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Christian Theology: A Working Definition

By Luke Stamps–

This summer I am teaching a course on Christian Theology to a cohort of students from several churches here in Southern California through the Online and Professional Studies division of California Baptist University. I will actually be teaching the course on site at one of the churches, which should serve as a helpful reminder that the ultimate context of Christian theology is the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about how I am going to present the basics of the Christian faith to this class of ministers and aspiring ministers who are completing their Bachelor of Arts degree in Christian Studies.  A large part of the task of theology is defining our terms.  I love definitions. I love the challenge of summarizing in just a few words or sentences precisely what we mean when we use certain terms. John Webster has described the task of systematic theology in precisely this definitional mode: “Dogmatic theology operates best when it is a kind of gloss on the truth of the Christian gospel as it is encountered in the Bible” (Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, p. 130).  In other words, the doctrines of systematic theology do not replace or stand over the Bible, but rather they provide definitions and summaries of certain key terms and themes that we encounter in the biblical story.  As such, these definitions are in constant need of revision as further light is cast upon the biblical plotline.

So how should theologians define the task of theology itself?  The term “theology” doesn’t occur in the Bible, but certainly the Bible assumes that its readers will give themselves over to knowing and loving God, which is perhaps the simplest way to define the goal of theology.  But what can we say by way of a fuller and more comprehensive definition of Christian theology? Well, I’ve recently been honing my own definition and here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

Christian theology is the systematic examination of the being, attributes, and works of the Triune God, through the careful study of his revelation to human beings in the created order and preeminently in Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures, practiced within the context of the church of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the end that God’s people might know, love, trust and obey him in increasing measure to the glory of his holy name.

There are several key components to this definition:

1. The subject of theology: God (his existence, attributes and Triune life) and his works (creation, providence, redemption and judgment).

2. The method of theology: systematic examination. This would have to be fleshed out quite a bit, but I have in mind a theological method that is anchored in biblical theology, sensitive to historical theology and oriented toward the contemporary re-articulation of biblical truth, that is, systematic theology.

3. The source of theology: God’s revelation—both general revelation (the created order) and preeminently special revelation (Christ and his Word).

4. The context of theology: the church of Jesus Christ, both local and global, both contemporary and historic. We could also develop this in terms of the church gathered and the church scattered. Theology affects not only what we do when we meet on the Lord’s Day (preaching and teaching, fellowship, the ordinances, prayer, praise, giving) but also what we do when we are sent back into the world to love and serve our neighbors in our various callings.

5. The power of theology: the Holy Spirit. Only the Spirit can give us eyes to see and ears to hear what the Risen Christ is saying through the Scriptures to the contemporary church.

6. The goal of theology: the edification of God’s people and the glory of God’s name.  Theology is a practical science. It is oriented toward knowing and loving God and loving and serving our neighbors. Like the Scriptures it is built upon, Christian theology is concerned with “what man ought to believe concerning God and what duty God requireth of man” (The Baptist Catechism, Q6).  By attending to these things, theology can fulfill its ultimate purpose: the glorification of the One who makes the whole enterprise possible.

So there you have it. My (admittedly verbose) definition of Christian theology. What about you? How would you define theology? Have you come across a particularly helpful definition? Let me know in the comments below.

Luke Stamps is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University (OPS). He is also a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in systematic theology. Luke is writing his dissertation in the field of Christology. Luke is married to Josie, and they have three children, Jack, Claire, and Henry. Luke is a weekly contributor to the Credo blog.

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