Doing Theology: The Purpose, Method, and Process

“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”[1]

In these verses Paul gives a clear picture of the purpose of doing theology. Theology done right should result in more love, knowledge, discernment, causing us to become more like Christ, bearing fruit through the power of Christ to the glory of God. Theology begins and ends with Jesus Christ. True theology is done through God’s self-revelation, the written and incarnate Word of God. Theology is the diligent and systematic exposition and explanation of the truths that God has revealed in his word. Scripture has the priority in theology, yet tradition, experience, and culture also play a role. Through Scripture God has given us a revelation sufficient for us to be able to think deeply about God and to be able to rightly concern his will and purposes. We do theology to know God better and to align our lives with his word and will. The Reformers saw doing theology as a form of Christian service and witness. John Calvin ranked the discipline of study and prayer as indispensable for Christians and Herman Bavinck called theology “holy work” and stated, “It is itself a service of worship, a consecration of mind and heart to the honor of His name.”[2]

Why continue to do theology? Like all other human endeavors, the process of theology is done within a specific context. Each theologian lives within a specific culture and point in time. Theology cannot be done in a timeless and cultureless vacuum. Because of this each theologian can only do theology within the context and time in which they live in. Each theologian will also bring their own presuppositions, knowledge, and experiences into the process of theology. No theologian, theological system, tradition, or confession can therefore be one-hundred percent correct. There does not exist one absolute theological system. We as theologians are finite and fallible creatures. Theology then must be an on-going process done in each generation. Even though this is the case, historical theology should not be overlooked. God has given insight to theologians of every era, we should study and value what those that have been before us have said.

How should theology be done? First, those doing theology should have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In order to properly understand Scripture one must be born again, theology presupposes regenerate minds, hearts, and spirits. The Holy Spirit must be the interpreter and teacher of Holy Scripture. Second, theology should be centered on the Gospel. The end goal of theology is not head-knowledge but a redeemed and changed life. We seek to know God and his word because in his grace he has saved us, this is the Gospel. Theology is also missional; it should be proclaimed for the purpose of bringing lost souls into the kingdom of God. Third, theology should have a universal outreach and be connected to the tradition of the whole church. The Reformers appealed not only to Scripture but also to the church fathers.[3]

Fourth, theology is “pentecostal,” that is, dependent on the inspiration and leading of the Holy Spirit. Theologians must acknowledge that since God is eternal, he has yet even more light to give about his Word. The Spirit however always works to glorify Christ and is never separated from the written word. New light is not new revelation, it is amplification and clarification, it does not contradict what has come before (another reason history and tradition are important). Lastly, theology must strive to be orthodox, that is not heretical. Theology should seek to be in accordance with the truth of God’s Word and should not lead to wrong doctrine.

The Process of Theology

In his book “Christian Theology” Millard J. Erickson lists ten steps in the process of developing theology.[4]

I have summarized the first eight steps:

1. Collection of Biblical Passages

The first step in the theological method must be to gather and study all passages and verses that speak about a certain topic or theme. Each passage should be properly studied and exegeted within its own context and genre.

2. Unification of the Biblical Passages

After careful study has been done with each passage and there is a clear understanding of each individual passage, a unified truth or theme should be found. The whole Bible must be taken into account when interpreting Scripture.

3. Analysis of Meaning

Once the material has been gathered together, understood, and unified, the question must be asked, “What does this mean?”

4. Looking at the Historical Treatments

At this point it may be appropriate to see what theologians of the past have said regarding the topic at hand. This may help in writing/creating your own contemporary expressions as well as insuring the conclusions of your analysis are not too far off from historical theology.

5. Consultation of Insights from Other Cultures

Along with the study of historical theology, it is also important to see what theologians from other cultures and contexts say. It is possible to be blinded by things due to our own cultural perspectives and presuppositions.

6. Identification of Essential Doctrines

When doing theology, we must distinguish between permanent Biblical truths and things that were only for a certain time and context (for example the OT sacrificial system).

7. Illumination from Extrabiblical Sources

While Scripture must be the theologians primary source, it is not the only one. For example, if humans were created in God’s own image, what does this mean and what can we learn from this? God has also revealed himself in nature, what things in nature can be observed and learned from?

8. Contemporary Expression of Doctrine

Once the essence and timeless truth has been discovered it must be communicated. The task of the theologian is to communicate it into the context in which he lives in an understandable manner. It should be noted that this does not mean to make the message acceptable to the context/culture, but it must at least be understandable.

 

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Php 1:9–11). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2] Bloesch, D. G. (2005). A theology of word & spirit: authority & method in theology (p. 112). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[3] Bloesch, D. G. (2005). A theology of word & spirit: authority & method in theology (pp. 124–125). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[4] Erickson, M. J. (2013). Christian Theology (3rd ed., p. 53). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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