So what does theology have to do with me?
For many Christians, the word 'theology' is a very negative word. It conjures up images of old books, dead writers, ivory tower academics and irrelevant discussions. It seems to over-complicate what is - at one level - a simple gospel. Surely John 3:16 - the great statement that 'God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life' - is enough?
Yet even a well-known verse like John 3:16 raises some interesting questions. What is the relation between God and his Son? What does Son even mean in this context? What is the significance of the word loved? Or the word so? How are we to understand the word world? What does it mean for someone to perish? What does someone have to believe in order not to perish? And why is eternal life - whatever it is - preferable to perishing?
My point is not that one has to know the answers to these questions in order to present the gospel from John 3:16; it is simply that the moment we begin to probe into the meaning, and under the surface of words, we cannot help asking them.
Indeed, when we start probing, we cannot stop. Is the God of John 3:16 the same as the God of John 1:1 ('In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God')? Is the Son of John 3:16 the same person (being? thing?) as the Word of John 1:1? If so, when we say God gave his only Son, how does that relate to John's statement that the Word was God? Did God give himself?
It is not enough for serious readers of the Bible to look at individual words in isolated verses; probing their meaning leads us to ask about the relation of concepts throughout the Bible. And that is what theology is - examining the meaning of the statements of the Bible in their immediate context and in the context of the Bible as a whole to answer the question 'What does the Bible say about . . .?
What does ‘theology’ mean?
But if that is what theology does, what does the word mean? 'Theology' is made up of two Greek words, the word for 'God' (theos), and the word for a 'word' or a 'concept' (logos). That means that the word 'theology' can have a narrow and a wide sense.
In its narrow sense, 'theology' is the concept, or the doctrine of God. Sometimes theologians talk about 'theology proper', referring to this strict meaning of the word. In this sense, theology asks questions specifically about God: who is God? what is he like? how do we know he exists? what does he do? how do we relate to him?
In its wider sense, however, no topic in the Bible is unrelated to God; it is not unreasonable to say that everything in the Bible is about God. Even what it teaches about man, and creation, and Jesus, and salvation, and history, is all about God, since everything relates to him. So in this sense theology is simply reflecting on all the major topics of the Bible, recognising that it is God who reveals them to us.
But we study theology for a very practical reason: to know God and what he teaches will impact our lives. If we can read and study the Bible without it connecting with our daily lives, then we are missing the point. As the great Puritan William Perkins put it, theology is simply 'the science of living blessedly forever'. Or, to return to John 3:16, it is to have eternal life.
What does theology do?
One of the questions we asked at the outset was - 'what is eternal life?'. Jesus answers that question for us in John 17:3 when he says that 'this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent'. Knowing God is what theology is all about, and eternal life is what it produces. So - every Christian is a theologian!
But theology - knowing God - does four things specifically.
It engages our mind.
God gave us a book to read and study, and minds with which to do so. We cannot see God, but we can hear him, and we are to love him with our minds (Matt. 22:37). We read his words, think about them, apply our reason to them, and reflect on them. That is what Peter means when he counsels us to 'prepare our minds for action' (1 Pet. 1:13); living the Christian life is not a mindless, shallow life built on emotionalism. It is a life of engagement with God's words, of being 'renewed in the spirit of our minds' (Eph. 4:23).
It moves our heart.
But engaging with God's words is not empty of feelings and emotions. To the believer, God's words taste sweet, like honey (Psa. 19:10). They produce delight (Psa. 1:2; 119:24) and desire (Psa. 119:40). They produce humility, contrition and even trembling (Isa. 66:2). Above all, they are written so that we will have joy in God (1 John 1:4). Theology is not heartless!
It engages our will.
Studying what God says about himself will lead to us desiring the things God desires and choosing what will please him. David's prayer in Psalm 119:34 was 'Give me understanding that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart'. What we read will influence what we choose.
It transforms our life.
Studying God's words will lead to us growing in likeness to Christ with lives that reflect the image of Jesus Christ. The word of Christ dwells in us as we dwell in it (Col. 3:16), with the result that our lives show that we have been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).
Rev. Iain D. Campbell is minister of the Free Church of Scotland at Point, Isle of Lewis.
Taken with permission from Day One Magazine, June-September 2012.