In every generation in every century, the Christian church is called to do theology. The twentieth first century is no different, despite some of the unique cultural landscape in which Christians are to do theology today. Post-Enlightenment’s modernism has lost much of it’s respect, and the rise of Postmodernism has taken it’s place instead. Yet, how should Christian do theology in the twentieth first century? Rather than just a negative reactionary critique of Post-Conservatives and those who are in the Emerging/Emergent camps, a positive constructive concise summary of doing theology for the twentieth first century might prove to be helpful for all. This essay will first explore the definition of theology and doctrine, followed by a discussion of why pastors need to do theology today and end with a section of the goal of theology.
Defining Theology and Doctrine
In his Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology published in 1932, Berkhof stated that “In general it may be said, however, that Reformed theologians conceived of theology as the science of (concerning) God.” Berkhof reflects an understanding of theology prior to the popularity of Postmodernism. Is this definition of theology still helpful for today?
According to Millard Erickson, who has interacted quite frequently with Postmodern thought in regards to theology, has a definition of theology that is similar with Berkhof and traditional Reformed theology, which “is the study or science of God.” It is fascinating to see how Erickson has retained an understanding of theology that is prevalent prior to the rise of Postmodernism, and yet finds it adequate in today’s climate of Postmodernism. I too find that this definition still helpful in defining theology for today. In defining theology, Dr. Andrew Snider has a made an insightful observation that theology is a verb, and not a noun. This grammatical insight has an important ramification in the pursuit of theological studies: If theology is a verb, then it must be an action done by someone. Of course, of all of God’s creatures on earth, mankind is the only one made in the image of God and has the capability, duty and privilege of doing theology. Theology is thus, a human activity of studying God, and the things pertaining to God. This is the operating definition that will be used in this essay.
An important distinction to make here is that there is a difference between studying God and studying about God. In other words, theology is not just the study of certain particular facts about God, but is an exercise of studying God and encountering Him through it. Thus, true theology is a thoroughly spiritual endeavor.
As mentioned above, Dr. Snider has made an intriguing observation that theology is a verb and not a noun. Sometimes people confuse theology for being a noun, the noun which is called “doctrine”. Historically, doctrine has also been known as “dogma”. Dr. Snider has defined doctrine as “Our Summation of a biblical theme that states a truth and calls for a response”. The source for doctrine for an Evangelical must come from the Bible (“of a biblical theme”), having taken into account the Old and New Testament in light of the doctrine of progressive revelation (“our summation”) properly derived and is true. Dr. Snider’s definition of doctrine includes the facet that a doctrine “calls for a response”. Snider’s definition of doctrine takes into account that a Christian encounter with true biblical doctrines has a spiritual effect on the believer. This is an important point to remember throughout the essay, particularly in the section discussing the goals of doing theology in the Christian life.
Why does a pastor need to do theology?
Biblically, one of the Pastor’s roles is to “exhort with sound doctrine and refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). Titus 1:9 teaches a two-fold responsibility: employ sound doctrines as a tool for exhorting, and those who go contrary to it with contradictory doctrines are to be refuted, that is, shown to be in error. These two duties require that a pastor do theology.
First, one cannot exhort with sound doctrine if a pastor does not do theology. Titus 1:9 affirms the understanding that doctrine calls for a response, since sound doctrines is the means to exhort people to have the right response. Yet, how does the pastor derive sound doctrines? One has to understand the proper relationship between doing theology and doctrine if one were to acquire sound doctrines. What then, is the relationship between theology and doctrine? Snider has described it in these terms: “Theology is the process, doctrine is the product…” Likewise, Berkhof has described “theology is doctrine in the making.” If theology is the means by which one arrives at doctrines, and a pastor is required by Biblical mandate to exhort with sound doctrines, then this calls for the pastor to arrive at doctrines by properly doing theology. Here, the pastor is not doing theology for just the sake of doing theology: it is the pastor’s responsibility to do theology with a consideration of receiving sound doctrines to build up the believers unto godliness. A pastor should go further than just acquiring intellectual head knowledge, he is acquiring truths that will transform lives.
Secondly, to be faithful to Titus 1:9’s command to “refute those who contradict” sound doctrine, a pastor has to be do theology. In order to go against what contradict sound doctrine, one has to know what sound doctrines are to begin with (which again, require properly doing theology to arrive at sound doctrines). Furthermore, in order to show a set of doctrines to be false, the pastor has to actually interact with the opponent’s doctrines and theological methods, a task that is quite theological in nature. It is not easy sometimes to refute false doctrines, and to properly refute false doctrines can require of a pastor to interact with various ways of doing theology such as philosophical theology, biblical theology, hermeneutics and exegesis. When a pastor ends up doing theology in the various facets of theology mentioned above, it demonstrates that the responsibility of a pastor to refute those who oppose sound doctrines have to engage in doing theology.
Someone might say that refuting contrary doctrines is more in the realm of apologetics rather than theology. However, apologetics is actually one aspect or form of doing theology. Presuppositionalist John Frame has defined Apologetics as “the application of Scripture to unbelief.” Given the definition of theology in this essay, Frame’s definition of apologetics can be more precisely defined as “theology applied to unbelief”.
