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Theology in a Nutshell

What is theology and why is it important?

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Pentecostal Evangel in a series entitled, "Theology in a Nutshell."

Once, at the close of a service at which I was the guest speaker, a lady came up front to speak to me. She told me, “We don’t believe in doctrine here — just the Bible.”

Now that may sound pious, but it’s really not possible. To say we believe in the Bible but not in doctrine is akin to saying, “We believe in water baptism; we just don’t use water.”

Doctrine is simply teaching — presenting the truth derived from the written Word. Of course, there can be false doctrine, but that doesn’t mean we can do without all doctrine. Doctrine is presented nearly every time a preacher steps to the pulpit or a Sunday School teacher leads a class.

Unfortunately, there are many who, in practice, believe in the Bible but never really learn much of what it teaches. They either have dust-covered Bibles or Bibles that are just brought back and forth from home to church — and seldom read.

Doctrine should be easily understood.

“Bible study used to be so easy,” said Herbert Jacobsen, “then someone called it hermeneutics.”

I have a conviction that the teaching of the Bible should be easily understood.

It is easy to make simple things complex. One way we do that is by giving basic concepts high-sounding names. I have been part of the academic world. I taught systematic theology, which is basically a topical way of studying Bible doctrine. The subjects I taught had names like “hamartiology,” “soteriology” and “ecclesiology.” Many believers who encounter these words are led to believe that theology is the realm of the professional theologian. They feel it is beyond the reach of the run-of-the-mill Christian to have a solid grasp of the Bible’s doctrines. But call those same subjects “sin,” “salvation” and “the church,” and it’s suddenly a different story.

Theology is learning about God.

The word theology comes from two Greek words: theos, meaning God, and logos, meaning word. The suffix –ology has come to mean “the study of.” So theology is first “the study of God” and, in its extended meaning, “the study of God’s relationship to the world.”

Theology is for everyone.

Learning the truths of God’s Word is definitely for everyone, not just those with seminary educations. I have known godly men and women who never went to Bible school but who are rich in their understanding of God’s Word. The reason? They make Bible study a lifelong occupation.

The primary source of theology is the Bible.

This is called special, or specific, revelation. It refers to what is revealed about (and by) God in the specific medium of His holy Word. The Bible is God’s letter to mankind. It is the only place where we can find the authoritative truth about God clearly stated.

There are many different Bible study schemes. These are man-made arrangements of the Bible’s topics. The Bible itself is not in topical order.

Sometimes theologians “major in the minors.” This happens more easily when the Bible itself does not remain the center of a theologian’s study.

Consider one lengthy debate that dealt with these questions: Are four 5-minute prayers as good as one 20-minute prayer? Is one 10-minute prayer as good as 10 1-minute prayers?

Perhaps instead of having a debate, they should have had a prayer meeting … or at least addressed this question: Why do we talk about prayer more than we pray?

Creation teaches theology.

God’s creation also teaches theology. The theological term for this kind of revealed truth is general revelation, meaning what is revealed about God in a general way. Nature, God’s creation, does this.

The primary source of information about God, the Bible, also teaches that God’s creation reveals things about Him. (See Romans 1:18-21.)

Man’s teaching must never substitute for the Word’s clear message.

After I spoke at a men’s breakfast, a man approached me. He plopped a magazine on the table and said, “This is what I’m into.” On the front was the picture of a somewhat questionable televangelist. The man was off-base … not just because of the evangelist’s teachings, but because he was “into” a certain person’s teachings.

Even if Billy Graham had been on the cover of that magazine, such an approach would have been wrong. We should be “into” Jesus. (See 1 Corinthians 3:4-7.)

As a pastor I always told my congregations, “Don’t accept what I say from this pulpit without checking it against the Word of God. Bring your Bibles to church and have them open during the message. If there is something you don’t understand or that you think is wrong, my door is always open.”

No preacher or teacher, no matter how seasoned or credible, is infallible in the pulpit. Only the Bible is infallible.

Theology is meant to be interactive.

Teresa of Avila, in the prologue to her devotional classic The Way of Perfection, said, “I shall speak of nothing of which I have no experience, either in my own life or in observation of others, or which the Lord has not taught me in prayer.”

To teach theology effectively, one must know God. This is the same for all who study the Bible. A heartfelt relationship will cause you to actually know God personally, not just know about Him.

We must love God with heart and head. We have the privilege of interacting with the living Word. (See Hebrews 4:12.)

Theology doesn’t need to be boring.

Many are daunted by theology simply because they fear it is too lofty, or even too boring. It can be both. Making it thus is a crime. Those who teach the Bible’s truths, in Sunday School or seminary, are teaching exciting truths about a living God. They should teach with passion.

And they should teach creatively. Jesus taught in compelling word pictures called parables.

All theology should be practical.

I was asked to teach a seminary course in the practical theology department. Practical theology is theology applied to life — evangelism, counseling, Christian education, etc. I had taught mostly systematic theology in the other schools I served. Since systematic theology and practical theology are two different academic disciplines, it is easy to assume that systematic theology isn’t practical.

But it can be and should be. I have always told my students I wanted them to “do theology,” not just blindly accept what I taught. It is important for the student of the Word to have conviction, to know why you believe what you believe. “That’s what the pastor teaches,” isn’t a good enough reason. The only acceptable reason is, “I believe it because I see it in God’s Word.” Every Christian can learn to mine the riches of God’s Word for himself or herself. Truly great sermons make the hearers want to get into the Bible to find more on the subject.

All theology should be practical, that is, usable. And it should be easy to understand. That’s the purpose of this series — to present the teachings of the Bible in a systematic way that is easy to understand and readily applicable. In the articles to come, we will break down the major subjects of God’s Word in summary form … theology in a nutshell.