A few weeks ago I had the privilege of talking theology with a Christian who is in the Reformed tradition. Actually, he asked me questions pertaining to theology, and I tried to keep up the best I could by fumbling through answers and trying to remember what I learned in seminary.
I never did well in my theology classes back then. In fact, I was never a fan of theology, and I specifically avoided attending Reformed Theological Seminary in Florida (in favor of McAfee School of Theology here in Atlanta), so that I wouldn’t have to read any of Calvin’s Institutes. It’s not that I don’t prefer Reformed theology; I just don’t prefer any systematic theology whatsoever.
While I barely skated by in my theology classes with average grades, I excelled in my biblical studies classes. If you were to ask me the difference between a sacrament and an ordinance, and whether baptism is one or the other, I’ll give you a blank stare. Talk to me about economics in Jesus’ day, or whether 1 Kings 1 – 11 is political satire in which Solomon is the center of some scribe’s cynicism, then I can give you a run for your money.
Whether I like talking theology or not, however, I admit that all of us are theological. In fact, you don’t even have to be a Christian, much less a believer in God, to be a theologian. If you have ever asked the “big questions” in life–(like, what is the meaning of life? Or what happens after you die?)–then you are basically doing theology because you are reflecting on things pertaining to theory, faith, and (at least in some sense of the word) the divine.
Howard Stone and James Duke, authors of How to Think Theologically, argue that everyone has two types of theology in their lives. The first type of theology is embedded theology, which consists of the system of beliefs and values that you grew up with. This theology is shaped primarily by your church (or non-church) tradition, your parents, and your basic worldview.
The other type of theology is deliberative theology. This type of theology grows and evolves over time as you reflect and deliberate beliefs and values.
In other words, Stone and Duke say that there are things you take for granted about life and faith and God, and then there are things that you think about at length because some things you believe no longer make sense.
I found this to be true in my conversation with my Reformed friend. Now, let me tell you that I don’t mean to generalize, but I have yet to meet a Reformed Christian who didn’t absolutely love theology. Not just any theology, but systematic theology, the type of theology that incorporates big words, like ecclesiology (study of of the church) or pneumatology (study of the Holy Spirit).
These guys are the ones who discover theological words in their Alphabet soup and usually win Scrabble because their theological vocabulary garners triple-point words.
For a guy like me, who doodled stick figures blowing other stick figures up instead of taking notes in my theology class, these things just don’t get me going. Yet, we need theology now and then.
The bottom line is that we should never be so uptight about theology that we fight over it or actually start splitting churches because of it. I know that some things are non-negotiable, but at the end of the day, none of us–no matter how good we are at Scrabble–can ever figure out God.
As my New Testament professor once opined, we try to domesticate God with our theology, but God is not one to be either domesticated or controlled. The Spirit blows where it wills, and the Trinity usually breaks out of all the boxes we try to force upon it.