Another important aspect of why a pastor should be engage in doing theology is because the study of the teaching of God is important in protecting the body of Christ from false doctrines threatening the Gospel message. A pastor must do theology for the Gospel’s sake. Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 4:12, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” Note that Paul exhorted Timothy to pay attention to one’s teaching and one’s entire self (or life). Paying attention to one’s teaching is theological in nature, and even the attention to one’s moral and spiritual life require that one engages in doing theology in order to have access to sound doctrines, sound doctrines which God has ordained as the means in which one exhort oneself and others towards godliness and the truth.
The Goal of Theology
One legitimate criticisms of Postconservative Evangelicals has been the phenomenon in which one’s personal life and piety seems to be disconnected from doing theology. However, if one is truly doing theology, then it should lead to the transformation of one’s life. According to Snider, “Theology is the process, doctrine is the product, transformed life is the goal.”
Surely, it is the pastor’s responsibility to do theology with a consideration of receiving sound doctrines to build up the believers unto godliness. However, the responsibility to admonish and exhort is not only given to the pastor, but to all believers as well (Colossians 3:16). In the same way, that a pastor has to do theology to receive the sound doctrine that is the ordained means of exhorting believers, all saints has to do theology as well in order to be faithfully exhorting one another with sound doctrines.
This has a major ramification in how doing theology should be done. If one of the goals of theology is transforming lives, then theology is every bit personal rather than an impersonal, dry study. Doing theology and the growth in biblical knowledge then, has a normative, existential and situational side to it. A Christian should reject the Modernists’ “claim to dispassionate knowledge, a person’s ability to view reality not as a conditioned participant but as an unconditioned observer—to peer at the world from a vantage point outside the flux of history,” if one truly believes that the goal of theology is to transform people’s personal lives at the very level of the heart.
Indeed, if one truly is doing theology properly, this should lead to a transformed life. This is because doing theology leads one to encounter God. It is God who is ultimately the subject of theology, and God who speaks to us authoritatively through His transcendent Word to our lives and situation.
Edifying unity in diversity
The cultural shift towards Postmodernism has brought along with it a resurgence of the importance of the community once again. In part, this has been Postmodernism’s reaction towards the radical individualism of Modernism. One needs to not err on both sides of the ditch, between two extremes. However, there is an aspect where doing theology can bring about a greater unity in the midst of diversity within the church.
In the previous section, the discussion about the requirement of the pastor to refute those who contradict sound doctrines touched on various ways of doing theology, such as philosophical theology, apologetics, biblical theology and systematic theology. These types of theology do not necessarily conflict or opposes one another, but rather if they are done properly, these ways of doing theologies can serve to complement one another as various “perspectives”. Believing that there are various perspectives in doing theology is not necessarily a denial of the existence or know ability of absolute truth, but rather this form of perspectivalism as popularized by John Frame, is a legitimate way of thinking and doing theology in light of the fact that everyone who do theology is finite and fallen, which means our knowledge of the truth at times can be partial. An important illustration here is that of the jewel: there are various facets to the diamond of a pristine theology, but there is one diamond of true religion/worldview/faith. There is a mutual edification and unity of having brothers and sisters in Christ doing theology and capitalizing their strengths in each respective area (be it biblical theology, Old Testament theology, etc) for the purpose of building the greater whole.
There is a sense of perspective when we read the Bible. For instance, “we use a multitude of perspective on a passage, we do not expect a conflict or contradiction between perspectives. Rather, we use each perspective to reinforce and enhance our total understanding.” One can instantly think of an example with the harmony of the Gospel, the compatibility of the Book of James and Romans, etc., of instances in which there are legitimate perspectives found in the Bible that are not contradictory or thoroughly relative. If one’s theology is informed by Scripture, and Scripture is perspectival, then it should be surprising to find that a solid systematic theology should be perspectival as well. Various focuses on theology should reinforce and further our total theological understanding. Rather than a threat, if one’s theology is true, one should expect that the various analogies and interests of theological aspect is complementary of other parts of theology. Likewise, one should also appreciate the various types of theologians and believers gifted in other ways than our way, who can point our blind spots in how we do theology.
Contrary to the ways of the Enlightenment, it is important that one’s goal of theology is not to have an impersonal, comprehensive and neutral outlook on life and the world. The point of doctrinal formulation is to represent the biblical point of this doctrine rather than comprehensively say everything about a particular doctrine. One must show God reverence here, to knowingly submit to the fact that one is finite and cannot take the place of God, who is the only one who can comprehensively know anything. To express the Van Tillian motif, one’s epistemology when it comes to doing theology must preserve the Creator/creature distinction.
In doing theology, the believer need to acknowledge that their knowledge is partial and yet is actual knowledge. Only God has full knowledge.
Knowing this truth, a believer who engages in theology would expect to find some area in theology to be mysterious. Upon identifying a theological mystery, one should learn to submit to God reverentially, that one can not know everything. Otherwise, one would treat it as a problem to be solved rather than accept it as a theological paradox (seemingly contradictory, but not). Knowing the incomprehensibility of God, one can worship Him for being the true living God above our imagination, and thanking Him for allowing us to see a glimpse so that it can invoke worship.
 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1941), 40.
 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 22.
 Andrew Snider, Theology 605:Theology I Class Notes (Sun Valley: The Master’s Seminary Class Syllabus, Revised Fall 2009), 13.
 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 35.
 John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1987), 87.
 Snider, Theology, 13.
 Stanley J. Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: a Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 15.
 Vern Poythress, Symphonic Theology (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001), 24.