For some, the word theology conjures up thoughts of ivory-tower academics, with those engaged in the discipline being riddled with speculation and impracticality. For others, it brings about an emotional reaction related to the divisiveness that one’s theological beliefs can and have brought about throughout the history of the world. Many Christians have reacted against theology believing it to be the cause of much interfaith divisiveness. Many in the church today can be heard saying “I don’t know theology, I just know Jesus.” What is theology anyway?

Webster’s dictionary defines theology as “The science of God or of religion; the science which treats of the existence, character, and attributes of God, his laws and government, the doctrines we are to believe, and the duties we are to practice. . . the science of Christian faith and life.” Saint Augustine in the fifth-century defined theology as “Rational discussion respecting the deity.” A. H. Strong, the great twentieth century theologian said that theology is “the Science of God and of the relations between God and the universe.” Charles Ryrie, the popular dispensationalist theologian, says theology is “thinking about God and expressing those thoughts in some way.” (Basic Theology [Wheaton, IL: 1986], 9). Millard Erickson, a modern Baptist theologian says that theology is simply “the study or science of God.” (Christian Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001], 22).

Most simply put, theology is the study of God. It comes from the word theos which is Greek for “God,” and -ology which is from the Greek word logos meaning “word.” Most literally then the word theology means “words about God” or “the study of God.” If one were to use the term generically, it functions much like “philosophy” or “worldview.” People often use the word this way in secular venues. Many times it is used very specifically, speaking only about God. This is called “theology proper.”

Theology should be nuanced a little differently when related to the belief system of individuals. In this case, it is inherently tied to a person’s methodology in acquiring their most fundamental beliefs. I am going to propose a working definition of theology that focuses this nuance.

A person’s theology is a set of intellectual and emotional commitments, justified or not, about God and man which dictate ones beliefs and actions.

Objection of the Fideist

Before we venture to explore this working definition we must deal with the inevitable objection that will surface from many people of faith. Wanting to stay faithful to the “truth” as they have understood it, some will immediately object to this definition, believing it to neglect the “spiritual” element of faith by replacing it with worldly intellectualism and subjective emotionalism. They would believe that this spiritual element the only true factor that makes their beliefs authentic. Christians often desire to divorce themselves from any so-called intellectual knowledge base that would obstruct their perceived direct conduit from God who, according to them, would speak to their spirit, bypassing their minds and emotional subjectivity. The basic presupposition of this view is an assumed and drastic dichotomy between the mind and the spirit that divorces matters of rationality and faith. This belief that faith and reason are incompatible is often termed fideism. The fideist lives by the creed credo quia absurdum, meaning “I believe because it is absurd.” To have faith, according to the fideist, is to believe in spite of or even against the evidence. Faith, in essence, becomes a blind leap into the dark. If there was light, the fideist would argue then it is not really faith. In other words to the fideist, the more irrational one’s belief the greater his or her faith.

It is an unfortunate fact that many, if not most, Christians have this mentality. The fideist mentality is not only unnecessary, but it is also unbiblical and extremely dangerous. If fideism were true, the Christian faith (or any other faith system that is fideistic) would essentially be a search for absurdity.

If Christians believe that humanity is created in the image of God (imago Dei), then we must believe that His image is expressed through the intellect as much as anything else. Our ability to reason and perceive truth based upon our God-given ability and desire to mirror His glory in the use of our minds. Our rationality and sense perception is given to us by God and we are held responsible for its use or neglect. 

Contrary to popular belief, God never condones this type of naive mentality. In fact many times in Scripture God chastised His people for not using their minds in a way which was glorifying to Him and reflective of His image. We see this clearly in the book of Isaiah where God ridicules the Israelites for acting irrationally with regards to their worship of idols.

