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Definition

Theology is the study of God and his relations to, purpose for, and work within the created universe.

Summary

Theology is the study of God and his relations to, purposes for, and work within the created universe. As such, it encompasses all of created reality from the vantage point of the Creator who made all that is. Only because God has revealed himself are we able to know who God is and what his purposes, plans, and works are within the creation that he has made. Every area of theology—the creation of the world, his formation of man as male and female in his image, their fall into sin, his plan of salvation and restoration for a fallen world involving his call of Abraham and choice of Israel through whom the Messiah would come, his providential workings to bring about salvation through the incarnation, sinless life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection of his Son, his formation of the church, and his plans to bring all creation to its divinely decreed ends, and more—all are tied directly to God and his own character, will, ways, plans, and providential work. Only as we understand these aspects of life and theology from God’s perspective can we understand rightly who God is, who we are, and how best we should live.

Introduction and Definitions

The term “theology,” combining theos (God) and logos (word about, or study of), refers most literally to the study of God. Yet this term is used for the study of humanity, and sin, and salvation, and the church, and last things (and more). The reason “theology” may rightly be used of these other areas is this: theology is the study of God and his relations to, purposes for, and work within, the created universe, which include his creation of the world, his formation of man as male and female in his image, their fall into sin, his plan of salvation and restoration for a fallen world involving his call of Abraham and choice of Israel through whom the Messiah would come, his providential workings to bring about salvation through the incarnation, sinless life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection of his Son, his formation of the church, and his plans to bring all creation to its divinely decreed ends. The expanse of what theology covers is breathtaking, and it shows us just how comprehensive and widely impactful it is to all of life.

Consider a few areas in the study of theology for how a correct and biblically informed theological understanding affects the whole of our lives. We begin with the doctrine of God, sometimes referred to as theology proper, since theology is most centrally and most importantly the study of God’s self-revelation concerning his own character, triune Being, and providential workings in the world he has created. In his classic treatment of the attributes of God, A. W. Tozer begins chapter one with these now famous words, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us” (A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy [New York: HarperCollins, 1961], 9.). Tozer’s insight here is of paramount importance and deals directly with our question of the importance of theology and theological understanding. Because the knowledge of God affects every area of life, and because our conception of God shapes our worldview, our values, our commitments, and our affections, and our actions, there is no other area of human understanding that is more impactful in shaping the whole of our minds, and hearts, and lives.

Theological Understanding and the Creator-creature Distinction

One of the most important aspects of a Christian worldview is affirming what is sometimes called the Creator-creature distinction. God, as eternal, self-existent, self-sufficient, infinite, simple, and omnipotent, exists eternally independent of anything created and finite in the infinite fullness of life and joy as the Triune God. Since the world that God created had a beginning, but God has no beginning, it must be the case that God exists eternally, apart from the world, in the fulness of his transcendent excellencies such that everything qualitatively good resides intrinsically and eternally in God. He has no need for the creation that he chose to bring into existence. So, while the creation is dependent upon God for every aspect of its existence and for every good thing it has and shows forth, God is independent of and transcendent over all that he has made. The heavens declare the glory of God, not the glory of the heavens, since every quality exhibited in the heavens comes from and is reflective of the infinite beauty, power, and wisdom of God. To know the transcendent fullness of God, who does not need us or anything we have to offer, humbles us greatly. But it also amazes us because though God does not need us, he created us to fill us with himself and make himself manifest in and through our lives. He not only exists independent of all that he has made, he also lives as the immanent God intimately involved in and working through our very lives. As Triune, he lives eternally in the joy of the fellowship of the persons of the Trinity. Yet, he made us persons who are created and redeemed to share in his life and the joy he knows in his own Triune being.

Consider also how faith in God is strengthened and sustained by an understanding of his attributes. When one examines just what faith in God requires, one sees how important it is to have deep and abiding confidence in aspects of the character of God, without which we simply won’t believe him or look to him when difficulties face us. For example, when one encounters some hardship, trust in God requires an understanding of and confidence in God’s comprehensive knowledge and flawless wisdom. Why would we go to God and trust in God if we doubt whether he really understands all the features of what is happening to us and can determine, in his infinite wisdom, the best course of action to take? So, confidence in God’s perfect knowledge and wisdom is essential for genuine trust in God. In addition, trusting God during a time of affliction requires that we have confidence in God’s indomitable power. If we believe that God knows everything that can be known about our situation and has perfect wisdom to decide what is best to do, yet we doubt that he can actually act to bring about what is best, we won’t truly trust him. So, faith in God – trusting him during times of suffering and affliction – require a deep and abiding confidence in both his perfect wisdom and his unassailable power. Yet we also must have an unquestioning confidence in God’s love for us. If we believe he knows what is best, and can do anything he chooses, but doubt that he truly cares about us, we still will be disinclined truly to trust him. So, trust in God is something like the trust we put in a three-legged stool when we choose to sit on it. We have to believe God’s wisdom is perfect and cannot be improved upon, that his power is such that nothing can thwart him doing what he chooses to do, and that his love for his children is flawless, faithful, and will never falter. Knowing the character of God makes all the difference, then, in how we live our lives before him.

