The very root and beginning of all theological study is known as theology proper or the doctrine of God. Within this field, the existence, being, and attributes of God are considered and his character is defined within the limitations common to human beings. All Christian theology (from Greek theología, meaning "words about God" or "the study of God") has the character of God at its center. Our knowledge of God aids our understanding of our own being, purpose, and salvation. From God flows all life and goodness, as a light shining in the darkness.
Despite this, many Christians spend far more time considering things that are secondary to God's character than the character of God itself. There are many reasons for this: 1) Theology proper or the doctrine of God is a complicated subject that often requires intense intellectual study. 2) Theology proper may seem far removed from the daily life of the average Christian. 3) Our continual battle with the sinful nature, which presents itself in our inherent selfishness, causes us to focus on ourselves rather than our Creator. 4) There are some things about God that we are truly unable to comprehend due to our limitations as creatures.
By no means do I intend to dismiss these difficulties, but I do hope to encourage all Christians--young and old, ordained and unordained, male and female--to dip their toes into the deep waters of theology proper, for within those waters lie treasures untold. The entirety of scripture speaks to the nature and character of God, from the first chapter to the last.
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1:1)
"I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." (Revelation 22:13)
The scriptures are the Word of God, and in them he testifies about himself. Those same scriptures speak to us of the importance of knowing God. Not only is knowledge of God the beginning of all theology, but it is also the beginning of all true understanding and wisdom. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, / And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." (Proverbs 9:10) Our knowledge of our Creator informs and motivates our worship, and without true knowledge of God our worship cannot please our Creator. "For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, / And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6)
The knowledge of God has been revealed gradually throughout the ages, both through revelatory actions in history and in the recorded revelation that is the Word of God, and awaits an even greater revelation in the future. At all times, knowing the true God, trusting him, and worshiping him have been essential aspects of the believer's life. In the revelation of God's character, the ancient Patriarchs found hope that sustained them as they awaited the fulfillment of his promises, and in some of the darkest days of Israel's history, the prophets spoke of a coming age when the knowledge of the Lord would bring salvation. Isaiah predicted a day when, "The earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD, / As the waters cover the sea," (11:9), and Habakkuk wrote something very similar. (2:14) In addition to prophesying the forgiveness of sins, Jeremiah said the New Covenant that the Lord would make with Israel would be characterized by greater knowledge of God.
"'They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, "Know the LORD," for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,' declares the LORD, 'for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.'" (Jeremiah 31:34)
True knowledge of God and his character is essential for salvation. If we do not know that God is holy, we will not grieve over our sin. If we do not know that God is merciful, we will have no hope of forgiveness. If we do not know that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, we will not understand the redemptive value of his atonement. If we do not know that the Spirit is likewise God, we will not understand the power that allows us to conquer sin in the Christian life.
Though none of us have a perfect knowledge of God--nor can we, "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, / So are My ways higher than your ways / And My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:9)--scripture clearly teaches that there is a firm link between knowing God and having eternal life. As Christ himself prayed to his Father, "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent." (John 17:3)
The Apostles of our Church often wrote in the biblical epistles of their desire for believers in their care to know God more fully. Paul prayed that the Colossians would "walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God..." (Colossians 1:10) Peter longed for believers to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 3:18)
Therefore, the consideration of God's character and attributes is not merely an interesting topic of study for the Christian. It is an absolutely essential one! God has revealed himself to us, and this revelation leads us into salvation and makes possible our perseverance in the Christian life. We will never know it all, but we must strive to know and understand that which has been revealed. As the Apostle Peter assures us, "His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence." (2 Peter 1:3)
Theology proper is not merely for the academics and seminary-trained among us. If we are followers of God, then we ought to long to know God, even as we long to know about anything we love. But while earthly knowledge will pass away, the knowledge of God will carry us into eternity. It is the highest and greatest knowledge we can attain, as the esteemed preacher and theologian Charles Spurgeon so eloquently proclaimed.
"It has been said by some one that 'the proper study of mankind is man.' I will not oppose the idea, but I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God's elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father. There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. Other subjects we can compass and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self-content, and go our way with the thought, 'Behold I am wise.' But when we come to this master-science, finding that our plumb-line cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the thought, that vain man would be wise, but he is like a wild ass's colt; and with the solemn exclamation, 'I am but of yesterday, and know nothing.' No subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind, than thoughts of God."1
In writing about theology proper, I hope to demonstrate the eternal importance of this subject and encourage all Christians, regardless of station, sex, ethnicity, education, or age, to pursue the knowledge of our Creator, who is forever and always God Almighty, Alpha and Omega, I AM, one in substance, three in personhood, unchanging, unerring, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. May the grace of God guide me in this endeavor, and may it benefit the reader.
1. Spurgeon, Charles Haddon. "The Immutability of God", sermon delivered at New Park Street, 7 January 1855.
"All scripture quotations are from The New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation."