Why Does Theology Matter?
Sometimes I can hear from Christian friends this sentiment, “why do we talk so much about theology? Just give me Jesus, and show me how to follow him. ” With this article, I hope to help you see that theology doesn’t just matter, it’s vitally important for us to know, glorify, enjoy, and worship our Lord Jesus. But before we can start with the why’s, it’d be a good idea to help give a common foundation for what theology is and where it should be formed from.
What is theology?
Theology is a word made up of two Greek words: theos and logia. Logia is Greek for word or oracle, which used as a suffix gives us the meaning of study of. Theos is simply the Greek word for god. So, theology is simply the study of God or the study of the nature and character of God. Within theology, we have a few common areas of study: biblical (meaning how theology is developed within the grand narrative of redemptive history), systematic (meaning how each doctrine in particular is seen throughout the Scriptures and how they are ordered and related to each other), natural (meaning the study of how the character and nature of God is revealed through nature/general revelation), and practical (this focuses on how all theology is intrinsically practical for our Christian living).
Most of us, without even realizing it tend to talk about theology from a systematic perspective, since we tend to talk about one topic and see how all of Scripture speaks to that topic. For example, when you have your debates among your friends about Calvinism and Arminianism, what you’re doing is discussing the topic of soteriology which is the study of salvation within systematic theology. Or another example would be when you’re thinking about God’s attributes. As you dive into each attribute, seeing how each one is displayed in God’s Word, then what you’re doing is a systematic theological approach to Theology Proper, a.k.a. the Doctrine of God. So ultimately, whether you knew it or not, whenever you think about God, his nature, his character, his redemptive work, our sinfulness, etc. you’re thinking of theology! This is why the next question of where we should formulate our theology from is so important.
Where, or from what, should I formulate my theology?
The simplest answer to this questions is the most obvious: the Scriptures. Our primary source in shaping our theology must be God’s Word itself since it’s the special revelation that is the only inerrant and infallible source we have. As 2 Timothy 3:16a tells us, “All scripture is breathed out by God.” While scripture was written by human authors, each of those authors were divinely inspired by the single divine Author of the Scriptures: God himself. So if we are to grow in our theology, or our study of God and the things of God, then there is no better source than the primary source of God’s own words. This is why one of the five solas of the reformation is sola Scriptura, meaning by scripture alone or according to scripture alone. This means that it is Scripture alone that is our rule for all faith and godliness. It alone is our highest authority.
However, an important note must be made. The reformers said sola not nuda Scriptura. So while Scripture alone is our highest authority, it is not our only authority. What I mean by this is that there are creeds and confessions from throughout church history that help guide us so long as they agree with scripture. These are not infallible or inerrant, nor do they claim to be, yet these creeds and confessions are documents to help keep us from falling into age-old heresies that have already been dealt with.
To wrap this section up, I also want to point you to general revelation as a place to help form your theology. Similar to creeds and confessions, God has given general revelation, like we see in Romans 1:18-22 and Psalm 19:1. God has given us nature which proclaims his glory and rational minds to explore natural realities that he’s set up to help us see and experience just how big and mighty our God is. He’s the Creator of the universe, therefore all of the universe has his fingerprint, even if it’s got sin’s stain on it ever since the Fall. So as you hike or as you study biology or physics or astronomy or as you sit at the beach soaking up the sun and watching it set, allow these general revelations of God remind you of his power, orderliness, sovereignty, etc. Then let them drive you back to his special revelation of himself in the Scriptures to know more of who he is, who we are, and how he’s restoring all things to himself through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Why does all of this matter?
Now we get to the question at hand: why does theology matter? Hopefully as you’ve read up to this point you’ve gotten some idea as to why theology matters, but allow me to share three reasons why theology is so important.