Theological Understanding and the Nature and Extent of Sin

Consider also some aspects of a correct theological understanding of the nature of our sin and of the salvation God has brought to us in Christ. One of the starkest contrasts between a Christian with a theologically-informed worldview and that of the culture of which we are apart is the basic understanding of why bad things happen and what to do about it. For most secularists, bad things happen because people, though fundamentally good, are victims of mistreatment or abuse and hence they act out their own frustrations and behavioral conditioning but are often not genuinely responsible for the bad things that they do. In contrast, a biblical and theological understanding of the doctrine of total depravity instructs us that every person is born into this world with a deep and abiding propensity to sinful attitudes and actions rooted in their connection to Adam, the first human being whose sin brought sin upon the entire human race (except for Jesus Christ). So, contrary to our culture, we are not fundamentally good people; just the opposite, we are deeply sinful and selfish with inclinations that run the opposite direction from what they should. We should honor God and seek to live in a manner that pleases him, but due to our sin, we turn from him and seek to chart out a course for our lives independent of him and his moral directives.

Tied to this disparate understanding of the fundamental nature of humans is also a deep divide in what to do about the evil and corruption that is evident in all of us. Our culture, because it sees us as fundamentally good, tries to recover the goodness that is within us. Self-help books abound. Therapies that bring out the spark of divinity within, or the power of the inner child, are drawn on to provide self-solutions to our own corruption. But Christians think very differently about these matters. We realize that due to our sin in Adam, we are totally unable both to remove sin that enslaves us from within and remove the guilt we have incurred by our sin before a holy God. The good news of the gospel is predicated on the bad news of the impossibility of humanly derived solutions. The Bible makes clear that our only hope is in what is done for us, and to us, through the work that Christ accomplished in his sinless life, substitutionary death, and liberating resurrection. We cannot overcome our sin and guilt on our own. Our only hope—THE only hope—is found through trusting God to do in us and for us what we cannot do ourselves. We are, as Luther would remind us, beggars who as empty-handed have nothing to offer for our salvation. We are dependent altogether on God in Christ and what he has accomplished for us. The Spirit must open our eyes and awaken our dead hearts so that we believe and receive God’s redeeming grace that justifies us before God and begins the process of sanctifying us as we await our full glorification.

Theological Understanding and the New Creation and Final Judgment

Of the many areas of theology we could rightly consider further, may we look lastly to the difference a correct theological understanding makes regarding the end of history and the establishing of the new creation. Certainly there are areas here that have frustrated full consensus among thoughtful Christian thinkers over the centuries. We differ over the nature of the millennium and the timing of the return of Christ vis-a vis the tribulation. But those areas of biblical teaching that are of the greatest importance have elicited a broad consensus through the history of the church. We believe that Christ who was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, who lived a sinless life and died and rose for our sins, ascended back to heaven, and is coming again to take all of his followers to himself. The return of Christ and the bodily resurrection of believers is taught often and clearly in Scripture while they also enjoy wide agreement in the church, and for this we may be thankful. Does it matter to know that Christ will return, establish his kingdom in the new creation, and enlist us in service with him forever in heaven? Indeed, this makes an enormous difference as one considers the question of the meaning of our lives. We Christians realize that the most important parts of our lives are those that make an impact for eternity. Life after death, resurrection from the dead, joining with Christ in his kingdom rule over the new creation—these are truths that inform us now and enable us to rethink priorities of time and resources. Sadly, we may fail to think sufficiently about these theological truths and so fail to live in ways that would have been more greatly informed by them. But when we do, we realize that these truths make all the difference between living life merely for earthly pleasures and living for eternal reward and glory.

Another area of wide agreement, and of clear biblical teaching, is the final judgment to come for all people. For believers, this will be a day of great joy as we recall before the very face of our Savior that all of our sin has been paid for by him thus eliminating for us the judgment we otherwise would face. But for unbelievers, this will be a day of deep sorrow and unending regret as they come face to face with the extensiveness of their sin and the certainty of God’s judgment in the form of their eternal condemnation. How very sobering to realize that in that day, all pretenses are removed and all deception is exposed for what it is. All unbelievers will face certain and permanent judgment based upon the works they have done in their lives. Does it matter to know this now? Indeed, it does, for as we know now the certainty of the joy prepared for believers, and the corresponding sorrow and suffering prepared for unbelievers, we realize afresh the importance of sharing the good news of the gospel to those whose only hope is found in turning from self and trusting Christ for the salvation he has accomplished for repentant and believing sinners.

Theology—the study of God and his relations to, purposes for, and work within the created universe—matters! Every area of theology shows us that correct and biblical theological thinking provides us with instruction not only into truths we are called to believe but grants us insight and directive into how best to live our lives.

Further Reading

  • Richard Lints. The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomena to Evangelical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.
  • John M. Frame. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Phillipsburg, PA: P&R, 1987.
  • A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy. New York: HarperCollins, 1961.

This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.