How do you define “theology”? Our first inclination in answering this question is to use the garage toolbox method we all learned in grade school. I don’t dislike the garage toolbox method; as a matter of fact, it’s downright helpful sometimes. Let’s give it a go with the word “theology”:
- Get your saw out and cut the word “theology” precisely in half.
- You now have two Greek word roots (theo and logy), one in each hand. Translate them into English.
- Use a drill to stick ’em back together.
If you follow the instructions to this proverbial game of Operation correctly, you’ll get a definition that goes something like this – “Theology is the study of God.” Done, right? Not so much.
This definition doesn’t seem to float the boats of theologians. Not because it’s wrong or because they don’t like the garage toolbox method. They do. But mere word root translations are only bare-bones introductions to whatever topic they propose to encompass, and as such they are usually insufficient for definitional purposes. I was told in grade school that the phrase “solar system” meant “sun system” because sol means sun. None of that is incorrect, and I have no complaint with it. However, there is much more about the solar system that could be included in a more proper definition, yes? Using word roots to understand our solar system as the “sun system” is a great way for a tiny person to start, but it is just that – a place to start. As we mature, a richer understanding is necessary. So let’s use our understanding of theology as “the study of God” in a similar way. It is not defined incorrectly as such, but rather incompletely. It is a great place to start, but a terrible place to finish. If we aim to describe the very loftiest pursuit which avails itself to mankind, simply translating word roots and sewing them back together will not do. Theology is queen of the sciences. What description shall fit?
Read what Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) offered on the subject and be blessed.
“I do not try, Lord, to attain your lofty heights because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to know your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that unless I believe, I shall not understand.”
Quite beautiful, yes? Here’s is Anselm’s derived definition of theology (shorter, even, than the one provided by the garage toolbox method, but decidedly more attractive). Anselm says that theology is faith seeking understanding. That’s it. Theology is faith seeking understanding. In studying the depths of the Lord, we trust everything that he has revealed up to the present moment, and find ourselves very nearly begging for what he may reveal next. This is why the Bible is inextricably tied to theology and the reason it is so inexhaustibly interesting to us…it’s God’s revelation of himself. And best of all, he has promised to reward those who diligently seek him (Prov 8:17, Heb 11:6). Doing theology is earnestly trusting what God has already shown you and asking him to show you more – which he has guaranteed to do.
Now, some people don’t like this definition. “It excludes non-Christians,” I’m told. “It’s really short,” I’m told (which happens rarely in theology). “It’s really old,” I’m told (which happens quite often in theology). Concerning the first of these objections, many people prefer to define theology more broadly, claiming that all people are theologians because all people without exception contemplate life’s questions of ultimacy (which must at some point include considering at least the possibility of God). I can’t say that I’m inclined to agree. Considering the possibility that God exists doesn’t make someone a theologian any more than considering the possibility that sick people exist makes someone a doctor. No, I think that “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe he exists” (Heb 11:6). Don’t be bothered, however. To say that one must be a Christian in order to properly do Christian theology is not an exclusive statement – not when the invitation to become a Christian is inclusive of all.
Theology is faith seeking understanding. Ponder this as I pray Paul’s prayer over you.
I bow my knees before the Father, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that you may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21)