The Definition of Theology, an Excerpt from Christian Theology

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of Christian Theology, by Millard Erickson.

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The Definition of Theology

A good preliminary or basic definition of theology is the study or science of God. The God of Christianity is an active being, however, and so this initial definition must be expanded to include God’s works and his relationship with them. Thus theology will also seek to understand God’s creation, particularly human beings and their condition, and God’s redemptive working in relation to humankind.

Yet more needs to be said to indicate what this science does. So we propose a more complete definition of theology: the discipline that strives to give a coherent statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith, based primarily on the Scriptures, placed in the context of culture in general, worded in a contemporary idiom, and related to issues of life. This definition identifies five key aspects of the task of theology.

Cover Art1. Theology is biblical. It takes as the primary source of its content the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. This is not to say that it simply draws uncritically on surface meanings of the Scriptures. It utilizes the tools and methods of biblical research. It also employs the insights of other areas of truth, which it regards as God’s general revelation.

2. Theology is systematic. That is, it draws on the entire Bible. Rather than utilizing individual texts in isolation from others, it attempts to relate the various portions to one another to coalesce the varied teachings into some type of harmonious or coherent whole.

3. Theology also relates to the issues of general culture and learning. For example, it attempts to relate its view of origins to the concepts advanced by science (or, more correctly, such disciplines as cosmology), its view of human nature to psychology’s understanding of personality, its conception of providence to the work of philosophy of history, and so on.

4. Theology must also be contemporary. While it treats timeless issues, it must use language, concepts, and thought forms that make some sense in the context of the present time. There is danger here. Some theologies, in attempting to deal with modern issues, have restated the biblical materials in a way that has distorted them. Thus we hear of the very real “peril of modernizing Jesus.”  In attempting to avoid making Jesus just another twentieth- or twenty-first-century liberal, however, theologians sometimes state the message in such a fashion as to require the present-day person to become a first-century person in order to understand it. As a result, one finds oneself able to deal only with problems that no longer exist. Thus, the opposite peril, “the peril of archaizing ourselves,” must similarly be avoided. This is not merely a matter of using today’s thought forms to express the message. The Christian message should address the questions and the challenges encountered today, even while challenging the validity of some of those questions. Yet even here there needs to be caution about too strong a commitment to a given set of issues. If the present represents a change from the past, then presumably the future will also be different from the present. A theology that identifies too closely with the immediate present (i.e., the “today” and nothing but) will expose itself to premature obsolescence.

5. Finally, theology is to be practical. By this we do not mean practical theology in the technical sense (i.e., how to preach, counsel, evangelize, etc.), but the idea that theology relates to living rather than merely to belief. The Christian faith gives us help with our practical concerns. Paul, for instance, gave assurances about the second coming and then said, “Encourage each other with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18). It should be noted, however, that theology must not be concerned primarily with the practical dimensions. The practical effect or application of a doctrine is a consequence of the truth of the doctrine, not the reverse.

©2013 by Millard Erickson. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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