What is Theology?
What is theology? It is a word we toss around quite often, but do we really understand what it is? The word itself breaks down into two parts: theos and logos, the Greek words for God and word/reason, respectively. So, in a certain sense, theology is simply talking, reasoning, or thinking about God. This led one of my theology professors to quip that everyone is a theologian, even atheists, for they too have thoughts about God (even if those thoughts are that God does not exist).
When we talk about theology in our Christian/church circles, we are usually referring to “systematic” or “dogmatic” theology. This is the practice of organizing the Bible’s teachings into certain systems in order to discover what truth it conveys about certain topics. Systematic theology has several different categories or “systems,” including:
- Theology Proper (the study of God)
- Christology (the study of Christ)
- Anthropology (the study of man)
- Ecclesiology (the study of the church)
- Eschatology (the study of the end)
- Angelology (the study of angels)
- Demonology (the study of demons)
Then, within each of these categories, there are many different sub-categories. Take eschatology, for example. It includes the discussion of the tribulation, the rapture, the millennium, eternal reward, eternal punishment, the new heavens and earth, as well as other related items.
Now that we understand what theology is, the question I want to address here is this: What does it take to form a proper systematic theology? And what I want to stress by answering this question is that a systematic theology must be built on the proper foundation of solid biblical exegesis. Developing a proper theology requires a proper hermeneutic.
What in the world do I mean? I mean that if we want to use a verse or a passage to support something we believe about God, Jesus, the church, angels, demons, etc., then we need to make sure we know what that verse actually means. I am afraid that in the church today there is a lot of right theology from the wrong Scriptures. What people claim is really true, but the verses they quote to prove it are not the ones that should be used to arrive at that truth.
To ensure that our theology is derived from the right passages, we must do the hard work of biblical exegesis, what we can call “biblical theology.” Before making a claim about any certain verse or passage, we need to study it in its textual, canonical, historical, and social contexts. We need to ask:
- What thoughts and arguments precede this verse? What follows?
- Is this verse in the Old or New Testament?
- Is this verse part of a narrative, or poem, a letter, or a prophecy?
- Who wrote this verse? Who was it written to? When was it written?
- What was the historical climate like? What was the culture like?
When we can answer all of these questions to the best of our ability—all grounded in the understanding that the words of the Bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit and are infallible and inerrant—then we can arrive at the meaning of the given verse or passage and derive our theology from that meaning.
So systematic theology does not seek to explain what the text means, it seeks to explain what truth the meaning of the text conveys. If we want to develop a complete systematic theology of the Bible, that means we need to exegete the entire Bible. This is why developing a systematic theology is a life-long process.
When thinking of studying the Bible, systematic theology is both an end and a means to an end. If we break the study of the Bible into three parts, namely meaning, theology, and application, theology lands right in the middle. With a proper understanding of the meaning of a text, we can develop a proper theology. With a proper theology, we can rightly apply the truths of Scripture to ourselves, our families, our churches, and our world.
Dr. R. Alan Streett at Criswell College illustrated this by using a Venn diagram:
The main difference between theology and application is that theology must be universal, whereas application can be more local or personal. We get in trouble when we read the Bible and jump straight to application without first understanding what the passage means and what theology it conveys. Only when we know what the Bible means and what theology it teaches can we properly apply it to our day-to-day situations.
 The suffix -logy also means “the study of,” such as in the English word biology, meaning “the study of life.”