In their book, Who Needs Theology? Grenz and Olsen attempt to romance us back into the love and attraction of Christian theology. They seek to heal the wounds that theology seems to be carrying around today, and remove the blemishes from this field of study. They know that the beauty of theology, much like marriage in today’s twenty-first century, has been marred and therefore seek to bring us back to its original and intended purpose.
Theology, in its purest and simplest form, is the study of God. However, I confess that when I think of the subject of theology, my mind conjures up something quite different. Having studied theology in a serious theological environment, I found that little was spoken of the practical relevance of theology such as one’s relationship with God, growing in faith, recognizing God’s voice and so on. Instead there existed in its place a strong pride for theological accuracy and anyone who existed outside of that very small circle was theologically erroneous and probably not saved. Although Grenz and Olsen disagree with the writer who stated, “theology is nothing but a poor substitute for a personal relationship with God!” [i]unfortunately many academic theological students sadly fall into this. So it’s very refreshing to read how our authors desire to close this gap.
The purpose of theology
As they state, theology should not be studied for it’s own sake. It has a purpose. Echoing the words of Pilate almost two thousands years ago, theology moves us to ask, what is truth? But more than that, we also need to ask, what is it good for? (to echo the words of Edwin Starr) If we study theology purely for study’s sake, it’s as if we talk about the features of a brand new car, feel its bodywork, admire it’s leather seats without ever purchasing it and taking it out of the showroom and onto the road. Just as a car is made to be driven and used in daily lives, so is theology. We seek not only to articulate Christian truth, but the outworking and application of it. As the authors state, “By grounding us in the truth, theology contributes to our becoming mature, stable disciples of our Lord who are not ‘blown here and there by every wind of teaching’ (Eph 4:14).” [ii] Soli deo Gloria.
However, while I appreciate how Grenz and Olsen attempt to bring the heart back into the study of theology, I found myself heading for an academic pothole as I read their book. That pothole is a sneaky place where many have fallen into; a place where an overly strong academic focus distracts from a spiritual one. By way of analogy, while I need to learn about how to create a healthy marriage, how to diffuse conflict, how to understand my husband better, and the difference between a man and a woman, in the end, I just need to spend time with my husband, invest in our relationship and love him. In the same way, the study of theology is not meant to replace our love relationship with God.
The practicality of theology
Although the authors do attempt in chapter eight to bring the study of theology into the practical arena, I still found it lacking. Yes I agree that we should live Christian lives of integrity that speak about God in this world. I also agree that God wants to transform our character and our conduct. As they rightly state, “We seek theological knowledge so that we might be wise Christians – those who live holy lives to the glory of God.” [iii] But is that all?
I want more for my Christian life. Surely the goal of theological study is more than our own personal integrity and godliness. It seems to me that Grenz and Olsen fall into a trap that many today have fallen into: an oversight of a dynamic and real relationship with God.
When I read the Bible, I find men and women who sought God in prayer, heard His voice, discerned His guidance, received His provision and encountered God in many instances, even miracles, in their lives. In other words, they had a real and living friendship with God. God spoke and they followed. No doubt their Christian character was transformed along the way, but not without encountering God in their everyday lives in such a way that even the crowds were drawn. Should we expect any less? Perhaps this is my personal integrative motif that the authors encourage us to find. Even so, although Grenz and Olsen mention how we are children of our heavenly Father, I find little reference in their work to studying theology with this important goal.
Yes, we need theology to protect us from erroneous beliefs, strengthen our understanding of God and His Word, and live worthy Christian lives. But we also need to be careful that we don’t allow it to distract us from investing in our daily relationship with God. Theology is like money. We need to be careful that it serves God’s purposes and that we don’t end up serving it. How we use it matters. If we end up focusing all our attention on becoming clever theologians and forget to spend time in the presence of our Maker as His child, then we are in danger of falling into that pothole.
Although I like how Grenz and Olsen attempt to take back the microphone for theology and encourage us to speak up into the hearts of the world’s waiting audience, they don’t go quite far enough. We must be very careful to not allow theology to replace the focus and attention needed to develop a relationship with God. How many of us consider ourselves ‘experts’ in this field? I’m not so convinced that the “academic resource” of theology, as they describe it, can do that. Perhaps I should start reading Peanuts.