In other words, Theology is practical: especially now.
In the old days, when there was less education and discussion,
perhaps it was possible to get on with a very few simple ideas about God.
But it is not so now. Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed.
Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean
that you have no ideas about God [i.e., theology].
It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones —
bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas.
— C.S. Lewis —
Theology rightly understood is not a tangential part of Christian faith; it is the source, strength, and substance of vibrant faith. As A. W. Tozer famously said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us” (Knowledge of the Holy, 1). This is the core of theology—thinking God’s thoughts after him. And true theology is thinking biblically-informed thoughts about God. Theology is not an academic discipline consisting of esoteric terms, but sound doctrine that gives life and strength to every child of God made alive in Christ.
Sadly, this way of thinking about theology is often missed. Even among pastors, those called to instruct in sound doctrine, there is a sense in which theology is secondary to the real work of the ministry. Evangelism, discipleship, worship services, and church growth are elevated above “theology,” but only because they assume that each discipline and practice of the church is a-theological. In the short run, such doctrinal inattention may not create observable problems, but in the long run it will.
Paul understood this and that is why he writes in 1 Timothy 4:16: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Faithful shepherds and growing sheep follow Paul’s model and give appropriate emphasis to theology as it informs and energizes spiritual life. In fact, close attention to the New Testament shows that wherever the apostles are giving practical instruction, they are doing so from deeply theological wells.
Mark Dever, in the preface of his book on 1 Corinthians (Twelve Challenges Churches Face) makes this very point. Highlighting the corrective nature of Paul’s letter, he writes,
When [Paul] was facing the most normal of problems (division in the church, worldliness, selfishness, and others) he reached for deeply theological responses. Paul called the Corinthian congregation to be not divided but united, not worldly but holy, not selfish but loving. That’s not the surprising part. The surprising part is how he argued this with them. He called them to forsake divisions, because God is one. He called them to forsake sin, because God is holy. He called them to forsake selfishness, because God is loving. In all of this, the governing presupposition is not that the church should operate by a rule book of spiritual manners and etiquette, but that the church is a living reflection of the living God. There is one God. He is holy and has given himself in love. His church, therefore, should reflect his own character; we should be united and holy and loving or else we lie about him! That is a powerful thought. (10).
Indeed. The power for transformation and church health is never devoid of theology. Rather, as Dever observes, Paul’s approach to the church is deeply theological. And churches that will bear lasting fruit must give themselves to theology, for good fruit only comes from sound doctrine.
Accordingly, may we who treasure Christ and his church pay attention to our theology and practice. Like marriage, may we never divorce the two. Theology (what we think about God) must always lead to godly actions, and action (what we do to serve the Lord) must always be straightened and supported by biblical truth. In this way, the discipline of theology is not a tangential interest for some in the church. It is for all of us. Like one of the senior saints in my last church said: “We are all supposed to be theologians. I just never knew.”
What a sad thought, that theology is only for the professional theologians. May we who prize theology stress its place in the church and show how practical it is, for in so doing we will save both ourselves and those around us.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds