What is Theology?

Reformed Ecumenical Synod
30 April 1977

What is Theology?
WD Jonker

Part 1

In a very general sort of way theology is nowadays considered to be the entire scientific involvement with the doctrine, history, preaching and service of the Christian church. The usefulness of this “definition” within the sphere of academic discussion is directly related to its vagueness. As soon as one attempts to delve deeper into the concept of theology, various differences arise as to its essence, aim and methods as well as to its relationship to science in general. Because these differences relate to a theologian’s understanding of himself and his task, it stands to reason that they cannot be ignored. Every theologian must come to grips with the burning issue: What is the true meaning of theology? This is of prime importance in our day which is characterised by a quest for identity in all the sciences.

Without professing to cover the whole area, I believe that we may attain greater clarity by analysing the following four models for theology which have played an important role in the past:

  1. The first model, which dominated the scene till the Middle Ages, was the view that theology is wisdom. Traces of this viewpoint may be found from the days of the early church, but its classical exponent was Augustine. This kind of theology strives to analyse the faith for the spiritual edification of the believer and describes theology as intellectus fidei. Here the “knowledge” which theology furnishes is seen, within the framework of neo-Platonic epistemology, as a preliminary stage of the wisdom which gives insight into that mysterious Truth, God himself. Mysticism and speculation are interwoven to form a theological knowledge (gnosis) of a higher order than normal faith, being also accessible only to the privileged few endowed with sufficient spiritual acumen to attain these sublime heights of wisdom through meditation and contemplation. Reflecting on the Bible and God’s revelation in history is here merely a preparatory interlude to real theology.
  2. The second model which holds sway in medieval times, being closely connected to scholasticism, considers theology to be rational knowledge of God. To Anselm, the father of scholasticism, theology is also intellectus fidei which evolves according to his maxim fides quaerens intellectum. But Anselm believed that faith should strive to ascertain the essential rational grounds for the articles of faith. Thomas Aquinas, who represents the epitome of scholastic thought, curtailed this outlook of Anselm somewhat, but nevertheless retained the strictly rationalistic conception of theology. Working with the Aristotelian concept of science and the basic distinction between nature and grace, Thomas defined the place of theology amongst the sciences as the crown and fulfilment of all human knowledge. Scientific study concerns itself with the concept of being, and according to Aristotle ultimately resolves itself into philosophical metaphysics with rational theology as its summit. Thomas considered this summit to consist of the revealed knowledge of God. One should note however that within this concept of theology our knowledge of God is the result of rational thinking about God as the ultimate Being, supplemented by a number of propositional truths revealed in Holy Writ and formulated by the church. From these truths logical deductions may be made so as to construct a unified system of our knowledge of God. Hereby a radically advanced intellectualizing of our knowledge of God becomes inevitable. The term intellectus fidei may still be used, but faith itself is interpreted intellectualistically as an act of reason enlightened by divine grace and consequently willingly prepared to assent to revealed truths. The concept of revelation employed here, is also intellectualistically narrowed down to a mere communication of immutable divine truths. The actual object of study is not Scripture itself, but the ecclesiastical statements. The Scripture only serves to affirm church doctrine. This whole process results in a thoroughly objectivised, ahistorical system of knowledge about God in which the cognitive element of faith becomes totally isolated from the experience of the abundance of God’s grace and the communion with Him which is the distinguishing factor in the biblical concept of the knowledge of God. Within the framework of Roman Catholic theology where salvation is not directly linked to the personal relationship with God, but rather depends on the infusion of grace via the sacraments, this view of theology may still be endured. Within the context of the Protestant view that salvation is given in the personal knowledge of God as communion with Him through Christ and the Holy Spirit, this view of theology becomes unbearable.
  3. The third model of theology is that of the Protestant Reformers who understood theology as an act of attentive listening to the Holy Scriptures, in order to grasp their contents more fully and to interpret it with a view to the edification of the faith of the believers. It is common knowledge that the Reformers rejected the neo-Platonic-Augustinian as well as the Thomistic-Aristotelian views of theology. When both Luther and Calvin state that the prevailing concern of theology is the knowledge of God and ourselves it may lead one to believe that their view is akin to that of Augustine who proclaimed that his sole wish was to know God and the soul, that and nothing more. For Augustine, however, this entailed a mystical knowledge which leads to speculation, whereas the Reformers desired an knowledge of God in a thoroughly biblical sense. Consequently, they also rejected scholasticism with its philosophical and speculative tendencies and understood theology to be an attempt to serve the practical and existential knowledge of God by which we live. Theology is no longer there to answer man’s metaphysical questions, but rather to give a systematic exposition of the contents and meaning of biblical truth as it is grasped by faith, in order to guide those who have to preach the gospel and everyone else who wants to read and understand the Bible. So theology basically acquires a hermeneutical task. It has one preoccupation: the knowledge of God as seen in Christ. The Reformers emphasise that theology is “theologia crucis” in its entirety (Luther) and that it must keep within the limits of Scripture (Calvin) . Their theology thus remains non-scholastic, non-speculative and of a practical nature. Calvin stresses that we should not attempt to make an examination of the essence of God, which is rather to be adored than too curiously investigated. True theology should end up in a doxology to the grace of the God of creation and salvation.
  4. The fourth type of theology is the neo-Protestant view, viz., that theology is the study of man’s faith or religious experience and activities. Although described in a variety of ways, this theology has the distinguishing factor of focusing the attention not on God and His revelation, but on man and his faith and religiosity. As the Aristotelian concept of science became outmoded and a new approach to science gained precedence in the age of the Enlightenment, theology was hard put to answer the question if God could properly be considered an object of scientific knowledge as the scholastics and even Protestant orthodoxy had maintained as a matter of course. After Kant it became increasingly difficult to answer this question in the traditional way. Moreover, the orthodox view of the authority of Scripture as the infallible revelation of God became even more suspect before the rising tide of historical criticism. Under strong pressure from empiricism, idealism and positivism, theology was driven to self-defence and sought to find a sphere for itself which would give it academic respectability by concurring with prevailing opinions on scientific theory. The most far reaching step which neo-Protestantism took in this direction was to abandon the revelation of God. as the object of theology and to replace it by man’s faith or religious experience. Of course, there would still be much talk about God in theology, but then always in an indirect way, viz., in the light of the faith and experience of man.

The fault of this new type of theology was not that it paid attention to man’s subjectivity and faith. That should be included in theological thinking, because the Word of God is addressed to man and is aimed at his response. True theology should always be concerned with the knowledge of God and ourselves (Calvin). Yet it is quite another thing when man’s faith and religion are no longer seen in the light of revelation, but in themselves become the main points of interest in the theological investigation, especially when they acquire a decisive role in ascertaining the contents and meaning of the revelation. Unfortunately, this was exactly what happened in the theology of Schleiermacher and his descendants up to the present day.

Here a whole spectrum of possibilities present themselves. Theology could either be changed into a “neutral” science of religion, or it could occupy itself with man’s subjectivity or culture. It could become a form of anthropology (Bultmann and the existentialist hermeneutical theology), or it could understand itself as the ultimate hermeneutic of human life and culture (Pannenberg). It could become a marxist-orientated theory of praxis (theology of revolution and liberation), or it could see itself as an empirical science attending to the religious questions of the community, trying to open liberating perspectives of the future (Kuitert). But whatever substantial differences there are between the various “theologies, their basic similarity is that they all consider theology as a critical reflection upon human experience from a Christian perspective.

When we rate these four models of theology, it is clear that this latter type is the least acceptable, since it leads to the abandonment of the “theological modality” of theology (Kuyper). The Platonic-Augustinian model is also unacceptable, because it evokes speculation and continually runs the risk of turning theology into a type of Christian philosophy. The Thomistic-Aristotelian model is to be rejected due to the inevitable intellectualising of theology it incurs. It is understandable that in the bitter struggle against the subjectivism of the fourth model one may be tempted to resort to some of the positions taken in by this type of theology. There have been allegations that this was the case with Kuyper, Bavinck and Hodge in the previous century and with Barth in our own. Whether or not that is true, it is in any case preferable to appeal to the third type of theology–the reformational view. This means that the revelation of God in the Holy Scriptures is taken as the proper object of theology. That can only have meaning if we are willing to accept-the one condition on which this type of theology is possible, viz. , the adherence to the absolute authority of the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God. True theology can only be biblical theology. It can only attempt to understand the message of the Word as it is directed at our faith. That means that theology may not be divorced from the saving knowledge of God in Christ Jesus. Theology serves the better understanding of the Word of God in the church and its proclamation in the world.

