Based on an article that appeared in the February 2019 issue of The Sword and Trumpet.
The word theology often reminds us of stuffy libraries and even stuffier scholars. We see it as an intangible world of theories and arguments, totally removed from daily life. But, while we may sometimes view it as an accessory to Christianity, it’s really an essential element of every Christian’s faith. All Christians must be theological in some sense. We can’t grow spiritually without right theology; we can’t even maintain true faith without it.
This aversion to theology can stem from a misunderstanding of what it really is. It’s not complicated; theology is simply the study of God and His ways. When we think about God, we develop our theology. Our theology grows when we learn about Him, when His Spirit speaks to us through His Word, and when we meditate on His truths.
Even the fundamentals of salvation are theological: we are all sinners deserving of righteous judgment (anthropology), Christ came as the God-man to take our judgment and bring peace with God (Christology, soteriology), and He will come back to reclaim His bride (eschatology). We cannot rightly understand the gospel without these truths. These various aspects with their various strange names touch the nitty-gritty areas of our lives. We must have theology to understand our faith: from conversion to consummation. Theology is bound up in the life of each Christian.
Theology and Our Minds
If theology is necessary for every Christian, how do we develop it? Through the mind. Theology develops through intellectual exercise. Let me be quick to say that it is not purely intellectual, and it must never end just in the mind (more on that later). But theological growth only happens through the application of the mind. The fact that God revealed Himself through a Book—which must be studied, correctly interpreted, and applied—indicates that mental application is a central part of Christianity. We use our minds to pursue, understand, and love God.
But we cannot apply our minds to just anything, we must use them in a specific way. Where, then, do we focus our efforts? On the Word of God. It alone is the infallible source of truth: it will never lead us astray. It is the only sufficient source: it has everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3-4). It is the only divinely inspired source: it alone has been written by God and given to us for our instruction. The Bible shapes and defines our theology. Through Scripture we understand God and know Him.
In all of this, we are ever dependent on the Spirit to enlighten our eyes and enable our understanding. He is the one who removes the veil so we can see (2 Cor. 3:14-18). Without His divine influence, all our studies are worthless. We can only obtain a right understanding of Christ as the Spirit teaches us about Him. He breaks the Word to us, showing us the glories of our Savior. He alone gives us the ability to know and love Christ.
These two (our mental application and the Spirit’s enlightenment) enable our spiritual and theological growth. We must apply ourselves to study, seeking to know God through His Word. And we must pray that the Spirit would enable our minds to understand the Word, for without His involvement our efforts are in vain. As we read the Bible, His divine work and our mental effort couple to inspire our theological growth.
Theology and Our Emotions
As I mentioned, theology isn’t purely intellectual. It starts there, but if we only grow in our knowledge we are stuck halfway. A right knowledge of God must transform our emotions. As we study, we must constantly weigh what our hearts are feeling against the truths we are encountering. Each new revelation, each sweet truth must reach into our core and change who we are.
Some say that this kind of mental exercise kills true relationship with God. On the contrary, our relationship with God can only grow through right understanding of His character. We cannot love Him if we do not know Him.
This principle extends to every relationship, human or divine. We establish strong relationships by getting to know the intricate details about others. Every husband knows that giving a dozen roses to his wife is a wonderful expression of his love for her. That is, unless she is deathly allergic to anything that blooms (including said roses). In that case, he misses the mark because he doesn’t understand her. Instead of being a dashing romancer, he is only a fool. If, however, he replaces those roses with a fine selection of dark chocolate, which he knows will delight her, he has proven to be a great lover. His past attention to her and his current knowledge of her likes and dislikes empower his expression of love. Their relationship grows through his knowledge of his wife.
Likewise, our individual relationships with God grow or wither according to our knowledge of Him. We can only truly love what we truly know. Even though we may feel what we think is love, if our love flows from a false knowledge of God we are only loving a lie. Regardless of our emotions, if our intellectual understanding of God is askew then our affections will also be askew. True love for God is always borne out of a true knowledge of Him.
Take worship. We often associate it with a deep emotional experience, and we’re not wrong to do so. Worship should stir and awaken our affections. But worship is first theological. Biblical worship starts by reminding us of God: who He is and what He has done. As we connect His attributes (faithfulness, goodness, mercy and grace) to specific times and events in our own lives, worship begins to glow in our hearts. These truths about God fuel our worship. Much of what we call “worship” today circumvents this process and gives us the emotional glow without the spiritual reflection. It makes us think we’re worshipping God when we may only be worshipping our own emotions. Again, emotions are an integral part of worship, but they should proceed only after we have seen and known God. Anything less and we are worshipping a substitute rather than God Himself.
Theology and Christian Faithfulness
Biblically accurate theology keeps us from apostasy. Every generation faces theological drift. With that drift comes a misunderstanding of God’s nature and a distortion of His commands. When we neglect right theology, we endanger our perception of God. We forget who He is and how He works, and instead we fashion Him into an image of our own creation. We form Him into the god we think He should be rather than letting Scripture form our understanding. Right theology keeps us from worshiping a counterfeit god instead of the true God. Right theology keeps us from thinking we’re living God-honoring lives when we’re really disregarding His commands. We may think we’re being faithful, we may feel connected to God and His church, we may even “experience” God, but we are misguided if we do not truly understand Him according to Scripture. Lasting faithfulness requires right knowledge.
We all have theology, and we must make sure it is biblically informed. While we will always have various understandings on minor issues, our central source must be Scripture. Anything else endangers our faith.
Our pursuit of true, God-honoring Christianity must include right theology. So, let us study the Word so our minds will be transformed by its truth. Let us rely on the Spirit that He may instruct us. Let us not only know God with our minds, but also love Him with our hearts. Let us fight for authentic Christianity through an accurate understanding of God and His ways. Right theology is not an accessory. It is not removed from our lives. It is an indispensable part of our individual relationships with God, it informs every aspect of our Christian walks, and it protects us from error. We, as people of truth, as people of Christ, must be committed to biblically accurate, Spirit inspired, life-transforming theology.
Julian Stoltzfus lives in Elnora, IN with his lovely wife, Ruthie. He has had the privilege of attending several semesters at Elnora Bible Institute since 2014, where he received a certificate in Christian Ministries. He spent three years in a pastoral apprenticeship program under Truth and Grace Mennonite Church, and now serves there as the youth shepherd. He enjoys working, tinkering around his house, diving into a good read, and building relationships with family and friends. The 5th in a family of 6, he has greatly benefited from the wisdom and influence of his parents and siblings. He longs to see authentic Christianity thrive as God transforms hearts through the gospel.