Clear Method Cloudy Task

Although this ship sailed a long time ago, back in the day, that day being 11th through 13th century High Middle Ages Europe; theology was considered the “queen of the sciences.” However since modernity usually understands science as exclusively referring to something that can be measured quantitatively and verified empirically, past nomenclature is often dismissed as hopelessly flawed.

Medieval intelligentsia saw it differently. For them the various branches of learning required an overarching standard. And that standard was the Bible. The Scriptures were seen as the source of all truth, and so theology became the standard to which all other scholarship had to ultimately conform.  The scholars of this period recognized that one’s view of God and the Bible affects every other area of life. One’s theology was the foundation of one’s worldview thus shaping their study of philosophy or any other field of inquiry.  In that sense, theology was viewed as the “queen of the sciences.” To say this another way, God’s self – disclosure in written form was regarded as the majestic source of knowledge informing all other knowledge.

Today, the discipline of theology carries a largely negative set of connotations. Say the word theology and for many that conjures up images of something that’s bigoted, arrogant, exclusivist, and riddled with impracticality. In contemporary culture, people will allow you to talk about your theology as long as you don’t talk about it with too much conviction implying that you actually believe that you’re right and their wrong. It’s all right to have your beliefs as long you don’t make too big an issue of it by insisting it applies to everyone.

So what is theology anyway? I like how Charles Ryrie put it. He said theology is “thinking about God and expressing those thoughts in some way.” That definition works for me because it reflects the fact that everyone does theology to some level and degree whether they realize it or not. This is true of both the theist and the atheist. The issue then becomes how we do it, and whether or not we do it well.

David Wolfe in his book Epistemology: The Justification of Belief, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982), persuasively argues that the adequacy, rationality, reliability, and suitability of a system of theology can be evaluated or validated on the basis of the following criteria: Consistency—the assertions, hypotheses, and opinions expressed by the system should be free from contradiction. Coherence—the assertions and hypotheses should be related in a unified manner. Comprehensiveness—the system should be applicable to all evidence. Congruity—the system of assertions, hypotheses, etc. must “fit” all evidence. It must be accurate, adequate and precise to fit all data. In other words, the whole must equal the sum of its parts. If one part of the whole is out of sync with the whole, then the whole must be revised to include this part without throwing the other parts out of sync. We are searching for the interpretation which best “fits” all the data.

Another way to flesh this out is to say critical theological thinking involves the ability to formulate comprehensive theological description, definitions, and argumentation based on accurate analysis and synthesis of Scripture, theological tradition, and present day theological, philosophical, and cultural views.

The simplest most succinct way I can describe the actual practice of theology is to speak of it as connecting the dots. And connecting theological dots requires one to ask the question, “If this thing is true over here how does it affect that over there?” One doctrinal area of biblical truth cannot be viewed in isolation from other another area of doctrinal biblical truth. Doing theology well demands thinking holistically well.  And that requires that we read widely, think deeply, and pray fervently.

When all is said and done, I think when doing theology, it helps to remember that even with a clear method this activity is still cloudy.  Attempts to elucidate the inscrutable interface between limited thinkers constrained by time and space with the Creator who is not constricted by time and space is inherently problematic. For example, with respect to divine sovereignty and human responsibility in relation to the outworking of spiritual salvation; if we excessively try to bind God’s eternal acts to our boundaries of time and logic,  we run the risk of turning something mysterious into something nonsensical. Yet if we approach theology the way Isaac Newton approached science; seeking to think God’s thoughts after Him, the entire enterprise could and should be viewed as an act of worship that engages the totality of our being thus making God look supremely good.  Absolute truth is out there and waiting to be discovered because as Francis Schaeffer said concerning God, “He is there and He is not silent.”


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