I read Who Needs Theology? by Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson during my first theology class in my undergraduate program. At the time, I found it rather dry, but as I have advanced in my education I have returned to it again and again to help define the task of doing theology. As I ponder a future in theological education, I find that I need a refresher on the nature of the task every now and then. I know many who read this do not consider themselves theologians, so perhaps you may gain somthing as well from a brief overview of theology and the theological task as Grenz and Olson explain them.
Theology is the combination of two Greek words: theos (“God”) and logos (“word, speech, teaching”). In a very simplified form then, we could define theology as “God-talk,” “God-speech,” or “God-teaching”—the words, phrases, and concepts we use in order to describe and discuss the being and actions of God.
Another deeper and more time-honored definition of theology was given by the great medieval theologian, Anselm of Canterbury. He said that theology is “faith seeking understanding.” The Christian life begins when we are captured by God’s grace and we respond to Him in faith. After new birth into the Kingdom, we may begin a journey toward truly understanding God and loving Him with our minds.
Either of these definitions will suffice, but both make one point very clear: Everyone is a theologian. Yes, everyone. Everyone has thoughts, words, and concepts that they use to describe and characterize God. Not everyone is an accurate theologian, but everyone is a theologian nonetheless. As long as Christians are seeking answers to questions that naturally arise out of faith, they are already doing theology.
There are many different levels of theological reflection and they can be viewed along the following spectrum:
Folk Theology is unreflective belief based upon blind faith in a tradition of some kind. This is not merely simple or untrained faith, which is indeed honored by God. Folk theology rejects critical reflection and enthusiastically embraces simplistic acceptance of informal traditions and beliefs that tend to be composed mainly of clichés, legends, and very little, if any, biblical truth.
Lay Theology is a big step above folk theology, because it is when ordinary Christians begin to question folk theology and pursue deeper study into the resources of their faith. Lay theology may lack sophisticated tools of biblical languages, logic, and history, but it seeks with what means it has to bring Christian beliefs into a well-rounded, coherent whole.
Ministerial Theology is practiced by trained ministers and teachers in Christian churches. It is a step above lay theology in the level of reflection it involves because of greater access to education and other training. Ministerial theology will usually involve a working knowledge of biblical languages, a historical perspective on the development of theology throughout the ages, and keen systematic thinking that is able to bring doctrines and beliefs into coherence with one another.
Professional Theology is practiced by those whose vocation involves studying the tools mentioned previously and instructing lay people and pastors in their use. Professional theologians have the responsibility to raise their students above folk theology by showing them how to develop a critical consciousness that questions unfounded assumptions and beliefs.
Academic Theology is highly speculative and philosophical theology that is typically aimed at other theologians. It is often disconnected from the church and has little to do with concrete Christian living. Professional and ministerial theologians may benefit from reading academic theologians, but the church and individual Christians in the “real world” gain little from it. At its worst, academic theologians are more concerned with their ideas about God than God himself. Academic theologians are those “ivory tower” professors who tend to give theology a bad name!
For the effective study and practice of Christian theology, three basic tools are needed: (1) the biblical message; (2) the heritage of the church; (3) the thought-forms of contemporary culture. "Thought-forms of contemporary culture," means that we must do theology in a way that contemporary people understand; that speaks to the problems, longings, and thinkings of contemporary culture; and that takes seriously contemporary discoveries and insights of the various disciplines of human learning.
As we study and practice theology, it is vital to remember that no one does so in a vacuum. A Caucasian woman from rural Texas is going to understand and construct theology in a way very different than a Vietnamese man from New York City. Going even further, the Vietnamese man from New York City is going to understand and construct theology in a way very different than an African teenager from Johannesburg, South Africa.
We must learn to accept and embrace the fact that all of us use the three tools of theology in a way unique to our context. While God and his revelation in scripture do not change, the way various human beings understand God and the Bible and talk about both will always have variety and diversity.
We must also be willing to allow our theology to be impacted by the perspective of others. It is healthy for us to take off the particular “glasses” through which we see the world and try on someone else’s “glasses” for a time. In this way, understanding is fostered between people and, ultimately, our theology is better for it.