Learning,  Theology

What’s Theology?

What is theology? Is it the science of God,[34] the study of world religions or the enjoyment of God?[35] Is it practical, theoretical or existential?[36] Is it a systematic study of belief or a study of the development of the bible’s themes?[37] To some extent theology, broadly construed, might mean all those things. David Finkbeiner offers a definition in attempt to cover all the bases: “Theology is the significant reflection on the God of the Bible including his nature, person, works and will and his interaction with the world in general and human beings in particular based on his revelation of himself.”[38] The definition is God-specific, emphasizes the revealed nature of the source material, encompasses both God’s relationship to creation and his salvific purposes for humanity, and delineates the subject of study theo-centrically.

Okay, so how do you do theology? The question of theological method is a question of discipline. A discipline is a specialization of inquiry directed towards a subject matter. Importantly:

Each discipline gives its particular shape to the fluid spirit of inquiry. Each develops its own heuristic, that is, its own principles and methods of discovery. Each devises its own special categories, its own conceptual system. Each claims the prerogative of formulating its own criteria for judging the validity of what is put forward by scholars in the filed. Each has its own sense, diffuse and debated though it might be, of what the integrity of the discipline requires.[39]

Nelson’s taxonomy helps us to understand the interdisciplinary challenge of the theological task. Theological disciplines, no less than non-theological disciplines, develop their own methods, conceptual frameworks, and criteria for judging the quality of the work. The theologian’s craft today is multi-disciplined. There are at least four and up to seven distinct disciplines suggested under the umbrella of theology.[40]

Exegetical theology is the discipline of discovering the author’s meaning in the text. Biblical theology is the study of themes and their development within the texts, corpi, testaments, and canon of the Bible. Historical theology studies the development of doctrine in the history of the church (diachronic) and the doctrinal positions of particular times and theologians (synchronic). Dogmatic theology studies and formulates the creeds and theological positions of churches both historically and contemporaneously. Philosophical theology focuses on utilizing philosophical methods in formulating doctrines coherently and mounting defenses of those doctrines through persuasive argument. Systematic theology builds from all the other disciplines organizing the data into a system that is contextually appropriate. Practical theology works to apply the findings of theology to the life and ministry of the church and the Lord’s people.

Naturally there is much overlap between the disciplines, but each one conforms to Nelson’s taxonomy. Though much ink is spilled in the attempt to turn a multiplicity of disciplines into the correct interdisciplinary activity I am yet to be persuaded that such a project is not perhaps determined by one’s own theological preference.

Perhaps the most debated is the place of philosophy within the theological task. There are some who would place philosophy at a higher place than others.[41] Some writers even suggest that philosophy has no place within the discipline.[42] My own view is that though there is multiplicity of disciplines and a certain amount of disciplinary autonomy, there is a common purpose involved in the task. All should in some way, no matter how indirectly, serve the purpose of the church in its ministry to the Lord’s people and for the task of world evangelization.[43] I am indebted to my professor at Moody Bible Institute for the proposal that the philosopher who works in theological studies must have a servant’s heart: he seeks to serve the theologian and not to rule. This task, he told us, is very unlike the philosopher-king Plato had in mind.[44] I take the task of philosophical theology to be a conceptual task concerned with clarity and logical argumentation applied to a particular body of knowledge (in this case, theology).[45]

[34] Millard Erikson, Introducing Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 18.
[35] Mark Shaw, Doing Theology with Huck and Jim (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1993), 23.
[36] Kevin Vanhoozer attempts to combine orthodoxy with orthopraxy, or “believing practice” in Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 113.
[37] “‘Christian Theology’ is… a systematic study of the fundamental ideas of the Christian faith.” Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001), 139.
[38] David Finkbeiner. 2009. “Theology in General.” Lecture, Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, January 15.
[39] Ronald R. Nelson, “Faith-Discipline Integration: Compatibilist, Reconstructionalist, and Transformationalist Strategies,” in The Reality of Christian Learning eds. Harold Heie and David Wolfe (St. Paul, MN: Christian College Consortium, 1987), 318.
[40] Gordon Clark suggests four: historical, biblical, philosophical and systematic: Clark, 165-193.
[41] One might think of Aquinas and the scholastic project on the one hand and Barth and certain strands of reformed thought on the other.
[42] For a discussion of the place of analytic philosophy in the theological project see: Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology eds. Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
[43] In my own discipline Alvin Pantinga argues that the primary purpose for the Christian philosopher is to serve the church: Alvin Plantinga. (1984). “Advice to Christian Philosophers.” Faith and Philosophy 1 (3):253-271.
[44] Bryan O’Neal. 2009. “Philosophical Theology and Apologetics.” Lecture, Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, February 12.
[45] Oliver Crisp, “On Analytic Theology,” in Analytic Theology, 35.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.