What is theology for? Why bother, when we should be focusing on church growth, new ministries, and better forms of evangelism? It’s a good question. So here is my short answer: far from being a useless pontificate, theology cannot be separated from the beating heart of the Christian faith. It helps us grasp the powerful and compelling vision of a life transformed by Christ. And we have to keep that vision alive; the future of the Church depends on it!
To many this seems to have nothing to do with the Bible. Fair enough – I know too many theologians who don’t know the Bible. But most theologians, especially in the early church and during the Reformation era, see the Bible as central to the faith. Early Christian theologians saw themselves as trying to weave together the threads of biblical passages in order to better see the bigger picture emerging from them.
In the end, theology matters because Christianity matters
For me, theology explains what Christianity is to those beyond the Church. It helps Christian believers deepen their faith and understanding. And it enables churches to be constantly refreshed, renewed and challenged by the vision of reality that gave birth to them in the first place.
A matter of perspective
In his poem, The windowGeorge Herbert draws a distinction between looking at a window and watch through this. Likewise, we can look at Christian doctrines – for example, the doctrine of creation – and explore it as an idea, explain its biblical roots, how it is expressed in beliefs and how it has been understood by various theologians. But we are in fact invited to do something much more interesting: to allow Christian theology to become a window through which we look at ourselves and the world. Herbert wants us to watch through Christian doctrines. He wants us use theology so that we can develop a deeper and richer engagement with God and our world. As Christians, we need to train ourselves to look at the world in a Christian way and appreciate the difference it makes.
Theology helps us grasp the powerful and compelling vision of a life transformed by Christ
Ultimately, theology matters because Christianity matters. It is impossible to read the New Testament epistles or the sermons of early Christian writers without feeling that something new, exciting and transforming has happened in and through Christ. It opens up a new way of understanding ourselves and the world. We are invited to enter this new world and make it our home.
The priceless pearl
Theology is the attempt of the Christian community to imagine, describe and analyze this new world of faith – allowing believers to grow and flourish in it, and outsiders to get a sense of what what is Christianity. The Church has always struggled to find the right words to describe the treasure entrusted to her – a treasure on which her identity and her survival depend. That is why theology emerged as a principled, imaginative, and desperately needed attempt to find the best ways to describe, communicate, and praise the pearl of great price that lies at the center of our faith (Matthew 13: 45-46).
Without this pearl, Christianity collapses. Theology aims to preserve this pearl, show its beauty and explain its meaning. Yes, churches need guidance on how to manage congregations, communicate effectively, and use the latest technology effectively. But these are complementary to the mission of the Church, which depends on it having something to say and to show that cannot be found elsewhere. Whether we like it or not, theology both preserves this identity vision and offers a proven toolkit to recommend it.
In a few months, I will retire as professor of theology at Oxford University. Having dedicated my academic career to theology, there is much more I could say on the subject, especially how theology relates to wisdom, well-being and wonder – a major theme of my new book What is the purpose of theology? (SPCK). But hopefully this short article will give you an idea of what it is all about and why it matters, because it really is.