Healthy Theology 1: Theology Matters
“What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” (2 Timothy 1:13-14)
“In other words, Theology is practical: especially now. In the old days, when there was less education and discussion, perhaps it was possible to get on with a very few simple ideas about God. But it is not so now. Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed. Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones.” — C. S. Lewis,
Theology As A Kind of Map
C. S. Lewis is probably best known for his series of children’s books known as the Chronicles of Narnia. But Lewis—who died on the same day as President Kennedy—is also rightly regarded as perhaps the most influential Christian thinker of the 20th century (rivaling Karl Barth). He possessed no academic qualifications in Biblical studies or theology in general. He was Anglican, but never sought the priesthood. Lewis was a medievalist, a professional literary critic, and on religious matters considered himself simply a layperson, a fellow-traveler seeking to know what is true.
It is for this reason that I find his quote above so striking. In a series of radio talks meant for the public airwaves in Britain in the 1940’s, Lewis lectured on God, morality, and central doctrines held by all orthodox churches throughout the centuries. These talks were later collected into the book known far and wide as Mere Christianity. As he began the last section (meant to discuss the difficult doctrine of the Trinity), Lewis wanted his audience to know that thinking about God is not a profession reserved for stuffy people donning robes; it is the passion and privilege of the people of God.
But, believe it or not, it was an uphill battle. “Everyone has warned me not to tell you what I am going to tell you in this last book” wrote Lewis. “They all say ‘the ordinary reader does not want Theology; give him plain practical religion’.” In reply, Lewis penned these poignant words:
“I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordinary reader is such a fool. Theology means ‘the science of God’, and I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about Him which are available. You are not children: why should you be treated like children?”
But surely we can all imagine some of the concerns shared by Lewis’ friends. “Theology” is one of those words that seems to invite glazed eyes and feelings of equal amounts of foreboding and boredom. And, worst of all, “theology” sounds so far removed from any active, living experience of God, knowing Him as your friend, rejoicing in the personal relationship with your Savior, or walking hand-in-hand with the powerful Holy Spirit of God.
But this is where Lewis is at once brilliant and deeply sensitive to our concerns. Take a person, says Lewis, who has had a real experience of God, and yet finds tracts and treatments of doctrine to be far inferior. This is quite understandable, says Lewis, and actually quite right!
“When he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper.”
In Christian history, some have placed church teachings, doctrinal creeds, or even the most sacred writings about God (the Bible) ahead of God himself, or as stand-ins to replace God in one’s life. There is actually a term for this in theological studies; we call it “bibliolatry.” It takes that which points to God—even the most important pointer—and changes its intended use, turning that God-given tool into an idol. Lewis rightly points out that the goal of all theology is not greater reflection on God, but a more intimate relationship with Him; not knowing more about God, but coming to know God as He would have us know Him. The goal of all theology is not greater reflection on God, but a more intimate relationship with Him; not knowing more about God, but coming to know God as He would have us know Him.
The goal of all theology is not greater reflection on God, but a more intimate relationship with Him; not knowing more about God, but coming to know God as He would have us know Him.
“But here comes the point,” writes Lewis. A map of the Atlantic Ocean is simply pictures on a paper. But there are two very important truths about this map that you must keep in mind. First, “it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic,” taking multiple experiences just like yours and “fitting them together.” Second, “if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary.” If your curiosity and interest never rises above the level of your experience, than a map is unimportant. But if you want to get somewhere, especially to realms greater than your own experience has led you, a map is vitally important.
“Now, Theology is like the map,” writes Lewis. Simply reading and regurgitating Christian formulas are no substitute for the real thing, and they must never be treated that way. But Christian theology—complete with orthodox Christian doctrines resulting from careful reflection on the ways of God in the world and in the lives of His people throughout the centuries—provides a kind of map, produced by a vast ‘cloud of witnesses’ who have indeed experienced God. The Apostles were specifically chosen by Christ to speak truths of God and to share these teachings with faithful others who would carry the message into new lands. Orthodox Christian teaching reflects the development of the Apostolic message, as Christians through the centuries sought (and continue to seek) to understand the heights and depths of the love of God, and to mine the riches of Christ’s teachings as well as rely on the leading of God’s Holy Spirit.
Why Theology is Important
In the introduction to a book entitled Theology Matters, Randy Harris (who teaches at Abilene Christian University) offers three reasons (by way of summary) why Theology is important.
First, only when we understand true teaching are we able to give true answers to thoughtful questions about God. The Bible challenges us to “[a]lways be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
Second, true theological reflection provides spiritual vitality, leading to a healthy spirituality. Only true teaching sustains us in the difficult moments; bad teaching breeds bad character, and tempts us away from truth when we need it most.
Third, seeking proper doctrine is seeking what is actually true. Theology helps us know who God is, and there is nothing more real than that.
For all these reasons, and many more, Theology is indeed important.
(photo credit: braunpau)
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Searcy, Arkansas, where he teaches in the College of Bible & Ministry at Harding University.