Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground. Psalm 143:10
During a conversation about Bible Study, I was asked, “How is ‘doing’ theology different from Bible Study?”
Sadly, the misconception that theology is misleading or dangerous has caused much division in the church. Perhaps the greatest example of this misunderstanding comes from the life of St. Francis. When Francis began his Order in 1209, he forbade his followers from doing or pursuing “theology.” It is true that the circumstances of his day bore witness to mass corruption in the church perpetrated by the hands of “learned men” and proclaimed ‘theologians’ who had the ‘absolute and only truth.’ These men, mostly priests and Bishops, were abusive and self-ingratiating with little or no pastoral care for the ‘common folk.’ It is because of this witness that Francis made his rule and would never consider becoming a priest.
Abusive people exist everywhere and in every time. The church has always suffered with (what often seems to be a majority) of clerics and theologians who hide behind station and education, wreaking pastoral havoc and retiring in style—wasn’t this exactly what Jesus was facing in the Temple system? This all changed for Francis however, when St. Anthony of Padua joined the Order and preached with biblical clarity and theological insight. Francis began to reexamine his understanding of what “theology” really was.
Webster’s dictionary defines theology as “The science of God or of religion; the science which treats of the existence, character, and attributes of God, his laws and government, the doctrines we are to believe, and the duties we are to practice. . . the science of Christian faith and life.”
The word theology is the combination of two Greek words—“Theos” (θεός)— God — and “logos”(λόγος)— Word. Literally, theology means “God’s Word” or the “Word of God” and is understood to mean the “Study of the Word(s) of God.” Theology is the practice (praxis) of studying who God is and what God has done through the observable world and, primarily, through Holy Scripture. Theology depends on the study of the entire Bible as the revelation of God’s self, informed by guided reflection, and a synthetic understanding of creation. In short, theology is Bible Study.
There was a time when theological studies were accepted and, more than that, required! Formal theological studies were undertaken in every university and school as St. Thomas Aquinas famously wrote, “Theology is the queen of the sciences.” It is hard to believe now, but this belief was held as truth all the way through the 20th century. Theology was a required core study in such institutions as Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, and even state universities, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — the oldest state university in America.
Sadly, the understanding of what theology is has eroded over time and has been relegated to specialized institutions (seminaries). The effect of this specialization effectively re-created the very abuses Jesus and Francis were faced with: an elite “class” of people who claimed exclusive access to truth. It also created the destructive and encouraged practice of sectionalized study where seminary students can study only the “type” of theology that they like and are thereby self-indoctrinated into a closed way of thinking.
Yes, there are many different schools of theology, each one approached Bible Study from a specific perspective in the hopes of learning God’s will and purpose. For instance, Creation Theology looks to the biblical witness to understand the Stewardship of Creation; Gender Theology looks to the biblical witness to understand the interaction of men and women. There are many other specialties in theological studies: to name only a few, Biblical Theology, Exegetical Theology, Historical Theology, and so on. There is an umbrella theology, Systematic Theology under which all the other theologies subsist and are systematized, but sadly the corruption of theological studies like Bible Studies, rejects synthesis for self-service. The human/historic problem creeps back as the person makes a sub-category their primary theology, subjecting all biblical revelation to a single theological perspective. This is not the fault of theology, but of the theologian.
R.C. Sproul, theologian and Pastor of the Presbyterian Church wrote, “It is not a question of whether we are going to engage in theology; it is a question of whether our theology is sound or unsound.” When we read 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God,” we are called to ‘read, mark and learn’ beyond personal hopes or wants, but as the vehicle to truth. If we are to study the Bible in a way that glorifies God, then we must seek to truly understand it the way that God intends. To glorify God, we must be sure that our theology is sound. Without careful study of theology, we can easily misinterpret verses, or take them out of context so that they will say what we want them to say. We can make the Bible say whatever we want in order to justify our behavior, but obviously, that is not sound. Theological study is Bible Study to the glory of God, not to the satisfaction of self.
Jesus said, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me” (John 7:16) and points us to a theological reflection of who the one is that sent him, what that teaching is in context, and how we relate to him (Jesus) and the one who sent him through it—sounds like good Bible Study to me!
Knowledge in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†