The word “theology” is derived from two Greek words: theos (God) and logos (speech). In Latin, the word theologia means language or discourse about God. In a formal, academic sense it is the methodical attempt to understand what can be known about God. Theology in this sense follows rules of logic, reason, exegesis and hermeneutics. Those who practice theology are divided, and subdivided, into a myriad of specialties.
Scholars who work with, and in, the texts of Scripture – textual scholars – must be adept in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek; the three languages used in the Bible. Translators, for example, need to be familiar with the original languages in order to translate them into modern languages for general consumption. All translation involves interpretation. It is not possible to translate a text of Scripture without first interpreting it.
When we pick up a translation to read it, we are dependent upon the interpretive accuracy of its translators. Did they really understand what the original writer – who in some cases is unknown – was getting at? Did the translator fully grasp the intent of the writer, the circumstances under which he wrote, the language he used – with its idioms, literary genres, and usages?
Most of us rank & file Christians are not academically capable of doing formal theology. We simply don’t have the tools. We rely, for understanding, on those who do. Every time you or I pick up a Bible to read it, we are dependent upon translators, theologians and interpreters. Whenever we use a lexicon, a Bible dictionary, a commentary or a theological work of any kind, we are dependent upon theologians.
We are, therefore, consumers of theology. The choices we make in that consuming are largely subjective and arbitrary. Sometimes they are simply based on what’s there – what’s available on our personal bookshelf. Many, if not most, Christians seldom crack a Bible help book at all. Most could not explain, from Scripture, even the most fundamental Christian doctrines. They seldom study. They simply regurgitate what they have heard from preachers, or they spout subjective opinion.
At our level, those of us who tend to be studious are doing what might be called “pop theology.” If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we’re simply not capable to doing much beyond that. A major problem arises when an academically unskilled preacher, who believes he or she is divinely inspired, begins to develop a “theology” from an English, or other, translation. All too often such a presumptuous person may carry forward errors made by copyists, translators or earlier pop theologians. Strong’s Concordance provides no foundation for forming a sound theology. Fishing through translations until one finds a rendering that agrees with one’s presumptions is also an invalid technique. Using The Living Bible with its myriad synonymous embellishments is also bogus. A theology can only be legitimately formed on the basis of the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic texts – and only then when one has in place the necessary exegetical skills.
Of course I realize that this view flies in the face of those who claim inspiration – usually on grounds of passages in I Corinthians 2 – for their personal interpretations. Chances are such people are motivated by power, money and the need for a following. They see religion – i.e. what the KJV calls “godliness” (I Timothy 6:5) – as a means of financial gain. Just about any reasonably intelligent, creative, person can form a “theology” and attract a following. Throughout the religious world, cults of personality abound. Some, like the Jim Jones cult, have led to the tragic and untimely deaths of hundreds of followers. In the hands of ill-motivated religious leaders, even the Bible can be a deadly weapon.
Let’s return now to the issue of theology itself.
Formal Theology Output
The output of formal theology is prodigious. I occasionally visit the library of Fuller’s Seminary in Pasadena, California. It has four floors of theological works, including two sub-basements. In my brief lifetime, I could never even make a minor dent in this vast array of learned journals, dictionaries, commentaries, encyclopedias, lexicons, and specialized books. So I pick the ones that most closely relate to the issues I’m trying to understand. It’s a crap shoot. I may later discover that I’ve bypassed the most important work of all on a subject. Knowing which works are definitive on a subject is something known only by esoteric specialists.
Over the decades, I’ve found myself repeatedly homing in on certain topics because of their relevance to me, my Christian life and work or my family. I am interested, for example, in the causes and cures of atheism. That leads me not only to anti-God literature, but to the apologetic works that defend the faith.
I am also fascinated with the subject of the Bible itself – its documents and how they came to be, their selection for canonization, and how we should appropriately use them to form our personal theology and practice.
This naturally leads me to the Jewish roots of Scripture and the original believing community. Without at least some understanding of these Hebraic origins, I’m not sure it’s possible to fully grasp the meaning and correct application of the documents that make up our Protestant Bible.
My personal library reflects my theological interests. Yet no matter how many books I accumulate, the best I can do is “pop” theology. I’m a generic (no denominational brand name) Christian who craves understanding of certain topics. I pursue that understanding by prayer and study. But I don’t dare claim to be an “authority” on anything. To do so would be presumptuous in the extreme. Like most of us if we’re honest, I am just a studious Christian.
As I said earlier, the Christian world is full of cults of personality. In many cases, the leaders of these cults have little or no formal theological training. They wouldn’t know an idiot from and idiom. They wouldn’t recognize a parallelism if they stumbled across one in the street. Yet, from on high they pontificate about every imaginable subject, assuming their own authority and inspiration. They speak out of the shallow well of their own pop theologies. Most of us lay Christians are just that; amateur pop theologians. We in some cases may be studious, but we are not theologically sophisticated. We can’t mix it up with the high-domed theologians who haunt the hallowed halls of Academia. At best, we can sit at their feet when they lecture, read their books, and learn from them – at least from some of them. But it would wildly presumptuous to assume that we are capable of “critiquing” their work as peers.
Faith Seeking Understanding
Our level of theology is, for the most part, “faith seeking understanding.” We would be well-advised to respect the work of scholars, and consume their output judiciously, with appropriate humility combined with healthy skepticism. Scholars are human too. Many of them have agendas. Some are mere apologists for the denominations whose seminaries pay their paychecks. We can’t assume pure objectivity in anyone. It doesn’t exist.
Real scholarship is hard mental work. It is reserved for those who are cut out for it. All Christians should study the texts on which their religion is based. Like our parental Judaism, we are a “religion of the book.” It behooves us to know that book. There will be times however, when we will need to avail ourselves of the work of scholars who also take their faith in Christ seriously.
All theologians are not necessarily believers. Some are atheists, some are agnostics. In some cases, they started out as believers, and moved into these positions as a result of their scholarship. I know of at least two scholars who have abandoned Christ in favor of either Judaism or Noahism. Another has simply become an agnostic. These factors need to be taken into consideration when one is consuming their output. Scholars are like everyone else. They have their prejudices, biases and points of view. Not all are people of faith. Personally I tend to seek out scholars and teachers who are faith-builders, not faith-busters. That’s a choice on my part. I realize it’s arbitrary and that I might be screening out bonafide scholars who have something legitimate to offer. I feel the greatest level of confidence in the scholars connected with, or influenced by, The Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research. Names like Roy Blizzard, David Bivin, Brad Young, Robert Lindsey, David Flusser, Shmuel Safrai, Halvor Ronning, Marvin Wilson, Dwight Pryor, Joseph Frankovic, Randall Buth and Steven Notley spring immediately to mind. Their articles, books, tapes and CD’s are among my most precious possessions. All are godly scholars who believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. I feel well-guided in my Bible study when I read their works.