“Wait,” you say, “how dare you accuse me of such a thing? I’m not a minister, I never went to seminary, heck, I barely even read my bible.” All those things may be true, but you are still a theologian. Let me explain. First, let’s establish what theology is.

What is Theology?

The word “theology” is an ancient Greek term that’s a combination of two words: “Theos” (God) and “logos” (word or study). So, theology literally means “the study of God.”

The Greeks used the word to refer to musings of philosophers and poets about divine matters. Paul used theology during his encounter with the philosophers at Athens in Acts 17 as he painted a picture of the God of the bible and compared and contrasted him with the Greek ideas of gods.

Theology was critical in Paul’s New Testament letters as he tried to keep new churches on the right track. His letters are filled with passages like the following:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 

In the 12-13th Centuries, theology took on a slightly different meaning. With the rise of higher education and universities, theology became an academic discipline. More like a science of focusing on God. A famous phrase was coined by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) that emerged as an early definition of theology. He called it, “faith seeking understanding.” This definition assumes that our faith is not a place we arrive at. Instead, true faith prompts inquiry, asks questions, and seeks to understand more deeply. Understanding God more deeply is a quest that will never end.

In modern times, theology has been often used with a narrower definition. It is viewed as an equivalent to what we would refer to as “doctrines.” The formal beliefs of faith. But no matter what era or how narrow or broad the definition, theology has to do with the “intellectual reflection on matters related to God.” So you are doing theology when you ponder questions like:

  • What is God like?
  • What are humans like? Why do we act the way we act?
  • How did we get here? How did the world get here?
  • Who is Jesus and what did he accomplish?
  • How do humans connect with God?
  • How are humans saved by God?
  • What is the nature and purpose of the church?
  • How will history end?

It’s easy to get lost or frustrated when considering the depth of questions like that. But here’s the good news. At the foundation of theological inquiry lies one encouraging truth. God wants to be known. He has revealed himself through both General Revelation (knowing God through the order, intimacy, and wonder of creation) and Special Revelation (knowing God through the scriptures and through Jesus Christ). So, we don’t ask these questions without hope of answers; God has revealed himself to us.

You ARE a Theologian

Let me come back to my original assertion. You ARE a theologian. The question isn’t, “are you or aren’t you?” It’s, “Are you a good one or a bad one?” Everyone has beliefs about who God is, who Jesus is, what salvation is, where we came from, and how we should live our lives. We’re all synthesizing those beliefs together all the time. So, if you’re a Christian, you’re doing theology, whether you’re aware of it or not. If you’re not aware of it, then your theology is probably not very well organized. Here are some examples of times you are doing theology:

  • When you are in worship.
  • When something bad happens to you and how you respond.
  • When you’re facing a decision. Is it God’s will, and is he distant or close?
  • When you plan for the future.
  • When you reflect on God or your faith.
  • When you read the bible.
  • When you’re making a purchase.
  • When you form an opinion about a sin in your life or someone else’s.
  • When you vote.

In all of these instances, you are bringing your theology (your beliefs about God) to bear whether intentionally or not. Because of this, I would argue that it is critically important for Christians to practice good theology. The problem is bad theology is rampant. We, as human beings, tend to get bored with “old” ideas and are easily swayed by exciting new ideas, or a new leader’s latest fad, or new experiences that tantalize us. But we must never substitute the newest and latest ideas for God’s original ideas! Jesus went after the Pharisees for bad theology. Paul warned against the bad theology of false teachers regularly in his letters. There has never been a shortage of groups of people pushing a wrong understanding of who God is. So, we must always be on guard against bad theology. Let’s break it down: every person does theology at one of five levels.

The 5 Levels of Theology

1. Tabloid Theology

This pop-culture theology has no basis in fact. These ideas, shared widely on social media and the modern equivalent of old National Inquirer articles, may seem cutting-edge, but are not grounded in truth or historical credibility. When I was younger, I heard many versions of the “hitchhiking angel” story. It was always a friend of a friend who picked up a hitchhiker along the road. The hitchhiker turned out to be an angel, and he always delivered apocalyptic warnings like “Gabriel’s mouth is on the trumpet!” And as soon as the message was delivered, the friend of a friend looked in the rear-view mirror, and the hitchhiker had vanished. There is a lot of tabloid theology around the dates of Jesus’ return, the old DaVinci Code, or even peoples’ vague concept of “the man upstairs” coming through at just the right time in their life when all the chips were stacked against them.

