What do you believe about God? What do you believe about God’s miracles in the Bible? (Jonah 1:17; 2:10) What do you believe about God allowing evil and suffering and giving orders to kill seemingly “innocent” people? (Deuteronomy 2:31, 34) What do you believe about Jesus and Christianity being the only true religion? (John 14:6; Acts 4:12) What do you believe about God’s church? (Matthew 16:18) What do you believe about how God wants us to live? (Psalm 86:11) What do you believe about how God communicates with us? (Hebrews 1:1-2; 2 Timothy 3:16) What do you believe about God’s laws and God’s grace? (Deuteronomy 30:15-18; John 1:17) What do you believe about heaven and God committing people to hell? (Matthew 10:28; Luke 12:4-5) What do you believe about God’s idea of sin and its consequences? (John 8:24) What do you believe about God’s judgement? (Romans 14:10) What do you believe about man being created in God’s image – what does that mean? (Genesis 1:27) What do you believe about God’s purpose for us? (Colossians 1:28-29) What do you believe about God’s salvation – who, what, why? What do you believe about prayer and prayer’s affect on God? What do you believe about how God wants us to relate to one another who believe, or to those who do not believe? What do you believe about God creating the universe? What do you believe about the kingdom of God? What do you believe about what God is going to make happen in the future? (Isaiah 13:9, 11-13) Why do you believe the things you believe about God? Why does it matter what you believe? (John 11:26) Which of the above must be agreed upon by all, and why? You have a theology. What is it?
What is meant by theology? “Theos” is a Greek word for God, and in the simplest terms, theology is the study of God; what is believed about God and related topics. For Christians, the Bible is the primary source of true knowledge about God; His person, His behaviours, and various doctrines or teachings having to do with Him. When a person arranges information from the Bible into categories or subjects it is called systematic theology. Studying the Bible and formulating what you believe about God and His revealed truths is called doing theology. Over a lifetime, persons increase their knowledge about God and His truths, often changing various beliefs as they learn more. Many people’s theologies probably do not come as a direct study of God’s word; they are learned from other sources.
Where does our theology come from? How do we arrive at our particular theological views? Even though I am referring to traditional Christian upbringing, various religions probably have similar scenarios. We make deductions about God from some of our life’s experiences, but in general, our theology is learned from two primary sources - our families and our faith communities. At home our parents may talk to us or read Bible stories to us, and at church we hear sermons or are involved in various Bible classes taught by volunteer teachers. Parents and teachers teach from materials found in various books or articles that are written by persons holding to certain views of what the Bible teaches. Those views in books and articles are usually written by persons with a more formal education, such as that of a Bible school or seminary. Many Bible schools or seminaries form their theologies from writings of persons in the past who they respect, such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Saint Augustine, and so forth. Many schools and churches are associated with certain theological backgrounds and so that is what they believe and teach. We tend to believe what we have been taught from the perspective of our upbringing. When we get older, we may gain additional theological views from the Bible, from books we read, from DVD’s and movies we watch, from experiences, or from friends we talk to. Persons who do not grow up in a church or in a believing family most likely derive their theological views from bits and pieces of things they read or hear or see in movies, or from mystical experiences along the way. Where did you get your theology and from where do you get it now?
Even though the Bible is the best place to derive our theology, it is also where problems develop. Persons can receive misinformation, or differ in their understandings of what the Bible is saying. Therefore, we have many varying theologies among believers. For example, people have different eschatologies, that is, what the Bible says about future things. There are people who believe there will be a thousand-year reign of Christ on the earth at the end of our history. Others believe there will be no millennium on earth at the end of history. Both views are based on their understanding of what the Bible teaches. Another example concerns how a person is saved, that is, how a person is made right with God. Some have a theology which says God saves us by His own determination and that we have no initial part in it. Others say we choose salvation by the free will given to us by God. These opposing theologies have been referred to as Calvinism and Arminianism. Believers continue to be involved in a centuries-old debate over this issue of God’s sovereignty versus man’s free will. Another area of widespread difference is about baptism. Some believe in baptizing infants too young to have their own faith, while others say baptism is for believers only. Some say baptism saves the person, while others say baptism is a statement by those who have already been saved. Besides these examples, there are many other differing theologies based on one’s understanding of the Bible. These disagreements often cause unwholesome divisions between Christian brothers and sisters. (1 Corinthians 1:10-11)
There are those who enjoy conflict, but I am bothered by the absence of peace. Like the Psalm writer said, “I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war.” (Psalm 120:7) Unfortunately, this often happens in Christian circles. Christ would have us be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), but how is this possible in battles over what the Bible says? It is likely that you have experienced the same thing I have concerning the word “but”. When a point is made during a discussion, persons will come up with a “but” to bring up another side and proceed to argue with what you say. The saying, “There are two sides to everything”, is most often the case. When people give another side to what we have said, it is as if to say, “You haven’t thought of all the facts”, which is probably true. The concept of arguing, or bringing up a missed point, is a common practice. Not only is it widely practiced in marriage relationships, but also in religion, social settings, politics, science, and ethics. To bring up other points is all right, but oftentimes it is the manner in which they are brought up that prevents peaceful discussion and resolution. When one side is feeling attacked, criticized, or belittled by the other, a counter reaction, right or wrong, is produced. One or the other side may become defensive, stop listening, or intensify the justification of their own points of view. We humans are experts at being right. In light of such detrimental communication skills, our theology certainly needs to include what the Bible says about engaging others in conversation. (Proverbs 15:1, 18; James 1:19-20; Colossians 4:6; 1 Peter 3:15; Titus 3:2)
Why is it that we humans tend to take a strong stand on one side of an issue without considering what the other side is saying? Is it because we tend to believe our theology is the right one? Is it because we think we have studied the issue fully and therefore our opponents must be wrong? Are our minds made up so that we cannot hear another side because we are convinced that the issue is settled? It is easy to have the attitude, “I know I am right, so you must be wrong.” Being right may, at times, be true; but certainly not always. I have become aware that nearly every theology has some points that do not fit well with everything the Bible appears to be saying. It is as if persons with a particular theology are trying to force contrary Scriptures into agreement with their own views. Personally, I have discovered that other theologies have some valid Biblical truths that are missing in my own theology. People see things from different points of view. We all have our blind spots. Maybe God allows various people to see differently so that we can learn from each other. I like to think that is why there are differing theologies – so we can fit the missing pieces together and get a truer picture of the whole. We may not agree with every point of someone’s theology, but certainly there are parts that are right to use in building our own theology, bringing us closer to the truth. Perhaps we do not want to consider other views because we have a hard time letting ourselves accept something that would require us to change our views. I have come to believe that to negate one truth in favor of another is to miss something that can keep us in proper focus.
Long ago I heard a statement from a college science professor that I have never forgotten. He was explaining the behaviour of light and how it sometimes behaves as a stream of separated particles and at other times as a continuous wave. It would seem that it should be one or the other, but not both. Here is his concluding comment about particle versus wave action in light: “The truth lies simultaneously at both ends.” The statement has stuck with me and has served as a guide to keep my life and ideas in proper perspective and balance. It keeps me open to considering that there may be another side to an issue, and that if I don’t hear it, I may miss something necessary to a truer and proper view of the whole. The study of theology has produced an array of many-sided discussions and has engendered much dispute. I try to be open to hear other people’s “buts” because the more we see all sides, the nearer we can come to better understanding God’s revealed truths. This is particularly valuable if misunderstanding leads to misliving.
As a result of these observations I have decided I need to do theology differently. I must not simply accept what has been handed down to me and try to reinforce the rightness of it in my own mind to the exclusion of something else. Like the Bereans, I need to be open to consider what each theology has to offer and weigh it against Scripture by seeing if what that theology says is what the Bible seems to be saying. (Acts 17:10-11) How do I do theology? Here are some ways I prefer to do it: (1) When I engage in the daily reading of Scripture, I usually ask the Holy Spirit to help me understand the truth of His word. I believe God’s Spirit can give us insight, and if we don’t understand something, but ask and listen, He will often give an answer. (1 John 2:27) (2) I don’t negate other theologies but I try and learn from them something I may not know about the Bible’s teachings. I read a lot of differing viewpoints about various subjects and I try and assimilate into my thinking what is Biblically true about that particular view. I like to read what others say because, as has been said, “There is wisdom in a multitude of counsellors”. For that reason, I also respect the traditional views written by many throughout the centuries of church history. Therefore, my theology may include a mixture of differing theologies as I perceive them to be accurate assessments of Scriptural teaching. (3) I try to be aware of my own biases and tell myself that it is ok to believe something I disagree with if the Bible seems to say it. Therefore, what the Bible says is what I need to accept. If I have unanswered questions I put them on hold until further information is made available to me. I also tell myself that it is ok not to have all the answers. And, I remind myself that sometimes mystery is involved and I need to accept some things as true without having to reconcile them in my mind. What is reasonable to God may not be to us if it is beyond the boundaries of human understanding. (Isaiah 55:8) (4) I consult “experts” in language if I think it will help me to more accurately understand a Bible word or phrase. (5) I realize that the Bible is written to people living in differing contexts with particular needs that God wants to address. I have found that people live in contexts where, at various times, personal issues need to be addressed by seemingly contradictory truths of the Bible. Both truths are necessary for a Godly life and are true in their proper context. In such cases, the principle “the truth lies simultaneously at both ends” makes sense.
Our theology is important for the following reasons. (1) It provides content about God and His plans for our lives and for His created world. (2) It is the basis for any hope we have for how things will turn out in the future, whether in our personal lives or in God’s great “scheme of things”. (3) It provides wisdom on which we base our decisions for handling various situations we are dealing with. (4) It provides the content of the beliefs we are to pass on to our children. (5) Theology is more than religious knowledge, much more. It is what needs to be lived out. Knowledge about God and what He says is one thing; knowing Him personally in a loving and helpful relationship is another. If our theology is only about knowing things, it can lead to arrogant pride– thinking we know more than someone else (1 Corinthians 4:6; 8:1), or it can lead to argumentation – thinking we have to convince someone else of some truth, or that we are right and they are wrong and in need of correction. (1 Timothy 1:6) Not knowledge alone, but loving relationships needs to be the ultimate outcome of our theology. (1 Corinthians 2:9; I Corinthians 13:1-3; 16:14; Ephesians 3:17; 5:2; Colossians 3:14; 1 Timothy 1:5; 1 John 4:7; Jude 1:21) Even though there is always an intellectual and content side to theology, God’s goal is not only to give us right knowledge, but to ultimately reform us into Christ-like people. (Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 15:49; Philippians3:21; Colossians 1:28) Our theology is important as a guide to right living.
In one way doing theology properly is very difficult because it is all about discovering the truth of God. The difficulty with discovering the truth of God is that we discover the truth about ourselves. What makes this difficult is that to see or admit the truth about ourselves can make us want to run and hide from it. (Genesis 3:8-10; John 3:19-20; 5:40) One of the ways we run is to major on our theology as an academic study, that is, learning and building up our knowledge about God and various themes of the Bible rather than letting God’s truth tell us how we are to live. Managing our own lives and doing the will of God by obeying what He wants is very difficult because of our weaknesses, denials, or fears. It takes strength and courage to face the truth. Do not get me wrong. Knowledge of all God has revealed in His word is good and helpful for guiding right thinking, but knowledge without submitting to the life-giving function of theology is to short change one of the greatest purposes of doing theology.
When we think of theology, the word doctrine, which means teaching, comes to mind. The Bible tells us that there is such a thing as sound doctrine. (Titus 2:1) This Biblical concept of sound doctrine does not mean knowing what God says about the many various topics in the Bible. Sound doctrine has a narrower focus. Throughout the Bible sound doctrine primarily has to do with God presenting His will to us and giving us the option of believing it and doing it, or not. (Deuteronomy 1:1-8; 6:4-9; Jeremiah 18:1-3; Matthew 22:36-39; 28:19-20; 7:24-27) In the New Testament sound doctrine is the message of salvation which includes the facts involving Jesus Christ, and it is about following His teachings to live a moral and holy life in the power of His Spirit. Anything contrary to the gospel of Christ and the message of salvation, or contrary to living according to the teachings of Jesus, opposes sound doctrine and needs to be refuted. (Romans 16:17-19; Galatians 1:6-9; I Timothy 1:3-11; 2 Timothy 2:16-19; Titus 3:9-11) Holding to sound doctrine does not mean dividing the church over matters such as God’s sovereignty versus free will, or arguing for or against a particular view of the end times, or baptism, or healings, or spiritual gifts, or how God created the universe. Sound doctrine has to do with God presenting His will for how we are to relate to Him, and to one another, so that we live in faith, hope, and love. (1 Corinthians 13:13; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 5:8)
How shall we handle differences with each other over our theology? Ecclesiastes says, “There is an appointed time for everything.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) According to Acts 15, some issues are worth debating to correct wrong theologies, with the church coming to one mind on the issue. According to Romans 14, some issues are not worth debating, and each other’s theological differences are to be respected, while maintaining loving unity in Christ. I participated in a Bible discussion group with believers and unbelievers and everyone freely shared their views. To us believers in the group, some of the views were clearly unchristian or unbiblical, but we all respected each other and listened to each other’s views without trying to say “you are wrong” and without trying to correct anyone. We heard the different statements each other made about the Biblical subjects, and the amazing thing was that as we kept meeting and thinking about things that were shared; the Holy Spirit eventually brought us to the place where our views began to line up with what He wanted us to know. Important areas of agreement happened because God is very good at helping us recognize truth from error in what persons say to each other. (1 John 2:27) It is okay to firmly believe what you understand the Bible to say and to allow others to believe what they understand. God accepts our differences. (Luke 9:49-50; Romans 14:5, 17-19 – in the Roman passage substitute the words “agreed upon theology” for “eating and drinking”) Our unity in Christ’s body does not depend on everyone agreeing at every point of theology. Rather, in Christ, we can be united in the important things like believing that the Bible is God’s word to us, that Jesus is our Lord and Savior, and that holy living in obedience to Christ’s teachings is to be our lifestyle. Many things the Bible teaches are helpful and good and interesting to know, even important, but our knowledge is likely to be incomplete and we are always in process of learning more and perhaps changing our views as more information becomes available. How wonderful if our non-essential differences in doctrine could be overridden by relationships of love. (John 13:34-35; 17:25-26) What is it we are to die for; our doctrines, or maintaining faith in Christ and the truth of His gospel? Jesus died for people, not for ideas or right doctrines. Can there be unity in diversity? Yes, but only in Christ. (John 17:20-22) He is the unifier in the midst of diversity. (Colossians 1:17) There is truth in all the diverse parts, but we do not find it by clinging to our part and refusing to consider the truth of the other parts.
Here is one further thought on getting along in spite of differing beliefs. A principle appears in 1 Corinthians 8 which teaches us to be careful not to destroy the faith of a person who we feel does not have the knowledge we do, and who believes something that is not according to our belief. I am not suggesting that God’s truth is unimportant and that we should not contend for the truth. I am suggesting that right attitudes toward fellow believers with different beliefs are important and that we need to see where another person is coming from before doing something to offend or cause them to lose a measure of good conscience in what he or she believes, especially if it would be disruptive to their walk with Christ. Before we act contrarily, perhaps it would help to first learn the motives and reasons behind their theology. There is a difference between wanting or needing to be right and wanting to live for Jesus and obey God’s word from a pure conscience. If a person believes what they do up to this point in their walk with Christ, even though we believe their knowledge may be wrong or incomplete, we must be careful how we approach them rather than to inappropriately or insensitively try to convince them of our understanding of the truth. There are some wise considerations in Scripture to take into account when dealing with our differences with Christian brothers and sisters. For example, there are certain situations when it is okay to take someone aside who has a correct but incomplete knowledge of God’s word and explain the truth to them more fully so as to increase their understanding. (Acts 18:24-26) Also, consider the wisdom in the Bible that helps us know better how to approach, or not approach people. “Keeping away from strife is an honor for a man, but any fool will quarrel.” (Proverbs 20:3) “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.” (Proverbs 18:13) “The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable…” (Proverbs 15:2) “Let not many become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgement.” (James 3:1) Many of you have probably heard the statement, “A little knowledge can be dangerous.” How sure are we that we know what we are talking about? Controversy reminds us that there are more sides to issues than we are often prepared to see. Sorting out the many seemingly contradictory themes in the Bible and in life is not easy. This makes allowances for differences an important consideration if we are seekers after the whole truth concerning any issue. The important thing to consider is this: Are we and those we differ with in our theologies living for Jesus and desiring to serve Him? Are we obeying His word to the best of our ability? Do we love one another as Jesus would want so as to give the world around us the impression that we are one in him? (John 13:34-35) If I and another have the same faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the same desire to live to please Him, differences in theology can be instructive points, not points of serious contention that must be resolved for us to have peace and unity. If making an issue of a particular theological belief would cause a brother or sister in Christ to become upset, confused, and would negatively influence their faith and good conscience in what they believe, why pursue the need to be right on matters of theology that may not matter in the final outcome of life? I believe Romans 14 provides some good applications that can be made on this issue of accepting one another with differing opinions or beliefs. Think about the meaning of such statements as “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5) Or, “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is the one who does not condemn himself in what he approves.” (Romans 14:22) Perhaps the main question we should ask about another’s beliefs is not whether what he or she believes is right or wrong, but is it leading to a Christ-like or to sinful behaviour in how one is living? We all have our convictions before God. If God accepts us as we are, who are we to say another is unacceptable because of a different theological understanding. Let each of us simply resolve, with careful thought, to be working toward a greater understanding of our theology. (1 Peter 1:4-8; 3:18)