What Is Theology?

What is Theology? / Is Theology Important for Pastoral Ministry?
“What is Theology?”

Merriam-Webster defines theology as “the study of God and God’s relation to the world.” In part, I can accept that definition.  Theology is indeed a study or examination of God.  I must first say though, we are a blessed people to have a God who desires to be examined by His creation.  For without God’s own willingness to be known by us, there would be no need for such a thing as theology.  If He were uncaring and uninvolved in the affairs of this world, how useless it would be to describe Him to ourselves or each other. How pointless it would be to have a study with no subject to examine.  Therefore, the very fact that we have a theology tells me that we have a God and He desires to be known.

But not only is theology the study of God, it is also the means of that study.  If I were contemplating the moon and mapping its features, then my drawings might be considered my theology, or my study of the moon.  But the relief I create from my studies is going to be limited by many factors.  Poor lighting, cloud formations and similar obstacles will hinder my vision.  And of course my telescope must be considered.  If the glass is not polished properly, then I will not see clearly.  Theology is nearly the same.  It is how I approach God andwhat I approach Him with.  In addition to the tools that an astronomer uses, the person’s own self plays a part in interpreting the data gained.  Likewise, I am a factor in my own theology and I cannot remove myself from it without ceasing from my studies.

Theology itself, however, is not the focus.  Just as the telescope focuses on the moon, my theology focuses on God.  One does not gaze at the celestials and then celebrate the thing which reveals that sight.  How foolish one would be to build a telescope believing the heavens will be straining to find the eye behind the glass.  We cannot believe that our theology is greater than the God whom we study.  If that were so, then it would be God who must theologize and not us.  As the telescope does not contain the moon, our theology does not contain God.

Above, I stated that I accept in part Merriam-Webster’s definition.  Although theology is a study of God and God’s relation to the world, it does not end there.  Theology can never be a textbook that is opened, read and set aside only to be picked up at an hour more convenient.  It flows much deeper.  And it is not a subject embraced only by the clergy, monk or seminary student.  Theology is shared by everyone.  It is as unique as the experiencing it.  It is what causes us to rise in the morning, go about our day and enter into the relationships we have.  The atheist and agnostic each are theologians who spell out their beliefs in all they do, think and say.

If a man were to truly say that he has no belief in God, then his life would be lived by that theology.  If a person were to say that he believes God is a mindless force, then he will apply that belief and it would be worked out in his living.  Theology is not just what we think; it is what we do and how we live.  It is not just what we exemplify to be true while in the company of the congregation, but it is how we live in the secret places of our homes.  The Apostle James shared this secret with us when he wrote that a person who claims he has a faith in Christ, but does not show forth good works, is but carrying the carcass of faith (James 2).

“Is Theology Important for Pastoral Ministry?”

I would define pastoral ministry as that which has been created for the nurturing and care of a certain community of believers.  While an evangelism ministry might be a conduit of God’s Grace toward the unsaved, it is not often that same ministry that follows the growth and sanctification of the believer.  Likewise, a teacher might help bring truths to the believer, but the pastor is often the one who helps apply that truth to the believer’s life and see that it is made manifest.

Serving as a pastor, I have found it difficult at times to be caught up in the various theological arguments and positions that are made known both within and outside of our denomination.  New interpretations and ideas arise frequently.  Some bear significant weight while others appear only to be for the purpose of contention.  While we might cite scripture that warns us to avoid “foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes…”(Titus 3:9), there is a need to learn and grow.

To be caught up in vain discussions while avoiding the simple work that Christ calls us to is tantamount to telling the hungry to “be warm and filled” while giving them no food (James 2:16). So while foolish theological discussion can be led us to places of disobedience, theology itself is still very crucial to pastors.  For it is the theology of the pastor that will determine how he/she responds to the needs of the congregation.  It is also the theology of the pastor that will keep him/her from becoming lost in meaningless debates. An effective pastor will have a theology that is well grounded and being cultivated.
Illustration from Article V-Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation

It is hard to imagine an era when truth has been more challenged and tested than in this day.  New Age ideology, cults and postmodern thinking have crept even into the oldest of our pews.  One cannot turn on the TV without experiencing an onslaught of thought that can undermine the values our church forefathers and John Wesley himself held so dear.  Just as disconcerting is that many Christians fail to recognize the difference between the truth contained in scripture and the false teachings that pervade our society and churches.

Within my ministry as a Christian, I have encountered those who are guided not by scriptural teaching, but by the influences of popular ideologies that challenge the concept of absolute truth.  These ideas counter the Biblical position of salvation by claiming that there are many roads that lead to God and that sincerity in faith is more important than the object of that faith.  In believing that truth is relative, these misguided people refuse the teachings of Jesus Christ because they find them too intolerant and restrictive.  Instead of seeking truth from God and His Holy Word, they instead look “to have their ears tickled” by teachers who teach “in accordance to their own desires” (2 Tim. 4:3).

Charles Wesley, in his hymn “Come, Holy Ghost, Our Hearts Inspire,” encourages us to pray for inspiration not from worldly influences, but from the Holy Spirit.  Specifically, he pleads that this inspiration come through scripture as he writes:

“Come, Holy Ghost for moved by thee

the prophets wrote and spoke,

unlock the truth, thy self the key,

unseal the sacred book” (The United Methodist Hymnal, #603).

As a pastoral theologian, sifting through the ideologies that confront the community of believers, I am called to help and to provide an explanation of foreign beliefs and our own heritage of faith. This would be a most difficult task if it were not for the foundation of truth that we find within the Bible.

Within the Fifth Article of Faith, we have a stake firmly planted in regard to truth.   The pastoral theologian, within Wesleyan thought, understands that any salvation method, or thought, not read or proved by the Bible is outside of the boundaries of revealed truth and, therefore not essential or sufficient for salvation.  This belief keeps the pastor anchored and protects against false teaching.

This is no better illustrated than in John Wesley’s own writings.  He cannot go far in his sermons without referring the reader to scripture where he finds support for his preaching.  His attraction to Biblical truth seems irresistible.  In his sermon, “The Way to the Kingdom,” (John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, page 124) He makes six direct scriptural references outside of his main text.   Beyond this, he makes no less than 45 indirect references and partial quotes to scriptural passages.  It is apparent that his own theology is not based on the wisdom of this world, but on the truth of scripture.