What is theology? The modern church often misunderstands the purpose of theology and as a result misuses and underuses it. The simple answer to this question is that theology is the study of God. It’s in the name. Theo is Greek for God and ology is from the Greek logia meaning “study of.” What does this mean though? In contemporary thought theology is often imagined as academics contemplating the complexities of God in a context completely removed from how faith functions in day-to-day life. In this view, theology is a cold and sterile study which is far removed from any relational interaction with God. It attempts to know the unknowable, like a full understanding of predestination vs. free-will, and therefore wastes its time on endless squabbles and meaningless distinctions. This is, however, an inaccurate view of theology.
“Theology is important not just because of the truths it provides but because those truths help believers increase in their love of God.”
To understand the purpose of theology, it is necessary to look back through church history. Anselm once gave a famous definition for theology under which this essay will function. Anselm defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” This is what truly lies at the heart of this study.
Properly done, theology is members of the bride of Christ gathering in an attempt to understand the groom. It is neither a cold nor a removed project. In fact, theology is an extremely intimate and personal study. It is a desperate attempt to get to know a lover who constantly remains beyond understanding. In his work “On the Incarnation,” Athanasius writes “Let us follow up the faith of our religion, and set forth also what relates to the word becoming man, in order that your piety (godliness) toward Him may be increased and multiplied.” Athanasius takes up the task of attempting to describe the incarnation not simply for the sake of understanding, but so that he and his readers can grow in their piety towards God. Theologians undertake their study with a simple premise in mind, part of growing in relation with God is increasing in knowledge of Him.
There are two parts to any love: the affections and the intellect. The modern church is great at focusing on ordering human affections towards God so that He is the primary love of every Christian. This ordering of affections is, however, an incomplete love because humans are not purely emotional but also rational beings. Knowledge is a critical element in any true love. If a man glances across the bar and suddenly “falls in love” with the gorgeous woman waiting for her drink, he doesn’t really love her. He may be enthralled by her beauty and love an image of her that he constructs, but he loves an image –not a person. It isn’t until he grows to learn about her that his image can begin to resemble the actual object of love.
A critical part of growing in the love of a person is growing to understand them. A relationship with God works the same way. Theology is important not just because of the truths it provides but because those truths help believers increase in their love of God. Just like a married couple who grow closer and closer over the years as they learn everything about each other, the bride of Christ must at least attempt to learn about her groom.
Even when theology fails to provide knowledge, it still pulls believers towards God. There is nothing more intellectually humbling than attempting to understand the nature of the Trinity. It completely eludes rational understanding because it is almost by definition super-rational, but this shouldn’t discourage the theologian. Realizing the majesty of God is so great that mere humans cannot even comprehend His existence draws theologians to their knees in awe and wonder of the God who is far beyond human understanding. Theology is an extremely humbling experience and increases the wonder and meekness with which men approach God.
“I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”
This is why every believer should participate in some study of theology. It doesn’t need to be an academic study, but reading a favorite theologian’s writings can help a Christian grow in their understanding and their relationship with God. As C.S. Lewis once said, “I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”
Theology is not a cold study separate from our relationship with God, but is actually a beautiful path through which believers should desperately pursue God and grow in their knowledge and love toward their groom.