“Be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” Paul states (Romans 12:1-2). As we learn that the process of mind-renewal involves intimacy with the Scriptures, we naturally move to the realm of theology: the systematic study of God. How valuable is having a right theology?
For some, the word “theology” is a cold and stoic idea—something meant for clergy and ivory tower academics. We need not think this way about theology. GK Chesterton wrote, “People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”
– – – –
Theology as a Map
CS Lewis gives a great explanation of theology in his classic, Mere Christianity:
In a way I quite understand why some people are put off by Theology. I remember once when I had been giving a talk . . . an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, ‘I’ve no use for all that stuff. But mind you, I’m a religious man too, I know there’s a God, I’ve felt Him: out alone in the desert at night; the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!’
Now in a sense I quite agree with that man. I think he probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he will also be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of colored paper.
But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only colored paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would only be a single isolated glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.
Now, Theology is like that map. Merely learning and thinking about Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experiences of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God—experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused.
And secondly, if you want to get any further, you have to use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion—all about feeling God in nature, and so on—is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.
Lewis explains here how theology is like a map that is connected to personal glimpses of God—experiences which are recorded in the inspired texts of Scripture. This map is that which moves us further and further up, into knowing God.
– – – –
Theology Renews the Mind
Theology proper is the “study of God,” the study of who He is in His incommunicable and communicable attributes. More broadly, theology is the study of a number of spiritual topics. There is the study of Bible inspiration (bibliology), the study of salvation (soteriology), the study of Christ (Christology), the study of the Holy Spirit (pneumatology), the study of angels (angelology), the study of last things (eschatology), the study of the church (ecclesiology), the study of humanity (anthropology), and the study of sin (hamartiology).
Why are these -ologies crucial to the process of mind renewal? They are crucial because of the way the mind is built. Each experience, each idea, and each concept stored away in our brains is not simply thrown into a heap of mental rubble or an unlabeled filing cabinet. They are more like bricks that get stacked on one another to create whole systems of thought and views of the world. So a truly renewed mind isn’t merely decorated with the sights and sounds of Scripture, and it isn’t merely capable of quoting chapter and verse. Knowing passages of Scripture doesn’t guarantee right thinking. We need to understand how the parts go together into a system of thought. This is theology.
– – – –
Theology in Community
In this pursuit, the community of the church has a huge a role in mind renewal. Certainly not all or even most members of the church have the time or resources to become scholars of theology. We rely on translators and copyists to have readable versions of the Bible in our language. We rely on other reference works to teach us about meanings of certain words and expressions found in Scripture. We rely on spiritually gifted teachers who can present information in writing and preaching. We rely on the fresh perspectives of others to enlighten our own minds to angles we’ve never seen before.
No wonder there is such an emphasis in the Bible directed toward the scribes and teachers of the Christian community to keep their doctrine pure. “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. . . . Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:13-16, NIV). “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NKJV). “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1).
All are not called to be true scholars or teachers, but every Christian ought to be a student of theology. This is part of what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus.
– – – –
In our pursuit of mind renewing theology we need to be careful that we do not fall into the trap of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. “Knowledge puffs up,” as the apostle Paul said (1 Corinthians 8:1). Instead, our pursuit of theological knowledge needs to translate into practical theology, theology that speaks directly into practice and action.
Let’s take for example one of the most foundational theological confessions of Scripture: “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9). Unpacking this statement unearths a host of beautiful doctrines: Christ’s pre-incarnate existence, His divine nature, His incarnation, His ascension to the right hand of God, His enthronement in the heavens, His return as the judge and ruler. Exploring these concepts allows us to dive into the heart of theology. But beyond these concepts, what is the practical theology of Jesus’ lordship?
It involves asking many personal questions. Do we treat Him as Lord? Do my daily thoughts, emotions, and decisions reflect my belief that He is to be honored as Lord? Do I love Him as Lord? As we wrestle with these personal questions we wrestle with practical theology. We pour over the Scriptures and our theological extrapolations with a view to how we should live and what should occupy the center stage of our minds.