Everyone always starts with definitions. I used to think it’s what lazy people did to get their brains going: no matter what the topic or venue, you start by saying “the dictionary defines x as thus-and-such.” Only after I began to study philosophy did it really sink in that definitions matter. I mean, of course they matter, but beyond simply making sure that speaker and listener have roughly the same picture in mind when the word comes up, there is a matter of precision necessary simply to keep the speaker on-track. It’s too easy to equivocate without even realizing it (i.e. assigning different meanings to the same word). So we define things not just for communicating clearly but for thinking consistently and with precision.
Of course, I don’t want to mislead you either. This is a blog. I’m a student. My efforts here at this point are not at the level of technical scholarship, so I will doubtless find myself guilty of these very mistakes… if not today, then next time. But the conversation has to start somewhere.
Perhaps the most common definition of theology is the study of God, owing to the word’s etymology. While it’s not off the mark, I don’t know how helpful it is either. Do I study God in the same way I might study a book? Or a tree? Or a historical figure? Or a mathematical problem? No, I think theology is distinct from other kinds of study for reasons which I hope will be clear shortly.
I’ve also heard theology called worshiping the Lord with your mind. I don’t know if that’s a common way of putting it or if it’s simply confusing definition with motivation; theology is one of many ways in which the mind worships God. While I think this is getting warmer, it seems too broad. For example, I believe that a scientist may worship God with her mind in doing her work to the glory of God without trying to explicitly connect it with religion, deity, or the like.
My current favorite definition is “faith seeking understanding.” I cannot tell you how much I love this concept. (But I will try in posts to come!) The classic articulation on this subject was given by Anselm in the 11th century:
I am not trying to scale your heights, Lord; my understanding is in no way equal to that. But I do long to understand your truth in some way, your truth which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand in order to believe; I believe in order to understand. For I also believe that ‘Unless I believe, I shall not understand.’
Christian theology seeks to understand the Christian faith and everything associated with it. But it does not merely seek understanding in the context of some dry attempt at objectivity; it is rooted in a personal faith commitment to Jesus Christ. It is my contention that Christian theology cannot be properly studied or understood except from the perspective of faith. In fact, both Anselm and I have much stronger claims to make along these lines, but we’ll save them for a future post.
Can this definition be abused? Sure. It’s not perfect. But I find it helps me set the scope of the project better than anything else I’ve heard. Theology is the attempt to better understand the faith you possess. This is as important to the child as the elder; as important to the farmer as the professor; as important to the soccer mom as the corporate executive. Any attempt someone makes to understand what they believe is a foray into the world of theology. The kindergartner learning about the depth of God’s love is just as engaged in theology as the scholastic exploring the finest of philosophical distinctions in soteriology.
At this point I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered, so that means it’s the perfect time to sign off. More answers—and questions—to come.