Theology Preliminaries
"What Is Theology? and Why Study It?"

Douglas Gleason,

A.  What is Theology?

We begin our studies of theology with the question, what is theology?  Theology comes from two Greek words, theos (God) and logos (word).  Logos is from lego, which means, “to speak, make an address or speech, to say in written language, to put forth, to expound.” [1]  Theology then, is a discourse about the single subject, God, or the study of God.  The term doctrine is often used interchangeably with the term theology. [2]  The New Testament refers to doctrine for than forty times.  We are commanded to pay attention to doctrine. [3]

As you would imagine, there are differing approaches or emphases that are found within the general category of theology.  Theologians generally divide theology into 4 major classifications: Biblical Theology, Historical Theology, Systematic Theology, and Natural Theology.   Biblical Theology looks into truth about God and His creation in the order it developed historically in the books of the Bible.  As such, its primary organizing principle is historical.  Its sole source is the Bible.

Systematic theology, takes the Bible as a completed whole and presents its teachings in and orderly and systematic form.  In addition, it draws information from other sources.  Its primary organizing principle is logical.  To avoid any confusion at this point, we must be absolutely clear that the primary source for truth is the Bible. Secondary sources come from science, philosophy, and anywhere else it may be found. 

Historical Theology looks into the origin, development, and propagation of Christianity.  The Church's doctrines, organizations, and practices are the subject matter of this branch of theology.  Its organizing principle is historical.

Natural Theology seeks to understand God and His universe from those facts that are revealed in nature (general revelation) rather than facts revealed by God in the Bible (special revelation).

One other use of the term theology bears mentioning.  Theology Proper is the sub-division of Systematic Theology which focuses with the persons of the Godhead.

We will be exploring the realm of Systematic Theology in this area of our studies of theology.  Unlike Systematic Theology, our sole source of truth is the Bible.

Typically, Systematic Theology is arranged around nine major divisions,

Major Division of Theology

Essential Topic of Each Division



The study of the essential truths concerning the Bible

Theology Proper

The study of the essential truths concerning the person of God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (the works of God are considered elsewhere)


The study of the essential truths concerning the Angels, whether fallen or unfallen


The Study of the essential truths concerning Man


The study of the essential truths concerning Sin


The study of the essential truths concerning The Salvation of man


The study of the essential truths concerning Jesus Christ


The study of the essential truths concerning The Holy Spirit


The study of the essential truths concerning The Church


The study of the essential truths concerning The Last Things

In the next two sections, we will discuss why and how men and women everywhere should study theology.

B. Why Study Theology?

1.The Problem.
Why study theology?  Isn't going to Sunday school and listening to the pastor's sermon study enough?  The hard reality is that, with all of our commitments, we just don't have time.  When asked to join a bible study the answer goes something like this.  “I don't know how you feel but all I have time to do these days is to get up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, watch a little TV, go to bed and start over again and on top of all this I've got Bobby's baseball practice and games, Janie’s soccer, and everything else.  Even if I wanted to, I don't have the time.”  The implied question is, “So why should I?”

If this is your response, don't feel alone.  There are millions who share it.  But what does this response indicate?  I could say laziness regarding the things of God.  More likely you're simply overwhelmed by the necessities of life in this modern world of ours.  With all of the demands on our time, the desire for more time in a day is universal.  Because there are only 24 hours in a day we have to be very careful about how we use them.  Let's face reality; there has to be a real personal benefit to anything we do or we don't do it.  This is true even with so important an issue as the study of God's word. 

So we return to the question, “Why should I study theology?”  The starting point for the answer to this question is found right between your ears.  When God made us in His image, He endowed us with a mind. You see it is the mind that differentiates us from all other life on the face of the earth.  It is an incredible thing and a special gift from God to us.  It is incredible because of its superlative ability and capacity for thought.  There is an additional feature that is even more astounding.  Paul said, “For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:16, emphasis is mine) “The verse implies that we and all God's people can understand spiritual truths and spiritual wisdom in a way similar to the way the Lord knows them.” [4] 

“Wait just one minute, I certainly don't have the thoughts of Jesus in my brain! I'm the one that's so busy, remember?” you say.  Hang on a minute; let me go a little further.  The United Negro College Fund ran a commercial message on the television in the early 70’s.  It showed a bright young Negro man graduating from high school facing his future prospects of college.  Because he was poor he had no chance at higher education and no real future.  A man with a cultured voice then read the message on the screen, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  Lack of money has prevented the young man from realizing his fullest potential in life is the message implied in the commercial.  This is such a tragic waste of a valuable life.  And this is the problem that faces us, the waste of so much our potential.  This has prompted R. Kent Hughes to say, “The cosmic potential of the Believer's mind introduces the great scandal of today's church: Christians without Christian minds, Christians who do not think Christianly.” [5]  (Emphasis his)

To “think Christianly” is to have the mind of Christ or to put it another way, to think like Jesus.  As one lives out his life the question, what would Jesus do or say or think, in any given situation is not a conscious but subconscious thought.  You are so full of God's word and in such close personal fellowship with Him that you subconsciously and naturally think His thoughts.  One result of an intimate relationship with Christ is to think Christianly.  But, sadly, as Hughes has so rightly said, we don't think this way.  We are like the poor young man in the commercial; so full of potential but somehow unable to realize it.  We don't use our minds as God intended.  What are we to do?