Part 2

When theology is to be interpreted in this manner, it has a vital role to fulfil. In Roman Catholic scholasticism theology is not taken as seriously, because it merely entails a rational analysis of infallible church dogmas which are axiomatically accepted. Church doctrine stands quite aloof from the encounter of grace and merely supplies man with intellectual information about the sphere within which grace operates via the sacraments. Church doctrine thus plays only an external role with respect to grace, and theology must needs become objectivistic in character. This differs in reformational theology where the doctrine of the church is directly related to the preaching of the Word as found in the Bible. Man is saved through believing in the Word of God as it is proclaimed in the Gospel. In the Reformation, faith and revelation came to be understood in a new existential way. As a result, theology – which reflects on God’s Word, was liberated from the rationalistic framework of scholasticism. Theology now becomes a grappling with the dynamic Word of the living God who encounters us in the Scriptures as the Dei loquentis Persona And as theology listens to the Word and comes to grips with it, it exercises a direct influence on the faith of the church and the nature of its activities in the world.

It is true that theology may not be deemed an absolute necessity. Faith, which is the life of the church, does not result from theology but is called into being by the Word and the Spirit of God. The Word is the power of God unto salvation, it is a force to heal the nations, actively and formatively engaged in the spreading of the grace of God in the world. The Word of God does, however, only come to the world through the words of men. The revelation of God entered history and expressed itself in cosmic dimensions. The Word of God became flesh. In the Scriptures we have the Word of God in a historical form, as a book written in a particular time, in a specific historical language which is subject to the necessity of continual translation and interpretation. The confession of the clarity of Scripture by no means makes interpretation redundant.

The scholastics based the necessity of theology on the urge which faith has to come to self understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). This is perfectly correct. The Word of God, as the life of the church, is not just a force that is merely focused on the heart and is, as such, withdrawn from intellectual understanding. The Word also has a meaning. It conveys knowledge (cfl. Heidelberg Catechism question 21). Although saving faith is a personal trust in Christ as Saviour and Lord and a reliance on the promises of God, it is at the same time also an absolutely certain knowledge of the revealed promises of God. As a personal relation to God, faith embraces the grace of God in its totality and it is impossible to make quantitative distinctions as to the measure of knowledge required for salvation, as was done in the old question about the fides implicita. Yet we may not ignore the fact that the cognitive element in faith can be broadened and deepened and that, if all things are equal, one’s faith will become richer and fuller in the measure in which one’s knowledge increases in fulness and clarity (L. Berkhof). The promises of God and the meaning of his deeds in the history of revelation can and must be thought about in order to promote their understanding. Without this, the church will not understand its own faith and cannot comprehensively fulfill her biblical calling in the world. Because the church has the calling to preach the Gospel continuously and this preaching requires exegesis and the application of the Word in the relevant situation, the church needs to constantly busy herself with the Bible and reflect on it. This vocation of the Christian church makes theology a “practical necessity. ” To the motive of the fides quaerens intellectum we should add the service of the church as a second reason why the church is in constant need of penetrating reflection on the revelation of God.

This is the element of truth in the way of thinking which emerged with Schleiermacher and became dominant in the so-called kerygmatic theology, viz., that theology must be understood from its purpose–the service which it renders to the church (and the Kingdom) in the world. Here we have a parallel with the reformational view of theology as a hermeneutical theology in so far as it does not derive the rules for the interpretation of the Bible from a transcendental hermeneutics based on one or other philosophical anthropology or societal theory, but desires to allow Scripture to be its own interpreter. Among other things this entails that one refrain from forcing Scripture into a particular straightjacket, rather listening carefully to the Bible as a whole and interpreting it according to the analogia fidei. Hereby the continuity with biblical interpretation through the ages as it is reflected in the confessions of the church is preserved, without restricting the freedom of the Word to speak anew. The most disastrous form of theology is that which sets its own limitations on the Word of God, thereby taming it to fit into one or other given system.