Isaiah 44:10-19 10 Who has fashioned a god or cast an idol to no profit?  11 Behold, all his companions will be put to shame, for the craftsmen themselves are mere men. Let them all assemble themselves, let them stand up, let them tremble, let them together be put to shame.  12 The man shapes iron into a cutting tool and does his work over the coals, fashioning it with hammers and working it with his strong arm. He also gets hungry and his strength fails; he drinks no water and becomes weary.  13 Another shapes wood, he extends a measuring line; he outlines it with red chalk. He works it with planes and outlines it with a compass, and makes it like the form of a man, like the beauty of man, so that it may sit in a house.  14 Surely he cuts cedars for himself, and takes a cypress or an oak and raises it for himself among the trees of the forest. He plants a fir, and the rain makes it grow.  15 Then it becomes something for a man to burn, so he takes one of them and warms himself; he also makes a fire to bake bread. He also makes a god and worships it; he makes it a graven image and falls down before it.  16 Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he eats meat as he roasts a roast and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Aha! I am warm, I have seen the fire.”  17 But the rest of it he makes into a god, his graven image. He falls down before it and worships; he also prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god.” 18 They do not know, nor do they understand, for He has smeared over their eyes so that they cannot see and their hearts so that they cannot comprehend.  19 No one recalls, nor is there knowledge or understanding to say, “I have burned half of it in the fire and also have baked bread over its coals. I roast meat and eat it. Then I make the rest of it into an abomination, I fall down before a block of wood!”

God is reprimanding them for their lack of rationality. They were worshiping idols made of wood. God was trying to reason with them, appealing to their intellect, wanting them to see the folly of their ways. How was it that they could cut down a piece of wood and use part of it for a fire and the other part for their God who was to save them? This was an example of those who were not glorifying God with their minds; it was an example of blind faith. God never has encouraged believers to believe because it is absurd. Fideism is not a Christian option.

Theology as an intellectual commitmentIntellectual beliefs are those that come primarily through rational exploration and empirical observations. One’s theology finds many of its roots in both of these areas. These avenues of acquiring belief are imbedded into the very framework of our lives, evidencing themselves in many different ways at both a conscious and a sub-conscious level. As Christians we cannot and should not divorce our theology from these two areas. Rational exercise: Since the term “theology” normally conjures up thoughts of ivory tower academics, it is not surprising that the people will accept theology as being that which is done by exercising the mind. But this is not only for ivory tower academics. Many times one’s theology is constructed through a series of syllogistic formulas that are done subconsciously. For example, the majority of people throughout the history of the world have believed in a divine creator. Most hold to this belief from a very early age. Some come to their belief through the teachings of others, but most all would have a subconscious rationalization of the subject that takes place on an intellectual realm. Although not explicitly stated as such the intellectual auto-dialogue would proceed something like this:      1. If things actually exist, they must have come from someone
      2. Things actually exist
      3. Therefore, someone must have brought them into being

This syllogism does not necessarily produce a belief in the Christian God, but it does evidence a belief in some sort of divine being and takes its place very early in people’s conceptual framework that makes up their worldview. Another example of subconscious intellectualizing of one’s theology is belief in the after life. Just about as many people who believe in God have also believed in some sort of post-mortem existence outside of the body. The rational could go like this at a subconscious level:

      1. If there is to be true purpose to existence, existence must extend past
          physical death
      2. If existence extends past physical death, we must have the capacity for
          post-mortem existence
      3. If we have the capacity of post-mortem existence, this must be in some sort
          of non-corporeal (without a body) state of being (spirit)
      4. There is true purpose
      5. Therefore, people go on living as spirits after death
This syllogistic argument
           is produced by intellectualizing of the data that is supplied from other
           beliefs (e.g. belief in purpose).

This does not necessarily mean that it is a true argument since it might very well be that the presuppositions behind number one through four are faulty or overstated. But the point behind these examples is that theology always has a very strong intellectual component to it whether we believe this to be the case or not. This does not mean that the theology is true, but it does mean that we must take seriously the use of the intellect.

Theology as an emotive exercise

We must also realize that theology has a very strong emotional element that creates commitments of belief and practice. This is not necessarily bad or good, but it can be such if people do not realize the contribution that our emotions make to our belief system. These emotional commitments are produced by a variety of influences and, like that of the intellect, many times take place on a subconscious level. Here is a short list of some of the influences that cause emotional commitments to particular ways of thinking.

Tradition commitments: Many times what we believe, we believe because we have always believed it. That’s it! The more time you have spent believing something, the harder it is to challenge that belief. It is simply true because you have always believed it to be such. To question it would be to call into account much time and energy that has been invested in the belief. Often these traditional beliefs originate with the family unit and are taught from childhood. If someone was taught when they are very young that Christ was going to soon come down from heaven and take believers back with Him (i.e. the pre-tribulation rapture view), they will usually simply believe this to be true based solely on the testimony of their parents. Now, they might rationalize about this after-the-fact of their belief thinking to themselves, “what if I am in a car when He comes; the car is sure to crash,” but this rational element is usually not used to confirm or deny the truth, but only to understand the circumstances surrounding the event when it occurs. Traditional commitments also come from religious affiliation. If you grew up going to a Baptist church, you will find it hard to believe that padeobaptism (infant baptism) is an acceptable belief. You might just write it off as “weird,” with weird defined as that which does not coincide with your already established system of belief (i.e. people only get baptized when they become believers). When a theology is held based upon traditional commitments alone this is usually termed “folk theology.” This does not necessarily make it wrong since mom and dad could have been right, but it does evidence a methodology that can be dangerous because of its lack in critical thinking. We should never underestimate the influence of tradition upon our emotions and how, right or wrong, this creates, sustains, and often defends our theological commitments.

