Guest Editorial by Jack Cottrell
What is theology?
We use the word theology in different senses, from the broad meaning of religious studies in general (as in a “theological seminary”) to the narrowest sense of “theology proper,” which is its literal sense of “the study of God.”
In the Christian context we can best think of theology as simply a way of studying what the Bible teaches. We focus on the teaching (the doctrine) of the Bible because the Bible is the Word (yea, words—Romans 3:2) of God to us, and thus the norm for all truth. Since the Bible is one book, ultimately derived (revealed) from and/or approved (inspired) by one mind—God’s—it is unified and consistent in its message and content.
Because of the Bible’s inspiration and unity, we can and should think of theology as the capstone way of studying the Bible’s content. We begin with Bible history, or the timeline covered by the biblical writings. Then we study Bible introduction, or the basic facts about each book of the Bible (especially how it fits into the timeline). Then comes Bible exegesis, or the interpretation of the specific parts of the Bible unit by unit, down to the meaning of its very paragraphs, sentences, and words.
Finally we cap this all off with a study of the contents of the Bible subject by subject—i.e., theology. A comprehensive study of all the subjects of the Bible is called a systematic theology (e.g., my book, The Faith Once for All). We can, of course, study the Bible’s subjects one by one as needed (e.g., for a sermon). For example, we may study what the Bible teaches about the work of the Holy Spirit or about the rapture or about baptism. In the final analysis, theology seeks to integrate the total teaching of the Bible into a consistent worldview.
I like to explain theology as consisting of four elements to be developed layer by layer:
1. Theology is the study of ideas about God and about everything else in its relation to God. Note the “everything else.” This means that theology is a worldview. We draw our theology from any and all sources but especially from the Bible.
2. Theology is the determination of truth about God and about everything else in its relation to God. Apologetics establishes the fact that the Bible is not just the main source of theology, but also (as truth from God) its only norm. The Bible’s teaching is the measure of all truth.
3. Theology is the rational explanation and orderly presentation of the truth about God and of everything else in its relation to God. We do this in books, lessons, and sermons.
4. Theology is the practical application to life of the truth about God and of everything else in its relation to God. We not only explain what’s so, but also “So what?”
Why is it important for every Christian (not just ministers, elders, or Bible professors) to have solid theology?
The Bible is truth from God to us. Theology is simply the truth of the Bible understood, organized, and applied. God would not have given us the Bible to be used thus if we do not need it and if we do not have the ability to do it. Knowing the truth (John 8:32), loving the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:10), and speaking the truth (Ephesians 4:15) comprise the essence of theology and the foundation for solid faith and confident hope.
Dr. Jack Cottrell is currently in his 49th year of teaching theology at Cincinnati Christian University and is the part-time teaching minister at First Church of Christ in Greendale, Indiana. Read more from him online (JackCottrell.com).