Robert Jenson once observed that theology is “a sort of grammar. The church, we must say, is the community that speaks Christianese, and theology formulates the syntax and semantics of this language.”
The word theology, made up of the words theos (God) and logos (word), literally means “words about God” or “God talk.” Talking about God is doing theology, and theology is a multi-faceted discipline that describes who God is and what he does. When we say “God is love” or “Jesus is Lord” or “We need a Savior,” we’re doing theology, because we’re talking about God. We’re describing him in some way, whether it’s a direct attribute (God is good) or something he says about us (we’re not good).
Theology is the language of Christianity. We of all people should be consistent, contagious God-talkers. Yet many act as though theology is alien to the nature and works of God. Loving God isn’t about a set of doctrines, they say—it’s about a relationship. For them, theology is just an academic sport for professionals, but it’s not vital for the Christian’s daily life; theology belongs in outer space, not in our hearts.
When theology feels like a professional sport for the elite few, it will feel like a set of shackles to be avoided. But rightly understood, theology is eternally freeing, because we cannot be Christian without theology. A theology-less Christianity is a mute, lifeless religion. The Christian God defines and demonstrates theology. I can’t talk about my wife without describing Christa Smith, and Christians can’t talk about theology without describing God.
Theology is the grammar of the Christian faith. We can’t avoid it. We can’t ignore it. And I think it can be mostly boiled down to five foundational concepts.
1. God is a theological God.
This should be obvious, considering what we just said about the literal meaning of the word theology. But it’s vital to understand this point.
When God says, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exod. 3:14), he’s telling us he’s sovereign and that we should both worship and trust him. When Jesus says, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28), he’s telling us he’s sovereign, and also kind, loving, and merciful.
When Jesus tells us the Spirit “will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you” (John 14:26), he’s telling us God is so committed to preserving and growing our theology that he’s setting up shop inside of us (1 Cor. 6:19). The Bible tells us and shows us how to pass down truth (Jude 1:3; 2 Tim. 1:14). Theology matters to God.
Nature talks about him (Ps. 19:1), and God talks about himself (John 14:26). We talk about him when we praise him, and we talk about him when we deny him. After all, even atheists—the most disgruntled theologians of all—talk about him by pronouncing his irrelevance. We cannot escape our theological God.
2. The Bible is a theological book.
The Bible is the very Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Its words flow from him and its words point to him. Its words tell us about who he is and who we are in relation to him. The Bible is a theological book because it talks about God.
Mastering and being mastered by God’s Word is a theological endeavor. Some of the strongest Bible-believing Christians on the planet seem to dislike the idea of theology. They don’t like that it divides Christians or seems to get in the way of “real ministry.” But if they read the Bible, they’re reading about the character and work of God. They’re nose-deep in theology.
3. The gospel is a theological message.
The gospel means “good news,” and it’s often described as an announcement or a message. The gospel announces the good news that Jesus is on the throne and that salvation is found in no other name (Acts 4:12). The gospel is bound up in the Trinitarian God’s rescue mission to redeem all things. In love, the Father sent the Son to defeat sin and death, and the Son sent the Holy Spirit to empower us to live in light of it.
We don’t believe the so-called gospel of the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They teach damnable theology about who God is, who Jesus is, and what it means to follow him into eternity. Their theology leads to destruction. The difference between a right and wrong gospel is the difference between the theology proclaimed.
4. The church is a theological mouthpiece.
When Jesus told his disciples the church would overrun the gates of hell (Matt. 16:18), he was telling them a theological truth. The church, God’s people, are armed with theology the Devil can’t touch. Satan knows theology well: “Even the demons believe, and tremble” (Jas. 2:19). Satan is a mouthpiece for hatred of theology. The church is a mouthpiece for the love of theology.
When God’s people gather on Sundays, they’re proclaiming that God is king and Satan is not. We’re telling God, each other, and the world that we’re joined not by shared hobbies or personalities, but by theology. We worship the same God. We’ve been changed by the same gospel with the same theological foundations.
5. The Christian life is a theological demonstration.
Kevin Vanhoozer argues that theology shapes the performance of the Christian life—it is the script of the unfolding drama of God’s work in the world. We demonstrate theology in the way we live. If we follow the script, acting out right theology, we demonstrate to others who God is and what he’s accomplishing in the world.
Our theology cannot be separated from our lives. Russell Moore writes:
Theology separated from mission—that is, separated from the life that Jesus has called us to live in him—is not biblical theology. Christ Jesus said that his sheep hear his voice, and they run toward it. Hearing the voice of Christ makes us move. This is because theology isn’t ultimately about a “what” but about a “Who.” Theology is to show us how God patterned the universe after Jesus Christ, how he is summing up all things in Christ, how in Christ he has put together a plan to reconcile humanity to God and to one another, thus freeing the whole universe to be what it was created to be as the theater of God’s glory.
In other words, if we’re not believing right theology, our lives won’t rightly reflect God. So God doesn’t simply want us to have good theology; he wants all people everywhere to have good theology. As his disciples called to make more disciples, it is imperative that we talk about him in a proper way. We don’t want the nations to just know about God, but to know him as he has actually revealed himself.