appeared to them after his crucifixion, death, and resurrection; he promised them the Holy Spirit, saying:
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:12–15).
And we saw through the New Testament this method of succession planning through apprenticeship. The apprentice(s) staying with the Apostles, the apostles investing their knowledge, wisdom and experience on their apprentice(s). These apprentices were encouraged to study the scripture and to be prayerful; depending on the Holy Spirit in the fulfillment of their various ministries.
This need for accessibility was a central thought of post-Christian theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He presciently wrote in a letter while in prison by the Nazi for his outspokenness against the Nazi regime:
The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time when inwardness and conscience — and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more”. (Letters and Papers from Prison, p.279)
Interestingly, in recent times we have an exotic range of theology, to name a few: natural theory, biblical theology, historical theology, systematic theology, dogmatic theology, practical theology, philosophical theology, pastoral theology, liberation theology, spiritual and mystical theology etc.
In medieval France there were three estates: the clergy, the nobles, and others. Interestingly the clergy was the first estate. This probably explains why the distance between the church and the masses has grown wider over the years globally. For a faith which is a part of the state’s machinery becomes easily marred with the same brush, especially when things go awfully wrong; the genocide in Rwanda and Nazi Germany, and slavery comes to mind.
I believe that the farther away we are from the origin of a subject, the more it becomes important for history and context to be provided for pilgrims and disciples alike. Therefore, Christian theology is very important for the sustainability of Christianity, and the need for effective training and education cannot be handled with levity. Saying this, my dilemma is still the question posed earlier, how much is enough?
By putting theology through unnecessary scholarly zealotry, it becomes abstract and inaccessible to converts and potential converts. So in my humble opinion, the main focus of Christian theology should be for mission and discipleship; because any other pursuit becomes futile in the long run. If we truly believe in the efficacy of our faith, then hallowing the scriptures, living it out and advocating it should be foremost on the minds of curriculum shapers and developers — it doesn’t help when a Christian is left uncertain as to who wrote the book of Hebrews.
I have seen both ends of the spectrum, I have heard pastors take scriptures out of context, bend it to prove a point, or worse still, use it for their personal agendas. I have also seen cases where theologians are constantly pushing the boundaries of theology like Formula 1 at every given opportunity. But unlike physics or engineering, Christian theology should not be used for personal gains.
I close my thoughts with a statement from Festus while Paul was making his defense: “Festus exclaimed, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!” But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth. (Acts 26:23–25 NRSV).
In a strange way his words bears a lot of resonance with a similar statement in the book of Ecclesiastes: “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:18 NRSV).
Burkett, Delbert (2002): An Introduction to New Testament and The Origins of Christ ianity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Douthat, Ross (2012): Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. New York: Free Press
Hill, Jonathan (2003): The History of Christian Thought. Oxford: Lion Hudson Plc.
Price, Ira (1889): The Schools of the Sons of the Prophets, The Old Testament Student, Vol. 8, No. 7 (Mar., 1889) (pp. 244–249)
Mcgrath, Alister (2011): Christian theology: An Introduction. Chichester: Blackwell Publishers
Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the Holy Bible, The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Victor Anderson; Yancy, George (2001): Cornel West: A Critical Reader.Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Viola, Frank and George Barna (2012): Pagan Christianity? Illinois: Tyndale