Hughes is of the opinion that we are free to think Christianity.  We have the power to simply do so.  Even more, he says that it is our duty.  Citing the Apostle Paul, who issues a command when he says,

“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.”[6]

Letting our minds dwell on these things is to consciously focus our thoughts on them.  Further, this focusing of our thoughts can only happen by continual immersion in God's word.  “You must remember this:  You can never have a Christian mind without reading the Scriptures regularly because you cannot be profoundly influenced by that which you do not know.” [7]  While this is absolutely true, it doesn't go far enough.  We must do more than merely read the Word of God, we must study it and what it teaches.  This involves the study of theology.  Let me explain.

2.      Alternative Proposals in the Church
Open your bible to the index and take a note of what you see.  In mine there is a listing of some study aids, maps, concordance, etc., important stuff, and the sixty-six books that constitute the totality of God's word, the really important stuff!  Now turn to Habakkuk and take a few minutes to quickly scan through the book. Don't worry; I'll wait for you to finish.

Now, let me ask you a few questions.  Did you see anything that discussed the origins of the world around us?  Maybe you saw something regarding the existence of Jesus Christ?  How about the origin and nature of sin, see anything like that?  Since Habakkuk is a prophet, is there anything about the end times?  This serves to illustrate the point that God's word was not written as a doctrinal textbook.  Instead, God chose to teach His people through interaction with them throughout their history.  The lessons that He taught them are to be found in the events of their lives. 

This is the first reason why we should study theology.  The character of the scriptures demands it.  Theissen said, “The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the scientist, — a body of unorganized or only partly organized facts.  God has not seen fit to write the Bible in the form of a Systematic Theology; it remains for us, therefore, to gather together the scattered facts and to build them up into a logical system.” [8]

There is a companion reason to this one.  Remember that we said that God endowed us with a mind that was capable of rational thought.  There is a feature of our minds that is another reflection of its maker.  God is not the god of confusion, but of order.  It is His very nature.  He has built that into us.  There is an instinct to organize that is found in the human mind.  Reformed theologian A. H. Strong wrote,

“This organizing principle is a part of our constitution.  The mind cannot endure confusion or apparent contradiction in known facts.  This is true of all departments of human inquiry, but it is peculiarly true of our knowledge of God.”[9]

Systematic Theology takes the facts about God and organizes them into a system. The study of Systematic Theology then satisfies our need to organize and make sense of Scripture.

The third reason for studying theology is due to what Theissen calls “the pervasive character of the unbelief of our day.” [10]  Atheism, pantheism, polytheism, and agnosticism have found their way into our colleges, universities, and seminaries.  From these institutions of higher learning, these philosophies have infected the fabric of our society by the graduates of these schools through the newspapers, broadcast media, social, and political intuitions.  We need to do more than quote isolated Scriptures in response to the challenges of these godless philosophies.   “We are obliged to collect all the facts of revelation on a given subject and to organize them into a harmonious system, if we are to meet those who are deeply rooted in some philosophical system of thought.” [11]  In other words, we need to meet them on their turf with a better answer to their problems.

“Okay, I think I've got it. I have a mind; I'm capable of thinking like Jesus.  Unfortunately my only problem is that I'm not doing so.  The answer to my problem is that I can willfully think God's thoughts by obeying what Paul said in Philippians 4:8.  But this is just the first step.  Because of the kind of mind that I have, I feel the need to organize the various facts that I have gleaned from reading the Bible.  I need to do this to be able to respond to the life questions and their solutions offered by non-Christians.  All of this is well and good.  But remember, I still have the same time problem.  You yourself have said that we do the things that bring the most personal benefit.  So what's in it for me if I study theology?”

I would like to offer three benefits that flow to the one who studies theology; 1) he develops an intelligent Christian character, 2) he is equipped for effective Christian service, and 3) he receives the mind of Christ. 

The first benefit is a genuine Christian character that is pleasing to God.  I want to emphasize that merely acquiring theological (doctrinal) knowledge is valueless.  There are countless people who know what the great theological doctrines are but have somehow failed to take that knowledge into their hearts and make it a part of their innermost beings.  This is evident from the life they live outwardly.  Men act according to what they believe.  The Bible says, “For as he thinks within himself, so he is.” [12]  When we fill our hearts with theological facts, organized and arranged systematically, we translate that internal knowledge to outward action.  It becomes visible to the world.  In point of fact we ‘walk the walk and talk the talk’.  Surely when we are obedient to His command to be holy we are pleasing to Him.

