The formal study of theology often begins with defining theology. This inevitably includes some discussion on how theology is “the study of God.” This definition, though technically correct and beneficial in the context of academia and the science of theology, is an inadequate portrayal of the meaning and goal of theology as presented in Scripture. No doubt the study of God is an important component of theology, but it is not the whole story. A holistic understanding of theology considers the source, context, and goal of theology.
Scripture provides the primary source of theological knowledge. It shapes our understanding of God, humanity, and the world in which we live. Scripture provides the answers to humanity’s most profound questions related to identity, suffering, and redemption.
As it relates to knowledge, the academic study of theology serves the church in many ways. Dividing theology into the various disciplines of systematic, biblical, historical, philosophical, applied, etc., provides opportunities for scholars to analyze elements of theological study that would otherwise not be possible. However, the fruits of these disciplines cannot remain in isolation. Scripture demands an understanding of theology that is not just knowledge about God from the perspective of a specific discipline, but one that is integrated throughout.
If Scripture is the primary source of theology, then the integration of theological disciplines must always be understood in reference to the message of Scripture. In simple terms that message is, Jesus rescues his people. This means that theology must be Christocentric. Any theology that does not consider its relationship to Christ and his gospel remains near-sighted. It misses the forest for the trees.
The object of Jesus’ rescuing work, the people of God, provides the context of theology. In Scripture, theology is always taught and learned as it relates to the corporate people of God. Theology cannot be understood apart from the people of God, the church. Theology is meant to be done by the church and for the church. In his classic work A Little Exercise for Young Theologians Helmut Thielicke writes, “As we are determined to be true theologians, we think within the community of God’s people, and for that community, and in the name of that community.” Any theology that is not considered in ecclesial context remains only partially developed.
One reason for this is that theology is not for mere knowledge. If this were so, the academic context would suffice. True theology is never simply abstract concepts, but always fleshed out as a means of interpreting human experiences in the world. It serves as the interpretive lens for us in understanding God and the world. It is for shaping the heart, not just the mind. Doing theology in the context of the church forces us to make sure we are taking theology where it is meant to go—into our hearts and hands. Additionally, the ecclesial context pushes us to think beyond our own hearts and hands to the hearts and hands of the body of Christ. Theology leads not only to a particular way of thinking and living, but a way of thinking and living together with others. It is by its very nature corporate.
This particular way of together thinking and living provides the goal of theology—mission. Just as theology cannot be understood apart from the ecclesial context, it likewise cannot be understood apart from ecclesial mission. The aim of Genesis 1-2 is an earth filled with humanity that trusts the Lord as their sovereign. Though sin derails humanity’s ability to accomplish this, the goal remains as God promises redemption and restoration. One of the ways the reality of redemption and restoration is visibly made known to all peoples is through God’s transformed people serving as a light to the nations. As God’s people are transformed and claim their rightful King together, the beauty of their sovereign’s redemption is made known. Any theology that does not find its bearings in relation to this mission is not Christian theology.
With Scripture as our guide, we see that theology is ultimately not an exercise belonging to the academy or the individual, though each are important participants. Instead, the full maturity of theology can only be understood in the context of our Lord’s bride and the mission she is entrusted with of proclaiming his excellences.
Cory Wilson is a pastor at City Church in Cleveland, OH. He also serves as Adjunct Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at John Carroll University. Cory holds a Ph.D. from Reformed Theological Seminary and is a member of the St. Peter Fellowship of the Center For Pastor Theologians.