What is theology about?

Donald Macleod
Theology, in a nutshell, is about putting people in a position where they can speak a word about God; and since almost everyone has something to say about God, almost everyone is a theologian. Even the atheist usually has very fixed views about the God he doesn't believe in; and every Christian, including those most dismissive of academic theology, is a theologian when she prays and worships, and when in times of crisis she sets her life in the context of an overruling providence. The very child is a theologian when she sings,
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Down through the centuries, however, the church (and particularly the Reformed church) has taken the view that her preachers and teachers need more than this informal and casual level of theological knowledge: hence the setting-up of Calvin's Academy in Geneva, the theological faculties of the ancient British universities, similar American institutions at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, and the Dissenting Academies of England and Wales. In these centres of higher education students were introduced to the study of theology as a rigorous, albeit reverent, academic discipline.  

Such study does not introduce theologians to a God different from the one known and worshipped by ordinary believers, any more than astronomy introduces scientists to a set of stars different from those observed by shepherds under the night sky. The difference is that the astronomer brings to his study not only a host of instruments unavailable to the shepherds, but the findings of previous generations of astronomers, procedures honed by constant experimentation and (not least) the resources of a host of ancillary disciplines such as mathematics, physics and chemistry. 
Similarly, while the subject-matter of theology is unique, the study itself employs the same careful methods and the same stringent standards as apply in other disciplines. These include the study of the scriptures in their original languages, rigorous textual criticism, the scrupulous collation and deployment of evidence, critical awareness of past theological discussion, and constant reflection on the relations between theology and other academic departments (especially philosophy and the natural sciences).

Underlying this study of theology there lay one clear premise: we could not speak about God unless first of all he spoke to us. To this extent Immanuel Kant was right when he argued that human reason could know nothing of the noumena (the super-sensible world, including the unseen world of the divine and the spiritual). Its province was limited to the world of phenomena, those objects which existed in time and space and were thus accessible to our senses. Here reason could function competently, and here science could do its work. But God was no part of this world, and therefore reason as such could know nothing about him. It could neither prove his existence nor offer any description of him.  

This was a powerful argument against those who advocated a religion within the limits of reason alone. Unfortunately, however, its impact went far beyond merely undermining rationalism. It seemed to many to sound out the death-knell of theology. God as such could no longer be the object of human study; and theology could no longer be 'the science of God'.

If theology were to survive, then, there had to be a radical restatement of what it was about. Several alternatives were proposed, all of them attempts to deflect Kant's criticism and all purporting to offer the possibility of saving theology's reputation as a genuinely scientific discipline.  

Under the rubric of Comparative Religion, for example, there could be a truly scientific study of world faiths, yielding genuine knowledge of what the various nations of the earth believed about God.  

And under the rubric of Historical Theology there could be a scientifically rigorous study of what had been taught by the great creeds and by the magisterial doctors of the church, past and present. The writings of Athanasius and Augustine, Luther and Calvin, Ritschl and Barth, were, after all, in the empirical domain and thus well within the province of science. They might yield some 'insights'.

But far the most potent influence on modern theology was that of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Schleiermacher, brought up in the Pietism of the Moravian Brethren (a reaction to the idea of 'justification by sound doctrine') argued that religion was not primarily a matter of knowledge, but of feeling. The generic religious feeling was the sense of absolute dependence; the specific Christian feeling was the sense of dependence on Christ and his redemption; and the task of Christian theology was to explore the content of this feeling. This was as far as 'scientific' theology could go. It could not study God, but it could study the religious consciousness. Its statements would thus be limited to describing human states of mind, specifically those arising from the believer's experience of spiritual life within the Christian church.

The effect of these approaches is to collapse theology into anthropology. It is no longer the study of God but the study of man, exploring human religions, human histories and human consciousness. Each of these areas of study is in its own way scientific, showing what can be ascertained when reason admits its incompetence with regard to the noumena and confines itself to observable phenomena
When this happens, the object of theological study is no longer God, but (at best) faith; and while faith can receive truth it can never serve as either the source or the norm of truth. A theology which takes anthropology as its source can tell us what human beings have believed about God; it can never tell us whether what they believed is true or false; and it is precisely because what they have believed has so often been false that humanity's religions have been its greatest crimes.

There remains the further problem that Schleiermacher's approach inverts the order of knowledge and experience. If our knowledge comes from our experience then, presumably, prior to the experience we have no knowledge. What, then, do we have experience of? For example, we may, as Dr. Rowan Williams suggests, deduce at least some theology from our 'religious practice' (the church's liturgy and prayers), but then we immediately come across Augustine's agonised question, 'Who calls upon you when he does not know you?' (Confessions, I:1). We cannot experience what we have no knowledge of, either by faith or by sense.  

