Quiet now, everyone. Take your seats. Let’s give a warm round of applause to Aunt Matilda and the cake she has walked out on stage with. Thank you for being with us today Aunt Matilda; what a delicious looking cake next to you! One must wonder what is under that icing, or even why it’s there! But as it were, the reason for Aunt Matilda and the cake being on stage has very little to do with the taste of the cake but everything to do with you, Audience.
This is all about you.
You see, as Aunt Matilda entered the stage pushing that cart with the delectable treat, you made several conclusions: that Aunt Matilda is important for our discussion; that the cake is too; but also, that Aunt Matilda and the cake have some sort of relationship. Perhaps she baked the cake. Perhaps it is Aunt Matilda’s birthday. Perhaps it’s the birthday of someone in the audience—maybe Aunt Matilda’s nephew . Even as I “speak”, you are searching for clues as to the connection.
Well, she’s going to be helpful today so let’s get to our definitions.
Theology, narrowly defined, is the study of God (4). Expanded it is the study of religion, faith and religious-practice (3). Some nuanced definitions say that Theology is the science that searches for truth about God (2). Others say that it is the study of the things of God (theology) can only be acquired after believing God (1). But these definitions, although containing some truth, fall short.
In reverse order, yes, it’s true in some sense (an important sense that I’m going to be dealing with but it’s false in general) everyone has a Theology. Christian, Mormon, Satanist and Atheist have a theology. They may not have articulated their theology but they all have one.
Pause for a moment and look back at Aunt Matilda and that cake and what you believe to be the relationship between the two. You have it in your head? Good, you now have a theology regarding Aunt Matilda and the cake.
Second, this theology is not based on any scientific study or search. Science is concerned with discovering truth via experimentation and theory. You can’t necessarily do that with Theology. If I told you to go scientifically explain what’s happening on the stage, you would be able to give me some observations based on visual understanding, perhaps tell me the chemical compounds of the cake, even offer me some conclusions of Aunt Matilda’s lovely shirt, age or her genuine smile—but in all you still wouldn’t be able to tell me who Aunt Matilda is, what is her relationship to the cake, or even what she plans to do with the cake.
Good science (as opposed to bad science) focuses on methodology—how did you arrive at that discovery. Good Theology has little to do with methodology but everything to do with what is actually true. For example, it doesn’t matter if a child has drawn the theological conclusion that His Heavenly Father Loves Him on the grounds that his Earthly Daddy loves him—if that is actually true about God, the Child’s theology is absolutely correct despite his methodology of arriving there.
Bad science is bad because in it’s conclusions it gets there by bad methods. Science, in general isn’t concerned with ensuring that you’re correct but ensuring that you arrived at the (apparent) truth the right way.
For our third refutation, let’s look back at Aunt Matilda and the cake. We noticed that there is a sort of theology going on in regards to our understanding and what’s going on upon the stage. Some of us might be right or none of us might be right—we don’t know. That’s the nature of religion, faith and practice—we might not really know who is right or who is wrong; we might not even know if any of us is right (or if we’re all wrong). We just have a theology that stands separate from the veracity of that theological position.
But that is totally changed if Aunt Matilda decides to let us know what the relationship between her and that cake really is. Or what she intends to do with it. Or if that is really a cake at all (which you might have been able to establish scientifically but you wouldn’t have known her intentions). Or if her name is Aunt Matilda at all.
Theology is good, I already said, when it is predicated on truth but it is only true not because The Truth Is Out There (as our old friend Mulder would say) but because God has revealed Himself. So as close as a theology comes to what is actually true regarding God’s self-disclosure makes one’s theology better. And as far as you get from God’s self-disclosure your theology gets worse.
If Aunt Matilda tells you about herself and you decide that she is lying, well, you still have a theology in place. It’s based on your belief (she’s lying) and your convictions (I will not be swayed) but it is still a theology (the relationship between her and the cake is this not that). Ironically, such conclusions still have to nuzzle up next to her statements to deny those statements.
So the statement that theology is the study of religions, practice and faith is somewhat true—just not in the concept of “Different religions, different practices and different faiths”. It’s the study of the principles that undergird religion, practice and faith as predicated on God’s self-revelation.
Which brings us to the last point: Theology is the study of God. Nice, straight to the point—and completely hollow. If Theology is predicated on God’s self-revelation, if good theology is actually aligned closer to what is actually true, if good theology isn’t so much concerned with methodology but rather with reality; then you can’t properly divorce theology from action. There is an ethical dimension to it that links your belief and your action. They’re intertwined.
You might not believe Aunt Matilda because you think she’s a liar, but since you think she’s a liar (ethical decision) you reject her self-disclosure (moral action).
But let’s say Aunt Matilda, just imagine for a moment, is God.
The God who can not lie. The God from whom all good derives. The God who loves and created you to know Him. Let’s say that God says “I am God, I Am good, I am Love, and I created you to know me.” Then a theology that turns around and doesn’t act on said truth is not only bad theologically, it is actively making an ethical decision: He’s lying (ethical decision); I refuse to believe him (moral action).
So what does this all mean and why does it matter?
Well, I think it means that the Christians have to be careful with their words. There is no “Christian” or a “Satanist” Theology. You can discuss Theology with an unbeliever but none of the discussion will matter until you deal with the main theological issue—their rejection of God’s self-disclosure. Just like the matter up on stage: you can discuss the nature of the relationship between the cake and Aunt Matilda to everyone in the audience but the person who has heard Aunt Matilda speak and still rejects it has to deal with why he’s rejecting Aunt Matilda’s testimony—not only why his view of the purpose of the cake is wrong. You can only really correct that sort of thing with a good theology and that theology is grounded on the self-disclosure of God.
I also think that everyone should realize that all theology has an ethical and practical dimension to it. It doesn’t matter how good the theology is, if you don’t ethically act on it you’re a poor theologian (note how that doesn’t imply the theology is wrong; just the theologian is wrong). So a Satanist might believe in the resurrection, or in the self-disclosure of God, or even the existence of demons but if they ethically choose to not-trust God and act in rebellion against God, they’re not a good theologian.
I like how John says it: If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son. The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son.
So watch your Theology, stop making a distinction about theology (Christian vs. World), and act on it. Round of applause for Aunt Matilda, everyone. Good night.