If we start talking about theology, we might hear one of three responses: “Haven’t we figured all that out?” or “Theology is something that I learned in textbooks at a seminary” or “I know Jesus, so what use is theology? How is it practical?”
While these responses affirm true things, namely, that Christians have thought about theology, that books can teach us theology, and that knowing Jesus is paramount, I do think they represent a partial misunderstanding of theology.
Theology means knowing God
To be a theologian means to know God, to know of God, and to experience God through knowing him. First and foremost, it means that someone has such a clear and intimate understanding of God that they are known to be a theologian. The end of all things is theology: knowing God.
Jesus prayed, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Eternal life is not something that comes after we die. It is here and now. And it means knowing “the only true God” and “Jesus Christ” whom God sent.
That is everything.
Theologians share in the life of God and the church
Now to know something means more than knowing facts about something. In Scripture, the word “know” entails intimate knowledge such as knowing someone sexually or knowing someone’s whole being (e.g., Ps 139). And in John 17, Jesus seems to have in mind not just knowing facts about God and the Son but also knowing God and the Son intimately as the context of John 17 shows.
In John 17:22–23, Jesus provides a snapshot of what this looks like: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” To know God means to share in the glory of God, to be united with God like he is with the Son, and to be perfectly united as one body in such a way that the world knows God loves the Son and his church.
Theology—knowing God—is profoundly intellectual and experiential. It deals with our knowledge about God and our participation in God and with the church.
The ancient theologians were called such because they knew God
In the history of the church, only three people have received the honorific title of “The Theologian”: the apostle John, Gregory Nazianzen, and Symeon the New Theologian. Each received the title not just because they knew about God (but they certainly did) but because they demonstrated a keen affection for and intimacy with God. Interestingly, Symeon may have received this title as an insult because he was too interested in experiencing God, yet it stuck because of his good reputation.
The point here is that the early church closely connected knowing God with experiential knowledge of God. Theology was never a dry academic exercise. Theologians were personalities on fire who spoke, lived, and breathed by the Spirit of God.
So here is why theology is so important
I return to the responses in the introduction. “Haven’t we figured all that out?”
Answer: theology is not just about knowledge; it is important because Jesus died so that you could know God, receive his glory, unite to him like a son to a father, fellowship with the church, and experience the love of God (see John 17 with 2 Cor 3–4). Also, God is infinite and so our creaturely knowledge of God by definition is limited and incomplete. We must continue to pursue him as we grow into the fullness of Christ.
“Theology is something that I learned in textbooks at a seminary”
Answer: while it is true that theology is something that you pursued by reading textbooks, it nevertheless constitutes a lifetime pursuit of the beauty of the Lord (Ps 27:4). It is seeing and savouring God and experiencing his love that the Holy Spirit has shed abroad in our hearts (Rom 5:5).
“I know Jesus, so what use is theology? How is it practical?”
Answer: knowing God in Christ is everything. But its utility is not the measure of its goodness. God is good and therefore we should know him. But theology (or knowing Jesus the Son of God) gets put to work. Knowing God means participating in the life of God, being like him, transforming into the image of the Son. It means advancing in love, joy, and peace.
Christians believe something unfashionable in our pragmatic and naturalistic age. We believe that God exists and that the invisible God transforms the visible world. Simply by looking to Christ, we change and grow from one level of glory to another (2 Cor 3:18). The invisible shapes the visible. Theology transforms us.
Yet it is not a mechanistic transformation. We grow up into the one who loved us and gave himself for us. And we come to lose our identity so that we do not know if it is us who lives or Christ in us (Gal 2:20).
Theology is transformation as well as adoration because we become what we love.
To that end, I am planning to write a number of articles that sketch out what and who God is for the purpose of knowing God and thereby being transformed into the image of his Son by the Holy Spirit. Some will emphasize the “aboutness” aspect of knowledge whereas others will underscore the transformative, sanctifying aspect of knowledge.
See you in the coming weeks!