Cultural commitments: Our theology often has elements of cultural influence which bend our thinking in one direction or another. Again, this is usually done at a subconscious level and is therefore hardly ever noticed. When a person is brought up in a culture that has certain beliefs and practices, that person will normally adopt the beliefs and practices of that culture. Generally speaking, people in Turkey are Muslims. Why, because Turkey is a Muslim culture. People there have emotional ties based upon years of subconscious cultural influence. The same is true with Christianity in America. Once again, this is neither here nor there with regards to the truth behind the beliefs and practices, but does evidence a methodology that takes place when people arrive at certain belief. This methodology, like that of tradition, creates a powerful emotional tie to the belief of the culture. So powerful is this emotional tie that more often than not, people are willing to disregard any evidence or experience that would contradict the belief already held. This type of methodology when divorced from critical thought and unreflective thought can also be labeled “folk.”

Trust commitments: People also have certain trust commitments that influence their belief system. Many times there are certain people whom we trust or respect a great deal to whom we entrust our beliefs. This could be your grandmother, mother, friend, pastor, or even favorite actor. Often times, our trust in them has more to do with how much we respect or like the person than whether they are right. 

Subjective feeling commitments: Many times we believe something simply because we have a deep personal feeling that it is correct. While this is very much influenced by the three other emotive commitments above, it is sometimes found regardless of and in contrast to their influence. Someone may believe deep down that some practice they are involved in is wrong even though all their traditions, culture, and major people of influence in their lives believe it to be right. In a culture where slavery is deeply rooted in their practice and worldview, and individual in that culture may have a deep personal conviction that it is wrong irrespective of any outside influenced. As well, in a culture that believes in God, an individual may have an emotional bias against God (or at least the God of the culture) and based upon this emotion he or she may choose not to believe in God. 

All of these factors and many more have a major influence on a person’s theological beliefs. It is for this reason that any definition of theology must consider these influences.

Speaking about theology in times past was not thought of taboo as it is today. It used to be called “the queen of the sciences.” It was understood to be the first among pursuits of knowledge, since it was believed that all other pursuits were vitally linked to its dictates. Morality was dictated by it. Philosophy was called its handmaiden. Why was it held in such high esteem then? Because theology itself provides a foundation for your philosophy and worldview in turn setting inclinations for your heart, actions and decisions in all situations, everything is affected by your theology. For example, if your theology denies the existence of God, then your morality is going to be affected since its basis is not a personal and timeless being. With a theology of atheism (i.e. belief that there is no God) morals become relative to the time and situation. In this case what is true for one generation may not be true for another. If your theology denies the sinfulness of man, then a bloody sacrificial death to atone for sin becomes repulsive, since, according to your theology, men don’t need to have their sin atoned for. If your theology is polytheistic (i.e. belief in many gods), then you will constantly be trying to figure out which god or gods you should encounter, pray to, and/or appease in order to make “right” your situation with them. The implications are endless.

In short, theology is a set of intellectual and emotional commitments, justified or not, about God and man which dictate ones beliefs and actions. Neither the word itself is irrelevant, nor the concepts which it seeks to articulate. It is the first pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. 

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    2 replies to "What is Theology?"

    • kwesi aka KW

      Very helpful! I love the breakdown of the words in the Greek. These are the things that stay with me. Like the regulation of faith explanation for example.

      I agree that Fideism is wide spread and the results can be seen on any popular, Christian Broadcasting Network.

      I listen and watch in shock as thousand flock to follow men that have not given reason a place on their platforms.

      God help us all.

    • Ron Wolf

      Thanks. Going deeper in the subject of “What is Theology” and understanding the arenas that we sometimes follow I have been able to search and see where some of my basis in my systems of believing is on shaky ground. Maybe not the foundational things but there are more traditional family and church beliefs that are coming into the light more.

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