Naturally not every form of religious thought or biblical interpretation is theology. The Christian is continually busy with reflection on the faith in his personal life as well as in the congregation, with a view to spiritual edification (Ephesians 4:13–14). The preaching and teaching of the church always implies a large amount of reflecting on the revelation of God. This cannot yet be called theology. Nevertheless, it is correct to say that theology is an extended form of this reflective concern with Scripture. Theology has no other locus standi than general thinking about one’s faith. Theology is a work of faith and all its statements must be such as the believer can recognize as objects of faith. It is born of faith and it leads to a deepening of faith as well. However, it has the task to make a theoretical analysis of Scripture and to reflect on its contents in such a way that the knowledge of faith is grasped more fully. The truth by which we live is also in the simplest sense a truth of facts. This truth requires of us a clear and disciplined human thinking in order to obtain a more profound knowledge of it. Of course, this includes an act of abstraction and objectification, but it should never lead to a merely intellectual and objectivistic knowledge, divorced from the existential saving relationship with God, as tended to happen in scholasticism. We have to state this clearly, because it is a misunderstanding of theology to think that the distinction between religious thought in general and theology as such should be sought in the way in which theology deliberately strives for a system of abstract and objectivistic knowledge about the contents of revealed truth.

The exact distinction between reflecting faith and theology is difficult to determine. After so many centuries of theology the two concepts simply defy disentanglement. Our faith has been deeply influenced by theological thinking. Even our confessional writings are largely the result of penetrating theological analysis. The distinction between theology and reflecting faith is not to be found in the contents dealt with, but in the method applied. Theology consciously employs methods, knowledge and concepts derived from the scientific world in a certain historical context. The theologian uses academic means in his study of Scripture which are not at the disposal of every believer. He furthermore employs concepts which enable him to relate faith to the thought-patterns of his own time (Kuyper). Theology may thus be seen as a form of intellectual service to the Word of God. It is the obedient, scientific study of Scripture with a view to a more thorough understanding of its message and the implications thereof for life in the church and the world.

Part 3

This view of theology underlines its tremendous responsibility. It must facilitate our understanding of the Word which demands obedience in all spheres of life. In a rudimentary sense there is no sphere of life which cannot profit from the services of a dynamic, biblical theology. But theology is a human enterprise. It is liable to all sorts of misunderstanding and aberration. It can promote the knowledge of faith, but it can also harm it.

Nevertheless, the great responsibility of theology does not mean that theology alone would have the task to spread the light of Scripture throughout all the facets of human life and thought. Such a view prescribes an endless task for theology and even entails a duplication of the work of all the other sciences, seen from the viewpoint of faith. This folly emanates from the scholastic nature-grace dichotomy, in which all other sciences are seen as the domain of human reason, and theology is considered to be the only Christian or “sacred” science, because it deals with faith. This approach is still highly regarded in German theology, but also in the ecumenical circles of the World Council of Churches, where every religious outlook on life is identified with a “theology.” Calvinist philosophy in its various forms has focused attention on the decisive religious dimension of all thought and has thus contributed to the insight that there is room for a non-theological, scientific endeavour which is radically Christian. Christian science, understood in this sense, has the task of subjecting every human thought in obedience to the Word of God. As a result, it becomes apparent that theology has a more modest task than is sometimes assumed.

When theology has the support of other Christian sciences, it can concentrate on its proper task of serving the understanding and interpretation of the Holy Scripture and need not try to define the meaning of the Word of God in concreto for every branch of scientific knowledge or for every facet of our everyday practice. The theologian is not a Christian philosopher whose task it is to draw up a comprehensive Christian outlook on life and reality, or to devise a Christian theory of science demarcating the respective limits of the various special sciences. Nor is it the task of the theologian to draft a critique of our societal structures or to endeavour to supply all the answers for a Christian approach to the problems of our world. For these purposes there are also other sciences; and the prophets who must expose social injustice and draw up the Christian strategy for the future should also come from the realms of the other sciences, since they can speak with authority on their own subjects.