People who engage in tabloid theology generally don’t have a personal faith in God but more of a cultural religion that believes in someone out there who’s looking out for us. So, they tend to uncritically accept spiritual-sounding things without applying any scrutiny. What’s the problem? If you are attracted to tabloid theology, your faith requires these sensational things. When this sensational God doesn’t show up, any semblance of true faith crumbles.

2. Folk Theology

Unlike tabloid theology, which is based on new fantastical phenomena, folk theology is often rooted in traditions like old family wives’ tales and religious folklore. Passed down from generation to generation but never really confirmed. Folk theology often involves ideas you believe, but we’re not sure why you believe them. However, you’ve invested a lot of time and energy into the truth of these claims so they’re hard to give up. If upon further reflection, you don’t know exactly what a belief means, or you can’t explain why it is true and have a hard time defending it… it might be folk theology.

Let’s test this category. If I were to ask you, “When you die, who will meet you at heaven’s gates holding the Book of Life?” Are you imagining St Peter standing in front of those pearly gates? This belief is not supported by scripture. But it is a good example of folk theology. How about these… “Does every person have a guardian angel? Is Grandpa looking down from heaven and helping you win your football game? If you read your bible in the morning, is your day destined to go better than if you forget to have your quiet time? Does God help those who help themselves?” These are all examples of folk theology with no basis in the bible. But they are beliefs deeply held by many Christians because their religious grandma told them they were true!

3. Church-Goer Theology

This is the theology of your average Jesus-follower committed to actively learning and reflecting on their spiritual beliefs and how they apply to real life. These theologians tend to be more discerning of unfounded traditions. They are willing to use study tools to supplement their own ideas and feelings. For example, their view of heaven is informed by the scripture and carefully researched instead of being based on folklore and family traditions.

They also tend to be able to distinguish between essential doctrines and non-essential convictions and preferences. Essential doctrines are those non-negotiables like the trinity, Jesus’ death and resurrection, and return, the authority of the Bible, etc. Convictions are those beliefs you are willing to fight pretty hard over but, in the end, would maintain Christian fellowship with someone who disagrees. Beliefs around specifics of the end times, the interpretation of Genesis 1-2, and the role of women in ministry would fall into this category. Non-essential preferences include ideas around worship style, what you should wear to church, and what version of the bible you read. True Jesus followers should be able to discern their way through the importance levels of these varying beliefs.

4. Church Leader Theology

Some of the paid and volunteer leaders in a church have had some training in theological methodology. They know how to use study tools and resources and are able to critique their personal theological ideas against competing models openly. They can read books, articles, and social posts with a critical eye, knowing that not all “Christian” material has equal worth. They generally know which publishing companies, authors, and subject matter experts are more trustworthy than others.

Critiquing one’s own theological beliefs against other valid options, interpretations, and perspectives is invaluable to the continued construction of theology.

5. Academic Theology

This category is reserved for the person who constructs his or her theology and makes a living doing so. They conduct original research on theological subjects and write about them. They can critically evaluate common theological trends and instruct others on the implications.

It’s important to say in an article like this, that for all of us, theology has never been just about the knowledge. I’ve met people over the years who know the bible 10 times better than me and are also the angriest, grumpiest people I know. James said if you’re only a hearer and not a doer of the word, you deceive yourself and your religion is worthless. Proper theology must always lead to a proper lifestyle. Orthodoxy must lead to orthopraxy. That is, the right knowledge must lead to the right behaviors. Otherwise, our theology is worthless.

At the Grace Leadership Institute, we’ve set our sights on building up the Church Goer and the Church Leader theological categories. We want to bring in courses and subjects that will help the average church goer and church leader to be more confident in their faith. To give some umph to their theological expression. And to generally raise the level of biblical literacy in churches all over our region.

I’ll close with this quote from Charles Ryrie in his Basic Theology. “In reality, everyone is a theologian of one sort or another. And therein lies the problem. There is nothing wrong with being an amateur theologian or a professional theologian, but there is everything wrong with being an ignorant or sloppy theologian.”

I pray that we will all get better in our theology because, after all, you ARE a theologian!

Get Your Theology and Church Leadership Certificate

Grace Leadership Institute offers a six-course certificate program that provides a Bible foundation and practical training for church leadership. The Theology and Church Leadership certificate program includes four core classes with a choice of two electives. It can be completed in one or two years, with entry occurring possibly at the beginning of any semester. 

If you are looking for a more affordable option without a grade or certificate, you can audit any of our courses for a cheaper cost.