1. We can’t properly know God and ourselves without proper theology.
The first part of this is probably the most basic reason for why theology is important, but the second, that without it we don’t properly know ourselves might not have been as obvious a thought. But even though this is a basic truth, it doesn’t make it any less important for us to understand. Without good theology, theology grounded in the Word of God and confessed by the saints of God throughout church history, we are likely to fall into age-old heresies with new clothes on. For example, take this saying that is common among our culture and prevalent within the church, “The God of the Old Testament was wrathful, angry, and judgmental, but the God of the New Testament is gracious, loving, and kind.” While I’m sure most of us would look at that and easily understand that to be wrong, the idea is centuries old. Or what about another, “the Trinity is like an egg, there’s the yoke, the white, and the shell, but it’s all one egg.” This is a clever and common analogy for the Trinity, but it is a dangerous one because it is the heresy of modalism, which denies the distinction of each person of the Trinity, by teaching that there’s one God who appears in a different way or form depending on the situation. Or what about this last saying, “people are innately good. They aren’t born sinners, they just become sinners when they sin.” This is the heresy of Pelagianism, which denies the truth that Adam’s sin is passed down to us, that in Adam we all sinned (Rom. 5:12), that by nature we are dead in sin and objects of wrath (Eph. 2:1-3), that we are conceived in sin (Ps. 51:5). This heresy was fought against by Augustine in the fifth century.
So clearly, without good theology, it’s easy to misunderstand who God is and who we are, and therefore misunderstand our deep need for God’s mercy and grace in the Lord Jesus in the gospel for our salvation. We won’t see the complete otherly-ness of God and his holiness, we won’t see our wretched, dead, and helpless state before God and apart from Jesus, and we won’t see how amazing it is that Jesus came, taking on flesh, being truly God and truly man, and lived in perfect personal obedience to God’s law, died on the cross, and rose again on our behalf, securing the salvation of all who believe.
2. We can’t properly worship God without proper theology.
We are made to worship God, but then a multitude of questions can and should pop into our minds. Questions like: who is this God that I was created to worship? What is this God like? How am I related to this God? Why should I care about worshiping this God? Has this God told me how to worship or am I supposed to make it up as I go? All of these questions and more are answered within the study of theology. Yet, we ultimately need good theology for good worship, for even if our heart’s intention is to worship God, if our theology teaches that Jesus wasn’t really God, then we aren’t really worshiping God. As Jesus himself said, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” We must have truth in order to properly worship God. So if you want to know who God is, who you are, what God has done on your behalf, and why you should respond with worship and thanksgiving, then you need theology. As the saying goes, theology leads to doxology, or our understanding of God and all his work leads us to worship him.
3. We can’t properly obey God without proper theology.
Similar to the saying just above, there’s another that goes, orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy. This means that right doctrine or right belief leads to right practice or right behavior. Certainly one can have orthodox doctrines and be the most wicked of sinners in practice, utterly forsaking the right doctrines they confess, but one cannot rightly obey God without a right understanding of who he is and what he’s commanded. Certainly one can be moral and do things without knowing God’s law that seem to accord with God’s law, but we know from the Scriptures that apart from faith it is impossible to please God, and thereby also impossible to truly and rightly obey God as he desires. The Apostle Paul also tells us,
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2, ESV)
He had just spent eleven chapters unpacking the gospel, and now by the mercies he had just told us about, we are to then respond accordingly. But notice that his argument here is that we’re to present ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. How are we to by thus? By being transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we may discern what God’s will is, so that we may walk according to it. How are our minds renewed? By the mercies of God as revealed in his word and applied by his Holy Spirit. Therefore, theology matters for our obedience. We need it to help us understand what God requires for salvation, how we can’t fulfill those requirements and need a substitute who has, and what duties Christians have to their God in gratitude for so great a salvation.
Therefore, to wrap this all up, theology is vitally important for our Christian lives. Not only does it help us to know God and ourselves better, but it helps us to do what we are primarily created for – to glorify God and enjoy him forever. We can’t glorify God without knowing him and ourselves, knowing what he’s done on our behalf in Christ Jesus, and knowing what he’s commanded us to do in response to so great a salvation. We can’t enjoy him and worship him without a good understanding of who he is and all that he’s done for us. Theology matters. It will never not matter, and as I mentioned before, this theology ought to lead us to deeper faith in Christ and greater obedience in gratitude for what he’s done.