When we say that the theologian must relate his knowledge of the Word of God to the thought-patterns of his day, it means that he should, as a modern man, have sufficient knowledge of the general culture, problems and perils of his time to be able to interpret Scripture for this specific situation. God’s Word is a Word addressed to this world and the theologian should apply it as such. For this very reason a continuous dialogue between theology and the other sciences becomes an obligation to prevent theology from operating in a vacuum, and the other sciences from being deprived of theological perspectives which could be of value to them in their own research. All sciences should be studied in the light of the Bible. Theology has no monopoly in the correct interpretation of Scripture. All sciences have direct access to the Bible. However, only an advanced form of spiritualism could possibly claim that the so-called naive or pre-scientific understanding of the Scriptures is enough for the scientist and that he can better ignore the findings of theology. At any rate, it is an illusion that anyone can go directly to the Bible after so many centuries of Christianity and read it without having been influenced by some or other form of theology. For this reason, all believing scientists should consciously take cognisance of what is being produced in theology.

Especially Christian philosophy can serve as an invaluable ally in its dialogue with theology. It can make theology aware of the important trends in contemporaneous thought and give a critical analysis of them. In this manner, theology may be forewarned against being consciously or unconsciously influenced by philosophical concepts which can implicate the Gospel message. Vice versa, the theologian with his focus on a deeper understanding of Scripture may also be of service to the philosopher who should also be interested in a deeper understanding of his own faith.

Even without the assistance of Christian scientific study in other disciplines, theology can still be of service if it interprets the Word of God in its focus on the world. However, it remains of prime importance that theology should not lose its concentration on Scripture in the process. It is a tragedy that Reformed scholasticism reintroduced natural theology and afforded it a position similar to that which it occupies in Roman Catholic theology. Every attempt to supplement the object of theology with data from other sources, even under the heading of general revelation or the interpretation of history, can result in theology being transformed into some type of philosophical thought, thereby losing its identity as theology of the Word.

Part 4

Given the above conception of theology, the question now arises whether it may receive recognition as a science in a university context. In fact, theology nowadays is merely tolerated at many universities as a remnant from the time of the Corpus Christianum, without there being any clarity as regards the legitimacy of its claim to be a science. In the past, many attempts have been made to adapt theology to the prevailing theory of science, always resulting at some point or other in the breakdown of the scientific standards as well as the denial of theology’s proper identity.

In this way, even Thomas Aquinas, who adapted theology to the Aristotelian theory of science, had to concede that theology, as a scientia subalternata could not, as is the case with other sciences of the same category, start with principia originating from another terrestrial science, but from the theologia archetypa, viz., God’s knowledge of Himself. Thomas was well aware that the deciding issue of theology gave no access to natural reason and was not self-evident either. He, therefore, had to deviate from the Aristotelian theory of science to allow for the concept of revelation. This selfsame fact caused Duns Scotus to deny the scientific nature of theology. In fact, the so-called scientific nature of theology in scholasticism depended on theological inquiry being equated with the metaphysical form of inquiry which was dominant in the Aristotelian theory of science, as well as on the fact that theology was using the same rational methodology as the other sciences. We know how harmful this approach to theology has been.

Many illustrations could be given of how this process is continuously repeated in the various attempts made in the West since the Enlightenment to incorporate theology into the current theories of science. When theology became adapted to the positivistic ideal, the historic method became absolutised, with the historicism and relativism of Ernst Troeltsch as the supreme and logical conclusion. That theology was not entirely undone and transformed into neutral science of religion or something similar, was time and again due to the timely rejection of the total identification with a particular theory of science, to allow room for acknowledging revelation in some form or other. This was done in a manner which, however, did not allow full justice to revelation.

It is, therefore, quite understandable that Karl Barth, convinced as he was that theology should unequivocally return to revelation, refused to subject it to the so-called minimum demands for the scientific nature of theology with which Scholtz confronted him. Together with Emil Brunner and others, he defended the view that academic recognition of the scientific nature of theology was not of prime importance. The minimum demands of Scholtz amounted to the following: theological statements had to be universally valid and verifiable and were not to contradict the results of other sciences. Barth was willing to maintain that theology, like other sciences has its own field of research; that this field is studied in an objective and methodical fashion and that he is willing to give account of his epistemological method to himself and to anyone who can grasp what theology is about. Barth refused to go any further. It is, however, precisely at this point that the problem becomes acute, since Barth considers faith, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, to be a condition for the understanding of the revelation with which theology is ultimately concerned. Thus, the universal validity, as required by Scholtz, is rejected.

