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What is Theology and Why Should I Study it?

What is Theology and Why Should I Study it?
Monday 10th December 2018


What is Theology?

Theology, according to the classic definition proposed by Thomas Aquinas, is the study of “God primarily, and of creatures … so far as they are referable to God as their beginning or end.”[1]

In other words, theology is the study of everything! If God is the creator of all things, then there is, by definition, nothing that falls outside of the scope of “God” (the creator) and “[the] creatures” (i.e. the things that he has created).

But theology doesn’t attempt to say everything about everything—it focuses on things in their related-to-God-ness—as creations that derive their existence from God and their purpose from his plans and intentions for the world. Its scope is universal, but it has a clear and definite centre in God (more specifically, for Christians, in God as he has made himself known in Christ).

Everyone’s a Theologian!

Christians didn’t invent the idea of doing theology—it is an activity that is as old as the human race. Long before Christians got in on the act, human beings were already thinking, conversing and writing about God (or—in some cases—the gods) and about the relationship that exists between God and all created things. God created us, as Paul says to the philosophers in Athens, in order that we would “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him … ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’” (Acts 17:27–28)

So doing theology is as natural as breathing. When the early Christians started doing theology they weren’t inventing a new subject—they were jumping into a conversation that had already been going on for thousands of years.[2] Everyone’s a theologian, whether they are conscious of that or not; everyone has a set of ideas and intuitions about the God or gods that they believe (or disbelieve) in, with implications for the way that they view the world and live their lives.

Why study Theology?

So why study theology, as a formal academic discipline? Because the understanding, whether explicit or implicit, that we have about who God is and how we (and the world that we live in) relate to God, is the biggest and most important question of all. It makes a difference to the way in which we think and feel and act in just about every facet of life. So it makes sense to give it some careful thought.[3]

As Christians we do that by reflecting together on the knowledge of God and the world that we are given through Christ, in the Scriptures, and relating that to the various ideas that we encounter in our conversation, reading, culture and experience. As far as is possible in this lifetime, we work toward a coherent, Christ-centred vision of reality that can help us to order our desires and shape our lives in a way that glorifies God. We do it with discipline and rigour because of the importance of the question. And we do it in community because we depend on one another to challenge and enrich our understanding, expanding our horizons by learning from the perspectives of others.

How is theology different from biblical studies?

Christian theology is grounded in the close and careful study of the Bible. Because Christians believe that God has communicated his word to us through human words, written down by human authors, we take questions about language, culture and history very seriously when we study the Scriptures. So there is a good deal of overlap between the fields of biblical studies and Christian theology.

But doing theology requires more than just attempting to reconstruct the understandings and communicative intentions of the original human authors who wrote the various books that make up the Bible. It also attempts to understand how the sixty-six books of the Bible cohere with one another, and to relate the vision of God and the world that we find in the Bible to all of the other things that we know and believe and experience.

In other words, Christian theology includes biblical studies, but it also goes beyond the scope of the questions that biblical studies attempts to answer—not because it is aiming to find some greater wisdom outside and beyond the wisdom that we are given in Scripture, but it is attempting to bring the light of Scripture to bear on all the vast and complex questions that life in the world throws up for us.

How is theology different from religious studies?

Another discipline frequently studied in secular universities that is related, but not identical, to theology is religious studies.

The focus of religious studies is on human religion (including, but not limited to, the beliefs, traditions and stories about God and the gods that most human religions incorporate within them). So the question of what Christians (and others) believe about the god(s) that they worship is a topic that comes up within the field of religious studies, but it is just one question among many, many others that a religious studies course might address. The centre and focus is still on humans (as believers and worshippers) not on God (as the one believed in and worshipped).

The primary focus of theology, on the other hand, is on God. The question of what humans do in their worship of God (and/or in their worship of the various different gods that they serve and believe in) is certainly within the scope of theology, but it is not at its centre. And when theology reflects on human beings and human communities, it is interested not only in what we do in the parts of our lives that we think of as religious, but in the whole of our lives—how they fit within the larger reality of the world that God has made, and how they should be lived in light of his character, plans and purposes.

