I'm writing a piece for some Sunday School literature titled, "Why we need theology?" Here's what I'm thinking.
1. Theology gives us a starting point.
A college freshmen once came to me, completely enamored with the excitement of the new thoughts filling his head. He was seeing new ways to look at issues that had never occurred to him. In his enthusiasm, he exclaimed that he wanted to start all over from scratch in what he believed. He was going to throw everything out the window and make no assumptions about anything.
I suggested that this was not only a bad idea. It was impossible. Understanding the world is a circle that starts with certain assumptions and then goes to pondering things in dialog with the world. We find out some of our assumptions are inconsistent. We find some of them may not match up. We revise them. Then we do it all over again.
Christians have always believed that at least some key truths are a matter of revelation rather than discovery. We may vary in what the precise formula is. Some have thought truth is so much a matter of God revealing himself to us in the Bible that we could never discover half the truth if we tried to go find it in the world itself. Others have thought we can discover most Christian truth just by good thinking on the evidence out there in the world.
Whatever the precise formula, Christian theology gives the believer a place to begin when it comes to the question of what is right and what is true. Some elements of theology are more negotiable than others, but it would be foolish to try to start from scratch when God has been helping humanity find its way from the very beginning. Christians believe that he especially started helping us find our way through ancient Israel and then definitively helped us find our way through Christ and the church that followed. Human understanding is never infallible, but it would be foolish to try to start our quest for truth from scratch. For Christians, Christian theology is by far the best place to start.
2. Theology helps us know what is important.
We have a lot of things we believe and a lot of ways we do things in the world. For example, I personally believe that the front of my house looked better with the pine trees my wife cut down than it does without them. I also believe that it is wrong to murder innocent people you happen to meet on the sidewalk. These two beliefs are not of the same importance at all. The second belief is quite important. The first is rather insignificant.
We have to prioritize our beliefs and practices in this way because they inevitably come into conflict with each other. Despite some popular rhetoric, right and wrong cannot simply be a matter of absolutes because situations arise in which we have to choose between our principles, when we have to make exceptions. "Should I obey God or human authority in this situation?" Both are Christian values, but when they come into conflict, we have to obey God and disobey human authority.
Christian theology is what helps me set these priorities. Which is more important, what I think or how I live? Which Christian beliefs are the absolute core and which ones are a matter of personal conviction? When should I make an exception to a rule or practice and when must I stand firm to the death? We all would answer these questions with our actions in certain situations. We all would have a "theology" when the moment of decision came. The question is whether it would be a good theology.
3. Theology helps us appropriate the Bible.
This is an extremely important point because so many think that they simply read the Bible and do what it says. It is exactly this misunderstanding that stands behind the tens of thousands of different Christian groups who think they are all just believing and doing what the Bible says. It is, in short, a self-deception that is innocent enough in most cases but that can lead to catastrophe in others.
For example, it is not really troublesome that Seventh Day Adventists do not eat pork. Now of course it might be rather annoying to someone who absolutely loves pork, but no great harm is done in general. Underlying this practice is a Seventh Day Adventist theology that does not read the Old Testament prohibitions on pork in the light of New Testament comments on God declaring all foods clean. This is a theological decision between comments in the Bible that say different things. Leviticus says not to eat pork. Mark 7:19 and other passages seem to abolish the Old Testament food laws. Our theology is what helps us arbitrate between such passages.
Most Christians find the issue of pork rather straightforward, but there are countless other issues where we do not agree. Can women be senior pastors? One segment of the church says no and points to certain passages. Another segment says yes and points to other passages. Another segment says it is not just about passages but about the difference between our time and the time God was addressing at the time of the Bible.
On many issues, we disagree on what individual passages meant as well as on how to map individual passages to each other. The Bible ultimately cannot make some of these decisions for us. James does not tell us how to fit its comments with Paul. Paul may have told the Thessalonians all about the man of lawlessness when he was there (2 Thess. 2:5), but he did not write it down and the rest of Bible does not fill in the blank.
The Bible gives us the starting material for our beliefs and practices, but whether we admit it to ourselves or not, it is far more our theology that organizes the biblical material and appropriates it in our lives. Individuals who do not realize this fact are prone to float adrift on whatever tide happens to catch them. This is how cults form and gain followers. If we are not conscious of the theology at work in our use of the Bible, then we are inevitably driven and tossed about by whatever wind catches our sail. We think we are following the Bible when we are just as likely riding the wave of some subculture.
4. Theology clarifies the boundaries of Christian faith and action.
Whether we are fully conscious of the ambiguities of the biblical text, our theology is always with us, setting the boundaries of our thinking and action, steering us in the right (or wrong) direction. The early Christians spoke of something they called the "rule of faith," the most fundamental Christian principles drawn from the Bible boiled down as guidelines. It is a basic theology and we all function with one.
The most important of these sorts of guidelines are the core beliefs and practices that the Holy Spirit has unfolded and clarified in the church these last two thousand years, the "faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3). They are in the creeds of historic Christianity and generally held in common by Christians across denominations and traditions, Catholic or Protestant. "I believe in God the Father Almighty..." The core Christian ethic is the "law of love," the absolute principle of loving your neighbor as yourself.
Beyond these basics our theology also determines to a high degree which passages of Scripture we will find "clear" and which ones we will find "unclear." We read a verse about bashing Babylonian babies and immediately sense that this is not something I should do (Ps. 137:9). Of course there are countless other issues in life today that the Bible does not directly address. Who should I vote for in the next election? What should I think about stem cell research or a contraceptive that stops a fertilized egg from implanting itself in the uterine wall?
On many such issues we act or think inconsistently with our theology, which either means that our theology is wrong or our thoughts and actions on that particular theology is wrong. Our lives are full of such contradictions and they are often harmless, but they can also be very dangerous. I may say I love my neighbor and yet act or vote in ways that contradicts what I say my theology is. In this particular case my theology is absolute, and I am bound to make my life conform to it. When good theology is doing what it is supposed to do, it will help me live a life that is truly pleasing to God.
5. Truth is beautiful in itself.
Theology has a bad reputation among some. To some, theology is mostly irrelevant nonsense, "How many angels can fit on the head of a pin?" Hopefully, what we have said so far makes it clear that theology at its best is not only relevant, it is essential. We can debate the stereotype some theologians have of being fascinated by aspects of theology that are not as obviously relevant, but we cannot do away with theology. It is there whether we realize it or not.
At the same time, truth is beautiful for its own sake. The most significant truths may be the ones that have the most impact and relevance, but truth for its own sake is beautiful because it is a reflection of God's mind. We do not all have to love truth for its own sake, but it is perfectly legitimate for those who love it.
The relevance of such truths may not always seem immediately relevant, but they often become relevant over time. Ongoing reflection about truth can form patterns of thinking that help us mature. We may eventually find ourselves with the right intuitions because we have meditated on truth over time. Truth gets into our bones even when it is not fully in our conscious minds. This is some of the best theology we can have.