After Barth a strong chorus of voices came to the defence of the rational character of theology, starting with D. Bonhoeffer, but spreading to others in an ever-widening circle. The challenge to comply with the minimum standards for scientific respectability is being accepted by a large number of theologians today who endeavour to verify theological statements in some way or other. The most prominent figure of this group is Wolfhart Pannenberg who tries to establish a basis for theology as a science within a comprehensive draft for a philosophy of religion. It is becoming ever more apparent that the Holy Scripture cannot play a decisive role in his theology and it has even become questionable whether he is still busy with theology in the proper sense of the word.

Yet another way to give credence to the scientific nature of theology is found within the neo-marxist view of the relationship between theory and practice. Here we find a strong reaction against the so-called neutral or positivistic ideal of science. Science is seen as an important means towards achieving the revolutionary transformation of society or as a method to maintain the status quo. This view propagates a science which is consciously prejudiced, the prejudice being the advancement of the humanitas, freedom and the liberation of the poor and the oppressed. This theory of science has a strong eschatological tendency. Applied to theology it requires that theology illustrate its scientific character by functioning as a type of critique of society. Political relevance becomes the criterion for determining the value of theology. Scripture may still have a role to fulfil, but then only as interpreted in political hermeneutics. These views have influenced the theology of hope of Jürgen Moltmann, but they have also become fashionable and pop up in our various new “theologies,” especially the theology of revolution, political theology, the theology of liberation and partly also in some forms of the so-called black theology.

In forming a judgement of this trend in theology, it must be kept in mind that we are dealing here with something of vital importance to theology, viz. the relationship between theory and practice. According to the Protestant view, theology may never degenerate into a sterile intellectual game, unrelated to reality. Theology is indeed scientia eminens practica. The Gospel is politically relevant and a theology that has no criticism of the status quo, has severely misunderstood an important facet of the Gospel. Yet it remains apparent that here too theology may not be forced into the straightjacket of a particular ideological setting. This would necessarily lead to a serious curtailment of the Gospel message. The element of truth in this approach is that science is never really neutral and cannot be isolated from the aim to which it aspires. The unacceptable part is that it proceeds from a socio-philosophical design with a very limited scope which functions as a hermeneutical key to the whole of Scripture.

In the face of all the above-mentioned examples the question arises whether it is possible for a Christian philosophy to evolve a theory of science allowing for theology to come into its own while remaining scientific, as well as being acceptable as a science to the other disciplines. This demanding challenge has not yet been met satisfactorily. HG Stoker’s theory of science, which allocates a considerable terrain to theology, is rejected as being unacceptable at this point even within the realm of Calvinistic philosophy. The conception of Cosmonomic philosophy also evokes sharp criticism even from otherwise staunch supporters of this philosophy. It seems apparent that Christian philosophy also has serious difficulties in making provision for the unique character of theology. This is because theology is dependent on the reality of God’s revelation, while revelation is not a philosophical concept. Time and again attempts are made in epistemology and the theory of science to accommodate revelation, making it receptive to scientific analysis which is on a part with scientific research in other fields, and this always seems to incur some curtailment unacceptable to theology.

This leads one to believe that the only way is for theology to devise its own criteria, which will then hold good as being scientific for the realm of theology. It is in theology’s own interest to employ scientific methodology, to strive towards clarity in its utterances and to explain that it can be critically examined and verified within the framework of its own propositions–and this is in fact being done. Consequently, there will always be many points of contact between theology and the other sciences, also including the views on scientific standards. Theology may, nevertheless, not allow itself to be subjected to scientific criteria which prevent it from doing justice to the revelation of God which is the object of its theoretic concern. However high theology may rate recognition at the University and its acknowledgement in academic spheres, this may never be accepted at the cost of surrendering its own identity.