theology comes from the Greek words
λογος and means
the study of God. It is historically a branch of philosophy.
philosophy comes from the Greek words
σοφος and means love of wisdom. It is the discipline of logical thinking, as well identifying and avoiding fallacies.
Colossians 2:9 uses the word
philosphy in a negative sense in Colossians 2:9, but just like everything that has an improper use, it also has a proper use. Justin Martyr (AD 100-157) was a philosopher from Samaria who converted to Christianity after he decided it was the true philosophy. He tried to evangelize fellow philosophers. Paul also preached to the philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens, but got poor results, because he was a rabbi, not a philosopher. Philosophy is a prerequisite for systematic theology in ATS accredited seminaries. Students who have a philosophy class on their undergraduate transcripts meet that requirement.
Theology uses all the same methods as philosophy, but it is based on a concept of God.
Theology as a Branch of Philosophy
If you base your philosophy on a concept of God, you’ve got a theology. The concept of God can be any of the following:
- The view that there is no god at all. By some interpretations, Buddhism can fit into this category.
- The view that God created the universe but ignores it and does not intervene in it. This is largely the product of 18th century intellectualism, and was the religious view of the American founding fathers. Benjamin Franklin said,
God helps those who help themselves,which was a way of saying that you have to make your own miracles, because God won’t.
- The view that the universe itself is God. The closest modern version of pantheism is when people say that the
the universe will bring you something.
- The view that there are many gods, some with territories, others with specialties, and there is office politics and palace intrigue among them. If you have a concern, you need to pray to the appropriate god. In polytheism, there is usually one god who rules over all the others, and that gave ancient Christians a good toe-hold into evangelism.
- The view that there are many gods, but there is only one god who can properly be worshipped. Mormonism fits into this category. Most Mormons believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are separate gods, and some believe that God has a wife, but they only direct their prayers to Heavenly Father.
- The view that there is only one God, who is a monad. Islam is the world religion with the most rigid form of monotheism.
- Christianity is a variation of monotheism in which there is only one God who consists of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom can be worshipped, who are individually God, but collectively only one God.
Retrofitting Trinitarianism into Monotheism
There is a philosophical rationale for Trinitarianism. It posits that a monad cannot achieve consciousness, because the essence of consciousness consists of distinguishing Me from Not Me, which is only possible if God is not a monad and consists of at least two persons.
person is confusing. That’s because early theologians couldn’t think of a better Latin word for ὐποστασις. There is only one God, who has three ὐποστασεις.
If God is a monad, He cannot be conscious, and if He is unconscious, He cannot create the universe. Also, God cannot know love if He has no one to love, and love is perfected in loving an equal. This is further reason to reject monadism. Before creation, the reasoning goes, God has to be at least two
persons, or He could not love or even be conscious.
We also know that God is social in nature, and two people don’t make a society. God relates to us as a social being. This is only possible if, before creation, there were more than two
persons who make up the essence of God. Theoretically, there could any number, but three is the smallest number and Christian revelation says there are only three.
Specializations Within Theology
There are specialized areas within theology, such as apologetics and polemics. Apologetics consists of defending what you believe or persuading people to believe it, too. Polemics consists of refuting beliefs.
Theology versus Applications of Theology
Many people apply theology to contemporary social and political problems and call those theologies, such as
liberation theology or
feminist theology. Technically, those are not really theologies, so much as they are applications of theology to real-world problems. That is not a value judgment, it is only a categorization.
Why Theology Must Be Systematic
But last week, you said…
If anyone ever says that to you, it means that you made theological statements that don’t add up or contradict each other. It means that you didn’t quite think your theology through.
There is a way to avoid it, and it’s obvious: Think things out in advance. That’s easier said than done. You read the Bible and study reference books, but you still find things that you can’t fit together, and most often you don’t realize that until someone has put you on the spot. Okay, let’s pray as we study, but what if God’s answer is,
Why do you think I gave you a brain? Think it out for yourself.
In a burst of sudden insight, you say,
Ah, so that’s what my brain is for! I could think it out for myself, but how do I do that?
The answer is to arrange your beliefs into a coherent framweork, to tie up loose ends and eliminate contradictions. This is called
systematic theology, and it was formerly known as
dogmatic theology, in which case the word
a revealed truth that we could not discover on our own. in that sense, theological thinking consists of deriving doctrines from dogmas and putting them into a consistent system.
A dogma is a truth that was revealed to us, because we could never have figured it out on our own, such as the Incarnation and the Trinity.
The Benefit of Systematic Theology
If you have a well-thought out systematic theology, you can save yourself a lot of embarrassment when someone asks you a question. Sometimes people ask questions to put you on the spot and make you look ridiculous if you don’t have an answer; this is how to avoid falling into that trap.
Exercises in Systematic Theology
It’s always best to rehearse before going on stage, so here are some exercises in systematic theology for you.
Can God make a rock so heavy that He can’t move it?
If you have been teaching that God is all-powerful and can do all things, someone might be curious about how it works. Someone who is a non-believer might try to stump you with this question to make you look silly.
My answer is that if you take out the rock, you are really asking if God can do something that God cannot do. The answer is no, not because God is deficient, but because the question is meaningless. What is your answer?
If God has a plan, how can I choose Jesus?
If you reassure people that God has a plan, but you also urge them to choose Jesus, you have to figure out how those two beliefs fit together. Some astute person might realize that they cannot choose Jesus if God planned that they would reject Him, and that they cannot reject Jesus if God planned they would accept Him. Also, you may have discovered that reassuring someone that God has a plan can backfire badly at a funeral.
My solution is to deny that God has a plan! If you want to build a house, you need a plan, so you don’t forget anything. If God wants to build a house, He doesn’t need a plan, because He never forgets anything. If we have a will, we need a plan, but if God has a will, He does not need a plan. We can’t change His mind about His will, but there are a lot of ways we could could change His mind about the route He will take to get there. What is your answer?
Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?
One answer to this question is that the Law of God requires it, and Jesus is obligated to obey the Law, or that it was His plan all along. The problem with that answer is that it was obviously not a good plan, since He could just say
your sins are forgiven and be done with it. If the Law places an obligation on God, it is stronger than God, or it means that God wasn’t smart enough to figure out in advance the terrible consequence of His plan. That is obviously not a good answer.
My answer is that Jesus didn’t have a personal need to die on the cross, but we have a need to see it in order to believe in His authority to give us commandments and rescue us from death. Jesus voluntarily died on the cross. It is in the Law because He knew in advance that we would need verification for what we saw.
If it is not God’s will for anyone to be lost, how can anyone go to hell?
This is a good question, because it is hard to imagine anything that could be stronger than God and frustrate His will. If God doesn’t want something to happen, how can it happen? We are not stronger than God, so how could we sin beyond His ability to redeem us? A possible answer is that God predetermined that some people would go to hell, but that doesn’t really explain anything, because it says that God didn’t want anyone to go to hell, but He wanted some people to go to hell. Those two things can’t be true at the same time.
I am not going to figure this out for you; you are on your own.
Someone said the Bible condemns me. Is that true?
There was a daft pastor who actually answered this question by saying,
Yes, the Bible condemns you, but I don’t. That shows your cluelessness, not your love. No one is dumb enough to think that you can win a theological arm-wrestling match with God. The person thinks,
If God hates me, what difference does it make if the pastor doesn’t? It’s better to admit that you don’t gave a good answer at hand and that you need to do some research, because you want to give a complete and correct answer.
If you admit to human shortcomings, you don’t lose respect, you gain it.