Christians especially, when we do theology, take that broad view of its scope, because we are convinced that the God we worship is the creator of all things, and that the whole of our lives is to be shaped, one way or another, by that worship. As Paul says to the believers in Corinth: “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 1:31).

Who should study theology?

One obvious category of people for whom it makes sense to study theology in a serious, systematic and disciplined way, are those men and women whose primary work it is to serve within God’s church in ministries of preaching, teaching and discipling. A few short years spent in focused and deliberate study of theology can help in laying the foundations for decades and decades, God willing, of fruitful ministry.

But it is not only people who are planning to serve in this kind of ministry who can benefit from some time spent in serious part-time or full-time theological study. The vision for the church that we are given within the New Testament is not merely a community that is shaped by the ministry of wise leaders; it is a community that is itself pervasively wise, inhabited by the word of Christ in such a way that the speech and conduct of all its members become vehicles for God’s wisdom (e.g. Colossians 3:16; 4:5–6). If there are good reasons to create theological colleges and seminaries that serve the church by helping with the formation of its pastors, there are also good reasons to give careful and continuing thought to how (within and beyond the local church) Christians who serve in other vocations can be strengthened and deepened in theological understanding.[4]

What careers can a theological degree lead to?

Most people who study theology don’t take it up as a path to career advancement! For many, the decision to embark on a formal course of theological study involves leaving behind the career, or putting it on hold for a season—sometimes at great cost. There are several reasons why they might choose to do that.

For some, a theological degree or diploma is a pathway toward a particular form of vocational ministry. A solid grasp of theology is an essential foundation for the kind of work that is involved in serving as a pastor, church planter or evangelist, for example. Cross-cultural missionaries, too, require deep theological wisdom as they communicate the gospel in unfamiliar situations and work in partnership with believers from vastly different cultural backgrounds.

For others, a course of theological study is primarily a way to be equipped for work that they do as a volunteer, serving within their church or in some other context to communicate the gospel and help others to know and follow Christ.

And for others still, a theological course is an opportunity to reflect deeply on the meaning and purpose of the work that they do in their career, and the way in which it ought to be shaped by what they believe about God.

Whichever of those categories most students of theology belong to, the work to which they hope to apply their theological studies is not something they view as a career-ladder that they hope to climb; it is a sphere of service in which they want to do good to others, and a form of worship that they want to offer up to God. Any course in Christian theology that is authentically shaped by the content of the gospel that Christians believe will serve to reinforce that core motivation, providing those who study it not only with skills to perform a job but also with a deeply-grounded reason and desire to put those skills to use.  

If you think that may be you, we would love to hear from you! Please get in touch so we can talk about whether and how we might be able to join with you and help you in the journey of deepening your knowledge of God and being equipped to serve him in his world.


[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1.i.3.

[2] Augustine rightly emphasised this, drawing on the writings of the Roman philosopher Marcus Terentius Varro, in Book 6 of The City of God.

[3] For a larger argument in favour of the relevance and usefulness of theology and some examples of the range of issues that theology might reflect on, see Trevor Cairney and David Starling, eds., Theology and the Future: Evangelical Assertions and Explorations (London: T&T Clark, 2014).

[4] See the longer discussion of these themes in David Starling, “The Scribe, the Steward, and the Inhabiting Word,” in Theological Education: Foundations, Practices, and Future Directions, ed. Andrew M. Bain and Ian Hussey (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018), 17-28.

David Starling

Written by David Starling

David Starling joined the Morling faculty in 2005. He teaches New Testament, Greek and Theology, and serves as the head of our Bible and Theology Department. David studied at the University of Sydney and worked as an English teacher in Western Sydney for three years, before completing theological studies. From 2000-2006 he was the pastor of Petersham Baptist Church. He and his wife, Nicole, along with their four children, attend Chatswood Baptist Church, where Nicole serves part-time as a member of the pastoral team. His publications include Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship (Baker Academic, 2016), UnCorinthian Leadership (Cascade, 2014) and Not my People: Gentiles as Exiles in Pauline Hermeneutics (BZNW 184; DeGruyter, 2011).

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