Today, the anthropological, non-normative approach to theology reigns supreme in every secular, faith-neutral university or college which offers courses in theology, and it would be naïve to assume that it does not reign in some Christian institutions as well. Suppose, however, that God could reveal himself to us and that we are created in such a way as to be able to receive such a revelation? Christian theology rests on the fact that he did precisely that. God has revealed himself, and he has done so in two ways.

First, he has revealed himself through what the Apostle Paul called 'the made things' (tois poiēmasin, Rom. 1:20). In the very act of creating the universe God has given himself visibility and expressed his eternal power and glory. The knowledge which this yields is not that Natural Theology against which Barth protested so loudly: an autonomous discovery for which man himself can take the credit. It is a gift: a movement in which the initiative lies entirely with God. And it is universal because, as Calvin stressed in the early chapters of his Institutes, God has inscribed on every human heart a sensus divinitatis, sown in every breast a 'seed of religion' (semen religionis) and stamped on every conscience an indelible sense of final accountability to a divine tribunal (Rom. 1:32).

But this 'general revelation' was never enough. Even in the Garden of Eden there had to be what theologians later came to call 'Special Revelation': direct divine words which told Adam and Eve what no star and no flower could ever tell them. It was through such words that man first learned of his commission to colonise the whole earth (Gen. 1:28), and through such words, too, that he learned of the forbidden tree (Gen. 2:17).  

After the Fall the need for such special divine words became even more urgent. Now man needed grace, and nothing in all creation (and certainly nothing in his conscience) could speak of grace. Forgiveness was God's sovereign prerogative, and only he could announce it. The Psalmist, crying from the depths, knows there is forgiveness, but he knows it only because he can say, 'In his word I put my hope'  (Ps. 130:5).

This special revelation did not come all at once. It came, as the Writer to the Hebrews tells us (Heb. 1:1), 'at many times', and it also came in 'various ways': for example, through theophanies, dreams, visions, prophets and, in the Last Days through 'a Son' living among us in the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7). But then God gave us a final luxury: he committed this revelation to writing, not because this was absolutely necessary, but in order (as the Westminster Confession affirms) to provide greater security for its preservation and transmission than would ever have been possible under the vagaries of mere oral tradition.
Nor did he leave the task of writing out the revelation to anyone else. He 'breathed out' the words of the Holy Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16) and 'carried' those who wrote them (2 Pet. 1:21), thus ensuring, through the miracle of dual authorship, that words written by men were also the words of God.  

These Scriptures are no mere record of revelation or mere witnesses to revelation. They are revelation: the word of God written; or, as Richard Gaffin puts it, 'the Word of God in Servant Form', using human language and accommodated to our capacities.

In all science, as the late T. F. Torrance tirelessly pointed out, the student must accept that we can acquire knowledge of any object only on its own terms. The atom, the rock and even the human cadaver must be allowed to tell us about themselves. The same is true, par eminence, of God, whose mode of being as the eternal self-existent Trinity is so far beyond our ken. We cannot take this to mean, as Postmodernism suggested, that the truth is utterly beyond us: we can grasp real truth, though never the whole truth. But we can do so only if God tells us a little of what he knows about himself (his self-knowledge being the presupposition of all theology); and for the Christian theologian this means that we can know him only through his written revelation, the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. These are our torah, the source and the norm of all the words we eventually speak about God. On them, therefore, we must meditate day and night (Ps. 1:2).

This study of the Christian torah involves three distinct disciplines: exegesis, biblical theology and systematic theology. Of these, exegesis is the most fundamental: the root, indeed, of all theology. Its underlying premise is the perspicuity of scripture, although the modern pre-occupation with hermeneutics obscures this, conveying the impression that the Bible is a collection of perplexing documents which will yield their meaning only to a special guild of scholars in possession of elaborate interpretative tools. Here, Barth's protest is welcome: hermeneutics cannot be an independent study. Instead, 'its problems can only be tackled and answered in countless acts of interpretation - all of which are mutually corrective and supplementary'. (Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His life from letters and autobiographical texts, p. 349).

The vocation of exegesis, then, is close engagement with the text: not with its background, not with its sources, and not with its history but with the text itself in its final, canonical form. Each such text was addressed, of course, to a specific situation, but its relevance does not pass with the passing of the situation. God still 'owns' the scriptures as his word for us today. 

Exegesis is the foundation of both Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology. What is the relation between these two disciplines? And should Evangelicals, with their renowned passion for what is 'biblical', now abandon Systematic Theology and focus exclusively on Biblical?

A question that certainly deserves an answer and a question that we will look at more closely in a forthcoming article.

After serving in two pastorates Donald Macleod was appointed Professor of Systematic Theology at the Free Church of Scotland College, Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1978 and served in that capacity till 2012. His main publications are A Faith To Live By (Christian Focus, 1998), The Person of Christ (IVP, 1998) and Christ Crucified (IVP, 2014). He is a graduate of the University of Glasgow, and in 2008 received an Honorary DD from Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia