How Should We Do Theology in 2021?

How Should We Do Theology in 2021?

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The Bible—and especially Jesus—show that Christian theology is not so much about believing things as it is about doing things: walking in God’s ways. Both/and, not either/or. Believing and doing, affirming and acting go together, as we see throughout Scripture. All of this is “doctrine,” teaching. It is theology believed and theology performed. Theology acted out; incarnated; embodied.

Actually doing theology is a necessary part of discipleship. This includes formulating the Jesus Way in words that can be told, retold, understood, contextualized, inculturated; written down and transmitted generation to generation. “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4).

Theology is of course a cultural endeavor since words, concepts, figures of speech, and metaphors are all embedded in particular cultural settings.

The New Testament is not just about Jesus. It is the story of the church coming to understand who Jesus is, what he is doing, and therefore what their mission is. The New Testament is a reinterpretation of the Old Testament in the light of Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection, reign, and promises about the future. Jesus himself showed us how to continue this living and retelling.

So then, how shall we do theology today?

1. Follow the footsteps of Jesus.

In doing theology faithfully, we seek first to follow Jesus’ footsteps, follow his hermeneutical lead. This he gives us most clearly in Luke 24, right after his resurrection. And so we also, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” interpret today, repeatedly, ongoingly, all “the things about [Jesus] in all the scriptures” (Lk 24:27).

Jesus promised continually to guide this process by his Spirit. “When the Spirit of truth comes,” Jesus said, “he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn 16:13). Jesus, himself led by the Spirit, gives this promise not just to his first followers but to the church, world without end.

To be led by the Spirit means to live a life of prayer, as Jesus himself models. Jesus’ fourth-century disciple Evagrius Ponticus wrote, “If you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray you are a theologian.”

Jesus by the Spirit gives us theological depth and insights over time as we meditate on God’s Word and humbly seek the guidance of the Spirit. Sound theology follows the footsteps of Jesus in prayer, lowliness, and listening for God’s Spirit.

2. Engage the entire biblical narrative in its fullness without exception.

Sound theology follows the full, whole biblical narrative, without exception, using the proven principles of interpretation (hermeneutics) that Jesus modeled. This means in particular: 1) grasping the fundamental narrative form of the entire Bible; 2) observing the key themes and covenants that form the living sinews of Scripture; 3) keeping the focus on God’s promised future and the way the plan or economy of God brings creation to this fullness through Jesus Christ by the Spirit; and 4) paying attention to the missional thrust of all Scripture. God’s Word is a word for us, for the nations of the world, for the whole creation. Engaging all of Scripture necessarily requires sensitivity to the various kinds of literature in the Bible.

Irenaeus, the first great Christian theologian, provides a useful model of engaging the whole of Scripture. Irenaeus insisted that we pay attention to “the order and connection of the Scriptures”—the way everything ties together coherently under Jesus Christ the Head.

Irenaeus lived from about 134 to 202 AD, completing his ministry as Bishop of Lyons in Gaul (modern-day France). He learned how to walk in God’s ways from the Christian martyr Polycarp (69-156 AD), Bishop of Smyrna, who himself was taught by John the Apostle. Polycarp used to speak of “the things concerning the Lord” he had heard from John and other “eye-witnesses of the Word of Life,” and how Polycarp “reported all things in agreement with the Scriptures.” “I listened eagerly,” Irenaeus said, “and made notes” of Polycarp’s words, “not on paper, but in my heart, and ever by the grace of God do I truly ruminate on them.”

Fluent in both Latin and Greek, Irenaeus was a brilliant and “irenic” thinker. As Bishop of Lyons, the principal city of Celtic Gaul, Irenaeus actually preached in Celtic, he said. His theology was not only instructive for the church but also missional for the world.

Irenaeus is known especially for his concept of recapitulation. The idea comes directly from Ephesians 1:10, which speaks of God’s plan “to gather up [anakefalaioomai, bring together under one head] all things in [Jesus Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” The English word recapitulate, from the Latin, translates literally the Greek verb Paul uses.

Irenaeus developed this key theme of recapitulation in connection with three other linked concepts: intellect (in the sense of God as universal personal loving mind), economy (oikonomia, God’s overall plan), and participation, by God’s grace becoming “participants of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4), living in communion with God in the body of Christ transformingly in the world. These themes were not totally unique to Irenaeus, but he gave them classic expression in ways that are still instructive today.

Irenaeus and other great teachers down through history underscore this truth: The soundest and most helpful theology engages the full biblical narrative in all its dimensions.

3. Keep central God’s revealed character and covenant.

Traditional systematic theology speaks of the attributes on God. The Bible however describes the character of God. Discussing God’s character as revealed in Scripture and in Jesus Christ illuminates the entire message of the Bible and the meaning of the Good News itself. The kingdom of God makes sense when we grasp the character of this High Holy God who reigns.

Highlighting the character of Yahweh the Lord, we note the Bible’s insistent focus on God’s lovingkindness (steadfast love; hesed) and his covenant faithfulness (emunah). The Bible shows repeatedly that the Triune God of steadfast love and faithfulness establishes covenant—not one only, but a connected sequence of covenants culminating in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ and the New Creation that covenant faithfulness brings. The biblical covenant structure is anchored by God’s key covenants with humankind and with the whole earth.

Focusing on God’s revealed character and covenants keeps theology linked to life and to earthed discipleship. This keeps doctrine from wandering off mainly into abstract concepts, terms, and theories. God’s character and covenants also lead us to mission: Proclaiming, extending, and embodying God’s loving covenant purposes in all the earth. Here again, theology is all about walking in God’s ways.

4. Learn from the Book of Creation.

God has given the world two books, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature (better, the Book of Creation). It is silly to base theology solely on one or the other. The Bible and the created order are the two eyes God gives us to see him, his character, and his covenants; the two angles that together give depth perspective; the two voices that call and sing out and echo God’s truth and call and beckon people to follow him through Jesus by the Spirit.

Sound theology therefore calls us to study and learn from “the wisdom of God in creation,” as John Wesley repeatedly phrased it. The medieval theologian Hugh of St. Victor wrote about 1130 AD, “This whole visible world is like a book written by the finger of God . . . to make manifest the wisdom of God’s mysterious workings.” For Hugh and others before and since, studying both books was, as Seb Falk notes, “not only legitimate”; it was in fact “an integral part of praising God.” God’s everlasting covenant with the earth/land gives us both a discipleship responsibility and a theological responsibility—two sides of the same coin.

The awareness of these two books of revelation—with Jesus by the Spirit in a sense being the animating, interconnecting third—goes back to Scripture itself. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom 1:20). This is a theme the Psalms constantly stress—for example, Ps 19:1-6.

Both Scripture and the book of Creation are mission resources to help God’s people “declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples” (1 Chron 16:24, Ps 96:3). To and among the nations, “the coastlands far away that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory,” the Lord says, his people “shall declare my glory” (Isa 66:19). Standing in awe and humility before God’s written Word and God’s wisdom revealed in creation, we seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance so we may understand and interpret God’s two books wisely in our day.

5. Understand the role of culture and language in our theological endeavors.

Culture in all its dimensions, but especially language, imagination, and modes of thinking, unavoidably shapes the ways people formulate and express doctrine. This is true in positive, negative, and more or less neutral ways.

Doing theology responsibly means understanding and engaging culture. The Bible models this for us. Every story in Scripture inhabits a cultural-historical, earthly home. All the language, terminology, images, and truths of the Bible are expressed in a variety of cultural forms.

Positively, culture offers a kaleidoscope for seeing God’s truth and sharing it with others, fulfilling our kingdom-of-God mission. Negatively, culture can distort Bible truth in subtle, unseen ways. The Good News and our discipleship must always be “inculturated,” of course. God’s grace and truth and love invade from outside our cultural context, even as God is already present in culture and history through creation and the prevenient grace and providence of God. Here again, we see this modeled in Scripture and especially in Jesus.
Theology and discipleship are necessarily cultural. We see this all around us, if we pay attention. Recognizing this helps us do theology soundly.

6. Honor and use discretely the Great Tradition of Christian theology.

The Great Tradition is a wise teacher. It should be studied and understood. But the Great Tradition and its creeds carry less authority than Scripture, than Jesus’ own witness, and than God’s revelation in the created order.

The Great Tradition does three things: 1) It lifts up key insights and truths that have emerged from a range of historical contexts; 2) it shows us how church, culture, and doctrine always interact; and 3) it expresses critical points of theological consensus on fundamental truths such as the Trinity, Christology (the nature and mission of Jesus Christ), and salvation. We learn how the Great Tradition has developed over time, a historical progression as doctrine builds on doctrine amidst newly emerging challenges.

Since the Great Tradition is itself culturally embedded and reflects issues arising at different times, it engages some doctrinal truths and neglects others. The Great Tradition has gaps. In Western theology, after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine mission was largely neglected. It seemed God’s mission—the conversion of the known world—had pretty much succeeded. But in the Bible, and wherever God’s people have been fully faithful, theology and mission dynamically interweave.

The Great Tradition still continues to develop globally in varied ways, and especially in relation to the role of the physical creation in God’s economy.

This doctrinal growth will continue until the New Creation comes fully. Now we “see through a glass, darkly,” but then we shall know even as we are known (1 Cor 13:12 KJV).

7. Learn from the global church.

What is God doing in and through the church globally? What is the worldwide body of Christ, in its amazing diversity, learning that should inform our theology and mission today, wherever we live?

In doing theology, the church must engage not only the historic Great Tradition but also the emerging Global Tradition. Both time (theology through history) and space (theology across cultures) inform us. Through this partnership the varied church traditions enrich each other in the spirit of Paul’s exhortation in 2 Corinthians 8 about sharing economic resources: each part of the church receiving from and supplying the need of the other.

As both church and world increasingly interconnect, more and more networked, so Christianity is more and more a global enterprise. Above all, where Christians are suffering pain, poverty, persecution, and death and yet giving witness, the global church is our teacher.

8. Focus always on edification in the full biblical sense.

The purposes of theology are the praise of God, witness in the world, and upbuilding the body of Christ, the church. The New Testament letters focus constantly on edification; building and reinforcing the “edifice” of faith—that is, the Christian community—for the sake of fidelity and mission.

In the New Testament, edification means building up and strengthening the household of God, the community of faith. Edification is a community enterprise with intimate personal application. Speaking to the church about gifts and graces, the Apostle Paul says: “Let all things be done for building up” (1 Cor 14:26); “Let all things be done unto edifying” (KJV).

As an integral part of discipleship, doing theology means strengthening the bonds of Christian community, making the church’s witness more winsome, persuasive, and prophetic and its praise more true and glorious.

Theology in itself has always a tendency to turn in on itself, to focus on doctrinal nuances and forget its prime purpose. This is the “occupational hazard” of all who specialize in theology. The prime purpose of theology is not theory but praise, witness, and healthy, functioning members of the body of Christ. For this reason, doing theology needs to be understood and practiced within the context of the multiple and reinforcing fullness of spiritual gifts, as we see especially in 1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 4, Romans 12, and 1 Peter 4:10-11. Theology is the church, led by the Spirit, understanding and performing its calling as body of Christ and kingdom community.

9. Honor the sovereignty and glory of God as we work in humility and in awe of great mystery.

The more we truly perceive and experience God, the deeper our humility. The deeper also, however, our responsibility. The book of Job shows how to do theology in this mode.

Towards the end of Job’s book, Yahweh confronts him directly. Your “comforters,” God says, are merely “darken[ing] counsel by words without knowledge.” But you, Job: “Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me” (Job 38:2-3)! Earlier God had said, “Hear this, O Job; stop and consider the wondrous works of God” (Job 37:14). Now Yahweh declares, “Anyone who argues with God must respond” (Job 40:2).

Job answers, “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.”

Job is being awesomely humble. But Yahweh tells him, in effect: Oh, no! I am not done with you yet! “Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me” (Job 40:1-7).

The climax is in chapter 42. Job answers the Lord: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. [You asked,] ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. [You insisted,] ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you [shall] declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2-5).

This is how to do theology. Honoring the sovereign Personhood of God, which means not only humility but also responding consciously, willfully to God’s reality through further reflection, ever seeking understanding. For humans are created in God’s image, not in the image of creatures unable to respond rationally and in words to God’s self-disclosures. “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you” (Ps 32:9).

But Yahweh also says: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. . . . For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8-9).

The Lord God of hosts has self-revealed as lovingkindness and covenant faithfulness, the God who makes covenant requiring faith and fidelity in all dimensions of life—today, and into the future. We do theology in humility and in awe of great mystery.

10. Rest in faith, hope, and love, and in the consolation of Christian community.

Doing theology means daily now, and in the end ultimately, resting in God’s grace and faithfulness—resting humbly in faith, hope, and love together with our sisters and brothers in Christian community on earth and in heaven and in comradeship with the “all things” of God’s creation.

For theology is a community endeavor. It is a synergy and symbiosis of interconnection between the Triune God, one another, and all creation. Not in chaos or confusion, but in the trusting, obedient, loving relationship revealed to us in Christ Jesus.

Open Questions

And yet we know that the story of theology is never complete for us. This is so for three big reasons:

    • Much has not yet been revealed.
    • We have not yet reached the end of the story.
    • Our human spacetime-bound minds are not capable of understanding much that is beyond our dimensions of experience and understanding.

And so we are left with many mysteries and imponderables, part of the Great Mystery. Many things (as my wise aunt used to say) that we put in our mystery bag. We still ponder troubling puzzles such as this: Will evil in the end prove to be more positive than negative in the long story of human history, as Christians earnestly wish to affirm? Or are we even asking the right questions?


Finally, we remind ourselves once again that theology is more than words; is not done with words only. Yes, some do theology by writing. Some by teaching or preaching. Some do theology by singing or dancing of composing. Some do theology by discipling newborn believers. Some do theology by serving the poor or providing shelter for the homeless.

Some do theology by prayer, contemplation, intercession. Some do theology by encouraging others. Some do theology by planting trees, painting pictures, or pursuing science. Some do theology by government service or by social or economic research.

Some do theology by prophetic silence.
“They also serve who only stand and wait,” John Milton said, reflecting “On His Blindness.”

There is no narrowly right way to do theology. For theology is always faith seeking understanding and life seeking fidelity. The task can be approached in varied ways. But any way of theology that fails to focus on the divine calling to walk in God’s ways is gravely deficient and can be fatal.

It is all a matter of grace, of charism, calling, and covenant; of unity, diversity, and mutuality; of life together in the body of Christ while walking by faith in the world, looking “forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 11:10).

[Excerpted from forthcoming book, Living Truth: The Word and The Way.]