I will never forget something that happened in my freshman year of college. I was wondering what the word “theology” meant so I found another student who was in his senior year and was majoring in theology. I was a little embarrassed to be asking such a basic question, but I mustered up the courage and finally asked him – “what is theology?” To my great surprise, he couldn’t give me an answer. After thinking for a while, he took me back to his dorm room where he found a book and read a definition out of that book. Turns out I wasn’t alone in my ignorance.
So what is theology? It has been said before that every Christian is a theologian and to some extent that’s true, but it still doesn’t help us understand what theology is. I liked how blogger Tim Challies handled this question in a recent post.
“Millard Erickson, in his massive work Christian Theology, gives a simple but rather comprehensive definition:
[Theology is] that discipline which strives to give a coherent statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith, based primarily on the Scriptures, placed in the context of culture in general, worded in a contemporary idiom, and related to issues of life. (23)
What Erickson simply calls “theology” here is more precisely distinguished by others as systematic theology. Wayne Grudem, a theologian who has also written a massive book on the subject (and pretty much a must-have for your library), makes this distinction, and he defines systematic theology as “any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic” (21).
Though much shorter, Grudem’s definition is, in essence, the same as Erickson’s; they are both good and useful.
Another even more basic way of saying it, with fewer qualifications, would be to say that theology refers to what we think God thinks about something.”
There you go. If you want a definition that you can actually remember, then use this one. “Theology refers to what we think God thinks about something.” How do we know what God thinks about something? Obviously, we must go to God’s Word, the Bible. What theology helps us do is to understand what the whole bible teaches us about any given topic. For example, what does the bible teach about sin? What does the bible teach about God and man? What is Christian baptism? And on and on the list goes.