Monday, September 29, 2014

F0. What is Christian theology?

Theology is the "study of God," and Christian theology is the study of God from a Christian perspective.

1. There are, perhaps surprisingly, many different ways to approach the study of God. Perhaps the most common is called systematic theology. Systematic theology is when you study God in an orderly, logical way that covers the key dimensions of Christian belief and practice.

For example, the articles that follow in this series engage topics like:
  • Theology proper--topics (or "doctrines") that relate to God the Father in particular
  • Christology--topics that relate to the person and work of Jesus Christ
  • Pneumatology--topics that relate to the person and work of the Holy Spirit
  • Anthropology--topics that have to do with humanity in relation to God
  • Cosmology--topics that have to do with the creation in relation to God
  • Hamartiology--topics that relate to the subject of evil and sin
  • Soteriology--topics that have to do with atonement and salvation
  • Ecclesiology--topics that have to do with the Church
  • Eschatology--topics that have to do with the direction in which God is moving history
  • Revelation--the means by which God makes himself known
  • Ethics and Practical Theology--the study of God as it relates to how we live in this world
Different "systematic theologies" may engage these topics in a different order, but you will no doubt find most if not all of them covered before each treatment is done. The key to a systematic theology is simply that topics relating to Christian faith are covered in some orderly, systematic way.

2. There are other ways to organize theology. Perhaps the most important is what is called biblical theology. In recent times, biblical theologies tend to organize the various theologies of the individual biblical authors. So there might be a section on Pauline theology, another on Matthean or Johannine theology.

These biblical theologies recognize that the Bible is not systematically organized. For example, God did not inspire the authors of Scripture to write theological or philosophical treatises. He inspired them to write stories, poetry, letters, and in other genres. Those who see the Bible as an answer book or book of ideas are not reading it the way it was written.

Similarly, God did not inspire them to write in generic truths but mostly in concrete language that applied directly to those to whom these books actually say they were written. In that sense. to convert the contextual words of the Bible into a universal form requires some system of organization that comes to the biblical texts from the outside.

I believe it is legitimate to re-present the biblical material in a systematic form. In many respects, the series of articles that I am introducing now draws as much on the biblical material for its content as it does the great Christian thinkers of the centuries. So this "systematic theology" is not far from being a "biblical theology."

3. There are other approaches to theology that I might briefly mention in case you encounter them somewhere:
  • Narrative theology looks at theology from the standpoint of the story of God, creation, and redemption.
  • Historical theology looks at how Christian theology has developed over the centuries.
  • Dogmatic theology is a form of systematic theology that looks especially at the core, essential beliefs of the faith.
  • Philosophical theology looks at Christian theology especially from the standpoint of philosophical categories like epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics.
  • Constructive theology especially engages those aspects of our current world that call into question the historical beliefs and categories of past Christian faith.
All of these approaches more or less engage the same basic theological topics but from slightly different perspectives.
The series of articles that follow engage the key topics of Christian thought and practice from a systematic perspective. They especially engage the content of the Bible as the primary source of the content of Christian thinking and practice. But they also recognize that the Holy Spirit of God has unfolded the primary organizing principles of this content over the centuries in the Church. [1]

[1] Those who know a little about the history of philosophy might see a glimpse of Immanuel Kant here (1724-1804). Some of the thinking of his time shook him into realizing that the content of our experiences does not just come into our heads in some straightforward way, but our minds "interpret" everything we experience. We process the world with our "mind software," so to speak.

So we do not straightforwardly just experience the content of the Bible as it is. Our minds interpret and organize the material of the Bible. This is why there are tens of thousands of different interpretations of the Bible, even though we are all looking at the same texts. Ideally, we all have a kind of "spiritual common sense" as we read that is actually a product of historic Christianity.

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