The second benefit equips us for really effective service to our Lord.  Chafer says,

“The unchanging emphasis in the Scriptures upon doctrine, which subject is referred to in the New Testament more than forty times and is that to which a Christian is to “take heed” (1Tim. 1:3; 4:6, 16; 2Tim. 3:10, 16; 4:2, 3), stands as a silent rebuke, whether heeded or not, to all modern notions which belittle the importance of Dogmatic Theology, and also stands as a corrective to those who neglect any portion of it…since doctrine is the bone structure of the body of revealed truth, the neglect of it must result in a message characterized by uncertainties, inaccuracies, and immaturity." (emphasis mine) [13]

Inaccuracy, uncertainty, and immaturity are always the result of the neglect of the study of the doctrines (teachings) of the bible.  The writer to the Hebrews [14] chastens his audience for their immaturity.  He says that they had come to “need milk and not solid food”.  He ascribes this immaturity to their failure to progress beyond, among other things, the “elementary teaching about the Christ.”   Solid food on the other hand is for the mature that are so because through “practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.”  (Emphasis mine)  He then proceeds to spend the rest of his letter instructing the Hebrews in the meat of the word.  The message is clear.  Believers in Christ obtain maturity through the study of the great doctrines of the Scriptures.  Maturity leads directly to effective service.  “It has often been demonstrated that only as people are thoroughly indoctrinated in the Word of God do they make staunch Christians and effective workers for Christ.”  [15]

Finally, we develop the mind of Christ, or as Hughes puts it we think Christianly.  Luke records a significant event along these lines. Luke tells us how after Jesus rose from the dead; he fell into conversation with two disciples who were traveling on the road to Emmaus.  Jesus found them talking about the events surrounding His crucifixion.  Failing to recognize Him, they told Jesus of these events.  The risen Lord's response is instructive:

And He said to them, "O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! "Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?" And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. And their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight. And they said to one another, "Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:13-32)

The significance here is that Jesus explained the Law and Prophets to them.  He taught them doctrine in a systematic and organized manner.  The result is seen in verse 32.  Their lives were changed forever.  Their burning hearts encountered the living Jesus Christ.  They at last were beginning to think Christianly.  So too with us; when we study theology, take it into our hearts, take possession of its lessons in our innermost beings, we can have the Emmaus road experience and meet with Jesus.

3.      Application
We have now arrived at the end.  We have learned that for a variety of reasons, the study of theology is a worthy endeavor.  “But what about my time issue, remember?” you ask.  Let's talk about that.  While there are no easy answers we have a small project for you.

You'll need to get the following stuff; a 1 gallon bucket, 1 gallon of sand, ½ gallon of rocks (about 1” in size), several big rocks (about 3”-4” in size).  Now fill the bucket with sand.  Add the smaller rocks and then add the big rocks.  I bet you're having trouble getting all the small rocks in and can't get the big rocks in.  This illustrates the time problem we all have.  The sand represents the every day things we have to do, the small rocks are more important things, and the big rocks are the most important things.  The goal is to get all of the rocks in and as much of the sand as is possible.  If you start with the sand, there's little room left for the rocks.  If we focus on the small things in life, we have no time for the important things.

Now, try this.  Put the rocks in first and then add the sand.  Watch how the sand fills the cracks between the rocks.  You may have to shake the bucket to fill it up completely but that's how life is.  The idea is this, take care of the important things and the little things will follow.  Just remember, having the mind of Christ is a really big thing.  It affects every other area of your life and is the key to successful living.  Good luck with your bucket.


[1] Harold K. Moulton, ed., The Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978)
[2] Webster defines doctrine as “a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief: DOGMA.”
[3] 1 Timothy 1:3; 4:6, 16; 2 Timothy 3:10, 16; 4:2,3
[4] W. Harold Mare, Expositors Bible Commentary, (Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids, MI, 1976), p. 203
[5] R. Kent Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Man: (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossways Books; 1991), p. 71
[6] Philippians 4:8
[7] Hughes, ibid., p. 77
[8] H. C. Theissen, Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology, (Eerdmans, Ann Arbor, MI, 1949), p. 28
[9] A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, (Fleming H. Revel, Old Tappan, NJ, 1907), 15
[10] Theissen, op. cit., p. 27
[11] ibid., p. 28
[12] Proverbs 23:7
[13] Chafer, ibid., p. v
[14] Hebrews 5:11-14; 6:1-3
[15] Theissen, ibid., p. 30