Theology – What is it?

There is so much theological conversation that takes place. Often these conversations are not happening in a context of ‘theology’ but they are still theology. For those of us who grew up in the church we were often taught theology. Most of the times this was through the memorization of abstract philosophical concepts.

God is all powerful.
God is all present.
Jesus died for our sins.

I picked statements that are very orthodox. These are unlikely to get much push back from my (mostly Christian) readers. Each statements is helpful. None of these statements help us understand the question/s they are answering.

Let us take a step back to address the question – what is theology?

The Three Theological Questions

I’ve spent much of my adult life wrestling with theology. In that time I have found myself in the presence of these guiding questions. Theological inquiry attempts to answer one or more of three questions. Each question we seek to understand theologically need to exist within these questions.

1) How does God relate to people and creation?
2) How do people relate to God?
3) How do people relate to the rest of creation (including one another)?

We can see a strong mirroring of the two greatest commandment. Jesus told us that the first is to love God, and the second is to love others. Jesus told us that everything hung off of those two points. The three questions are build upon those two points.

Moreover, each of these questions is relational. Just as the call of Jesus is relational. To know or be known requires a relationship. I can only know myself in the relationship to others (or to my previous self). I can only know God as God relates to something or someone else.

These questions often drive us to look for differences. When I describe myself as being a tall person I am saying that this is how I am different. We often describe ourselves by sharing a short list of ways we are different. Yet the ways we are the same also matter. That I have two eyes, two ears, and skin over my bones also matters. It matters how people are different and similar to God. It matters how we are different and similar to the rest of creation.

Lets look at the first statement from above. When one says “God is all Powerful” they mean that God is more powerful than anything else in creation. If God was not then God wouldn’t be all powerful. It is the relational connection which allows us to make this statement.

Jesus died for our sins.” This one is also relational. It is telling us something that Jesus did for us (in relationship to us and for us). It also requires us to talk about sin. This is not yet the time to dive into hamartiology (the study of sin). It is important to observe that sin is also only understood with relational language. Sin exists between a person and God, others, or creation.

Are there more Questions?

Yes, there are more questions we can ask. The three that I proposed above will capture the scope and scale of what I believe to be helpful. This is not to say that those who have come before us have not sought to answer other questions.

One famous question from the middle ages was ‘How many angels can dance on the head of a pin’. The answer to this question does not really fit within any of the three I laid out above. It is closest to the third in that is focused on how something created relates to something else created.

The lack of connection or impact on people is one of the reasons this question feels so disconnected for most of us. It is the relationships between things which make our theological work important.

The Bible is a theological text

Above all else the bible is a theological text. It’s primary concern is to address the questions above. Each book is an attempt by it’s author to guide us in to these complex relationships with God and one another. We should not forget that these texts are theological. Otherwise we want the texts to answer questions that it was not intended to. Some un-theological questions: how old the earth is, when does the world end, or where did Israel wander in the wilderness.

This makes more sense when we look at an example from the bible.

The Two Stories of Creation

The creation narratives in Genesis are a great place to start. It is where the first book in the bible starts. There are 2 separate and unique stories of creation in the first three chapters. We can say that these stories are trying to establish a baseline for why the world is the way it is. How is God related to creation? How is God related to us as people? Why are relationships between men and women like they are? Why do people seem to be masters over crops and animals? We know these are questions being asked because they are the questions answered. We will get to hermeneutics later (how we interpretate scripture).

Yet each story attempts to answer different questions. Thus the inability of these stories to be narratively harmonized is not a problem. This brief survey will briefly illustrate how these questions exist in biblical texts. Neither of these stories are presenting a historical account of how creation happened.

Survey of Genesis 1:1-2:3

Much of the first creation story is about how God relates to creation. If God is the one creating it that tells us a lot about the relationship God has with creation. That people were created together tells us much about how we need community. Not all animals are communal creatures, yet the author of this story tells us that people are.

It also explains why people are at the top of the food chain. People were created in Gods image (telling us to rule over creation). That people living in the Cradle of Civilization were given all of earth for their food. This first story is rich with some of the most basic answers to these three questions.

Survey of Genesis 2:4-3:24

The second story is much more intimate. God crafts a beautiful home in the form of a Garden. Lush with food, water, and beauty. It is at this point that God places a single person in the garden. Unlike the first story we see a sharing of responsibilities in naming the animals. God has an interest and care in the wellbeing of this person. After the creation of the second person we feel a sense of satisfaction. The community element from the first story is fulfilled again. Relationship and connection is clearly important. Yet it is within the relationship of these two that evil enters the world. There is trust between God and people, and between the people. There is deception, and consequences.

We also see the author attempting to explain some of the hard realities of life. Where does the toil of work, or pain of child birth come from. These are each relational questions about creation and others.

Yet even here in chapter 3 verse 21 God has compassion upon those who broke their promise and Gods trust. Clothing is crafted and given freely to them before they leave the garden. Here in the earliest pages of the bible we see God act out of grace after being betrayed.

Everyone thinks Theologically

No matter our background or beliefs we all wrestle with theological questions. How we relate to one another is a central question for living. It is present in the communities we are born into, choose, and find as we journey through life. For those who don’t believe in God some of the questions have less value. Often, but not always, God in these questions is replaced with another concept or idea.

The discipline of philosophy allows us to ask questions far beyond the scope of theology. Philosophy has fascinated me since my elementary school days discovering Aristotle and Plato. Questions about systems of governance, reality of objects/time, rhetoric, and much more. We need to be careful that we do not over extend the reach of theology into these conversations.

Good theology needs to accept its limits. For example I say it is not possible to theologically conclude what an ideal system of governance is. This question should remain beyond the scope of theological inquiry. It does not exist within the questions expressed above. History also shows us that God, faith, and theology have and will continue to function under many systems.

To the dismay of some there is much greater scope of inquiry for philosophy than there is theology.

How do we develop theology?

I felt it was necessary to start very simply. These three questions can guide our further inquiry and study. This conversation is a foundation for future conversations. The next level to add is an observation of how theology develops. What are the ingredients (or sources) we have at hand to answer all the ways these three questions come at us. After that we’ll look at why theology changes, and dig deeper into each of the sources of theology.