A few years ago, as I welcomed a first-time visitor to our worship service, he said to me abruptly, “I am looking for a church where the preacher preaches the Bible and doesn’t talk about theology and all of that kind of stuff.” I knew then I was in trouble because I don’t believe you can preach the Bible or talk about God without talking about “theology and all of that kind of stuff.”
As a Baptist who believes in the priesthood of every believer, I think that every pastor and every Christian should be a theologian in the truest sense of the word. I propose that our churches will be healthier if our people are equipped to be good theologians.
What is theology anyway? Is it a discipline for sophisticated concepts and complicated descriptions of God? Not at all. Theology is a good word. My esteemed theology professor in seminary, Dr. Fisher Humphreys, offered a simple yet practical definition of theology to his students: “Theology is thinking about God.” And Dr. Humphreys continued that, “Everyone who thinks about God is doing theology.”
There are many other definitions of theology. Dictionaries generally define theology as the study of God. Theologians Grentz and Olson say that “theology may be defined as the intellectual reflection on the act, content, and implications of Christian faith.” Dr. Dale Moody, long-time professor of theology at Southern Seminary, often described Christian theology as “an effort to think coherently about the basic beliefs that create a community of faith around the person of Jesus Christ.”
Of course, there are different branches of theology such as systematic theology, historical theology, ecclesial theology, evangelical theology, orthodox theology, and reformed theology, just to name a few. But these days, as a pastor, I tend to think of theology in two important categories: folk theology and academic theology. Both are extremely important to the health of the church.
Folk theology is the theology of lay people. Folk theology is forged out of the experiences of life, the study of scripture, and reflection on God. Across the years in multiple churches I have been blessed to serve alongside committed Christians who are excellent folk theologians, individuals who faithfully empower the ministry of the local church. They have never been to Bible college or seminary but they have a rich and insightful knowledge of God that has been forged through personal study of the Bible and their ongoing experience in living the Christian life.
In college and seminary, I was privileged to study under extraordinarily devoted and respected academic theologians. These individuals had given their entire lives to “thinking about God” with all the vast resources of higher education. Each of those professors demonstrated a deep personal faith in God, but they also had the remarkable capacity to think about God, speak about God, and write about God with a vocabulary that is much more specific than the dialect of most folk theologians.
For the church to be at its best, we need both academic theologians and folk theologians. We need academic theologians to assimilate the resources of geography, archeology, biblical languages, and history into a coherent system of beliefs. In the light of good academic theology, we need a church full of folk theologians to keep our congregations reflecting and conversing about the dynamics of our personal faith in God.
In his book, Thinking about God, Fisher Humphreys surmises the relationship between folk theology and academic theology as follows: “All Christians think about God. This means that all Christians have a theology; they all have some ideas about God. This is a good thing because, just as war is too important to be left to the generals, so theology is too important to be left to the academic theologians. We are all entitled to think about God, even if we are amateurs. Of course, just as civilian leaders are wise to consult the generals about war, so all of us are wise to consult the academic theologians about theology.”
As a pastoral theologian who thinks about God in the context of local church ministry, I have the privilege of equipping and encouraging members of my congregation to think for themselves about God. I want to help my church members to understand that when they think about God as they are informed and inspired by the Bible, they are doing theology. When they think about God as they hear and reflect on a sermon, they are doing theology. When they think about God as they articulate their prayers, they are doing theology. And when they think about God as they wrestle with the challenging circumstances of life, they are doing theology.
Perhaps Paul was advocating sound theology when he wrote, Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things (Philippians 4:8 NIV).
Theology is “thinking about God.” Because our God is a big God, and because our collective insight is wiser than one individual’s insight, I want to cultivate more than one theologian in my church. I want a church full of folks, Christians of all ages, who are thinking about God every day.