WHAT IS THE STUDY OF THEOLOGY
The word “theology” comes from two Greek words that combined mean “the study of God.” Christian theology is simply an attempt to understand God as He is revealed in the Bible. No theology will ever fully explain God and His ways because God is infinitely and eternally higher than we are. Therefore, any attempt to describe Him will fall short (Romans 11:33-36). However, God does want us to know Him insofar as we are able, and theology is the art and science of knowing what we can know and understand about God in an organized and understandable manner. Some people try to avoid theology because they believe it is divisive. Properly understood, though, theology is uniting. Proper, biblical theology is a good thing; it is the teaching of God's Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The study of theology, then, is nothing more than digging into God’s Word to discover what He has revealed about Himself. When we do this, we come to know Him as Creator of all things, Sustainer of all things, and Judge of all things. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of all things. When Moses asked who was sending him to Pharaoh, God replied “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). The name I AM indicates personality. God has a name, even as He has given names to others. The name I AM stands for a free, purposeful, self-sufficient personality. God is not an ethereal force or a cosmic energy. He is the almighty, self-existing, self-determining Being with a mind and a will—the “personal” God who has revealed Himself to humanity through His Word, and through His Son, Jesus Christ.
To study theology is to get to know God in order that we may glorify Him through our love and obedience. Notice the progression here: we must get to know Him before we can love Him, and we must love Him before we can desire to obey Him. As a byproduct, our lives are immeasurably enriched by the comfort and hope He imparts to those who know, love, and obey Him. Poor theology and a superficial, inaccurate understanding of God will only make our lives worse instead of bringing the comfort and hope we long for. Knowing about God is crucially important. We are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about God. The world is a painful place, and life in it is disappointing and unpleasant. Reject theology and you doom yourself to life with no sense of direction. Without theology, we waste our lives and lose our souls.
All Christians should be consumed with theology—the intense, personal study of God—in order to know, love, and obey the One with whom we will joyfully spend eternity.
WHAT IS BIBICAL THEOLOGY?
Biblical theology is the study of the doctrines of the Bible, arranged according to their chronology and historical background. In contrast to systematic theology, which categorizes doctrine according to specific topics, biblical theology shows the unfolding of God’s revelation as it progressed through history. Biblical theology may seek to isolate and express the theological teachings of a specific portion of Scripture, such as the theology of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament) or the theology contained within John’s writings, etc. Or it may focus on a particular period of time, such as the theology of the unified kingdom years. Another branch of biblical theology may study a particular motif or theme in the Bible: a study of “the remnant,” for example, might search out how that motif is introduced and developed throughout Scripture.
Many credit J. P. Gabler, a German biblical scholar, with beginning the field of biblical theology. As he was being inaugurated to a professorship in 1787, Gabler called for a sharp distinction between dogmatic (systematic or doctrinal) theology and biblical theology. For Gabler, biblical theology must be strictly a historical study of what was believed and taught in the various periods of biblical history, independent of modern denominational, doctrinal, philosophical, or cultural considerations. In general, the principles that Gabler espoused were correct, and he influenced the development of biblical theology for many years to come.
However, it should be noted that there is no such thing as a study of the Bible with complete objectivity. Every interpreter brings certain presuppositions to the task. These biases have considerable influence upon the process of interpreting the Scriptures. As a result, the field of biblical theology is checkered with every imaginable opinion and variation of what the Bible teaches. Biblical theology is utterly dependent upon the hermeneutics of the theologian. The methods employed in interpreting Scripture are crucially important to biblical theology. One’s biblical theology can be no better than the methods he uses to interpret Scripture.
Here is a basic difference between systematic and biblical theology: systematic theology asks, “What does the Bible as a whole say about angels?” and then examines every passage that concerns angelic beings, draws conclusions, and organizes all the information into a body of truth called “angelology.” The final product is, from Genesis to Revelation, the totality of God’s revealed truth on the subject.
Biblical theology asks, “How did our understanding of angels develop throughout biblical history?” and then starts with the Pentateuch’s teaching about angels and traces God’s progressive revelation of these beings throughout Scripture. Along the way, the biblical theologian draws conclusions about how people’s thinking about angels may have changed as more and more truth was revealed. The conclusion of such a study is, of course, an understanding of what the Bible has to say about angels, but it also places that knowledge in the context of the “bigger picture” of God’s whole revelation. Biblical theology helps us see the Bible as a unified whole, rather than as a collection of unrelated doctrinal points.
WHAT IS HISTORICAL THEOLOGY?
Answer: Historical theology is the study of the development and history of Christian doctrine. As its name implies, historical theology is a study of the development and formation of essential Christian doctrine throughout the history of the New Testament church period. Historical theology can also be defined as the study of how Christians during different historical periods have understood different theological subjects or topics such as the nature of God, the nature of Jesus Christ, the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, the doctrine of salvation, etc.
The study of historical theology covers subjects such as the development of creeds and confessions, church councils, and heresies that have arisen and been dealt with throughout church history. A historical theologian studies the development of the essential doctrines that separate Christianity from heresies and cults.
Theologians often break down the study of historical theology into four main periods of time: 1) the Patristic Period from AD 100—400; 2) the Middle Ages and Renaissance from AD 500—1500; 3) the Reformation and Post-Reformation Periods from AD 1500—1750; and 4) the Modern Period from AD 1750 to the present day.
The purpose of historical theology is to understand and describe the historical origin of the key doctrines of Christianity and to trace the development of these doctrines over time. It examines how people have understood different doctrines throughout history and attempts to understand the development of the doctrines, recognizing how changes within the church have affected different doctrines either for better or worse.
Historical theology and church history are two different yet closely related and important subjects. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to understand church history without also understanding the history of doctrine that often led to different divisions and movements within church history. Understanding the history of theology and doctrine helps us to understand the history of Christianity since the first century and why there are so many different denominations.
The basis for studying historical theology is found in the book of Acts. Luke records the beginning of the Christian Church as he continues toward his goal of giving an account of “all that Jesus began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1). The work of Christ did not end with the final chapter of Acts. Indeed, Christ is at work today in His church, and that can be seen through the study of historical theology and church history, both of which help us to understand how the biblical doctrines essential to the Christian faith have been recognized and proclaimed throughout church history. Paul warned the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:29–30 to expect “savage wolves” who would teach false doctrine. It is through the study of historical theology that we see just how true Paul’s warning turned out to be, as we come to understand how the essential doctrines of the Christian faith have been attacked and defended throughout the more than 2,000 years of church history.
Like any area of theology, historical theology is also sometimes used by liberal scholars and non-Christians to cast doubt upon or attack the essential doctrines of the Christian faith as simply being the concoctions of men instead of the divinely revealed biblical truth that they really are. One example of this is in the discussion of the triune nature of God. The historical theologian will study and trace the development of this doctrine throughout church history knowing that this truth is clearly revealed in Scripture, yet throughout church history there have been times when the doctrine came under attack and thus it was necessary for the church to define and defend the doctrine. The truth of the doctrine comes directly from Scripture; however, the church’s understanding and proclamation of the doctrine has been clarified over the years, often in times when the nature of God had come under attack by those “savage wolves” that Paul warned would come.
Some well-meaning but misguided Christians want to dismiss the importance of historical theology, citing the promise that Holy Spirit who indwells all born-again Christians will “guide us to all truth” (John 16:13). What these Christians fail to recognize is that Holy Spirit has indwelt Christians throughout church history, and it is Jesus Christ Himself who has given “some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12). This includes not only those given in this generation but also those whom Christ ordained throughout church history. It is foolish to believe we have no need to learn from many gifted men that preceded us. A correct study and application of historical theology helps us recognize and learn from Christian teachers and leaders from centuries past.
Through the study of church history and historical theology, the born-again Christian is encouraged to see how God has been at work throughout history. In it we see God’s sovereignty over all things displayed and the truth that God’s Word endures forever (Psalm 119:160). Studying historical theology is really nothing more than studying God at work. It also helps remind us of the ever-present spiritual battle between Satan and the truth of God’s Word. It shows us from history the many ways and forms that Satan uses to spread false doctrine in the church, just as Paul warned the Ephesian elders.
The study of historical theology and church history also shows that the truth of God’s Word remains triumphant. As we understand the theological battles of the past, we can be better prepared to resist the errors that Satan will try to entice us with in the future. If pastors, churches, and Christians are not aware of church history and historical theology, then they will be more open to falling prey to the same type of false teachings that Satan has used in the past.
Historical theology, when correctly understood and applied, does not diminish the authority or sufficiency of Scripture. Scripture alone is the standard in all matters of faith and practice. It alone is inspired and inerrant. Scripture alone is our authority and guide, but historical theology can help us understand the many dangers of some “new teaching” or novel interpretation of Scripture. With over 2,000 years of church history and thousands if not millions of Christians preceding us, shouldn’t we be automatically wary of someone who claims to have a “new explanation” or interpretation of Scripture?
Finally, historical theology can remind us of the ever-present danger of interpreting Scripture in light of the cultural and philosophical assumptions of our times. We see this danger so much today as sin is being redefined as a sickness to be cured by drugs instead of a spiritual condition. We also see it as many denominations leave the clear teaching of Scripture and embrace the cultural acceptance of homosexuality as a lifestyle.
Historical theology is an important aspect of studying theology, but, like any other method of study, it is not without its dangers and pitfalls. The challenge for all Christians and for all students of theology is to not force our theological system on the Bible but to always make sure that our theology comes from the Scripture and not from some system that might be popular.
WHAT IS PRACTICAL THEOLOGY?
Answer: Practical theology, as its name implies, is the study of theology in a way that is intended to make it useful or applicable. Another way of saying it is that it is the study of theology so that it can be used and is relevant to everyday concerns. One seminary describes its Practical Theology Program as “being dedicated to the practical application of theological insights” and that it “generally includes the sub-disciplines of pastoral theology, homiletics, and Christian education, among others.” Another seminary sees the purpose of practical theology as helping to prepare students to translate the knowledge learned into effective ministry to people. Doing this involves both personal and family life as well as the administration and educational ministries in the church. They state that the goal of practical theology is to develop effective communicators of Scripture who have a vision for the spiritual growth of believers while being servant leaders.
Some consider practical theology to simply be a more technical name for the doctrine of the Christian life. Its emphasis is on how all the teaching of Scripture should affect the way we live today in this present world. The emphasis of practical theology is not simply to contemplate or comprehend theological doctrines but to move beyond that to applying those doctrines in everyday Christian life so that we “contribute to the world’s becoming what God intends it to be.”
The premise behind practical theology programs is that future Christian leaders need to be equipped not only with theological knowledge but also with the necessary professional skills to minister effectively in the modern world. Often these programs use preaching, Christian education, counseling and clinical programs to provide opportunities to equip and prepare future Christian leaders.