March 31, 2014 Broadcast

What Is Theology?

A Message by R.C. Sproul

What is theology? If you asked most people on the street if they knew the answer to that question, they would have no clue what to say. Biology, zoology, physiology, or anthropology sound familiar but theology, the study of God is foreign to them. Dr. Sproul says in this message that the term is actually an all encompassing subject that covers all parts of those things that God has revealed to us in sacred Scripture. He takes a look at what theology truly is and breaks it down in a way that is easy to understand.

From the series: Foundations: An Overview of Systematic Theology

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Orthodox Obedience

  2. devotional

    The Study of God

  3. article

    Theology and Doxology

Orthodox Obedience

Robert Rothwell

When I was an undergraduate student in college, I decided early on that I would pursue a major in religious studies so that I could begin to prepare for ministry. My education was at a public university and, needless to say, affirming classical Christian orthodoxy was not the primary goal of most of the faculty in my department. To be honest, I cannot disparage my instructors too much, because they always listened respectfully and were polite whenever we engaged in an argument. Nevertheless, we did have disagreements about things like the authority of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ, and other non-negotiable elements of biblical Christianity.

As I began my studies, I knew that I would have to make the conscious decision to remain orthodox if I was to honor God and if I was to make it through the program with my faith intact. However, this was not the only time I had to make such a decision, and I am not the only believer who has had to make it. Each of us began our Christian walk with the decision to trust Jesus and submit to His Lordship over our hearts and minds. This involves the conscious decision to accept Him at His word — to believe in His self-revelation found in the pages of Scripture no matter how appealing any alternative may seem. If we do not make this decision to trust God at His word, the consequences will be disastrous. In fact, the fall of man can be traced to the one moment when Adam decided not to take God at His word, instead believing the serpent knew better than the sovereign God.

I did not grow up in a Reformed church; I am Reformed by choice (indeed, by God’s choice). While I can appreciate some of the gifts other Christian traditions bring, no other system of theology is so self-consciously committed to Scripture as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. The greatest Reformed theologians have never been willing to sacrifice one element of biblical teaching in order to make their faith more acceptable to the prevailing culture. Instead of making God into a manageable deity, Reformed theology has enthusiastically affirmed all of God’s attributes, even when doing so makes it hard to understand His ways at times.

As we observed in 2 Peter, and as we will see in 1 John, the Word of God calls us to trust and affirm its propositions, even when doing so is not palatable to the culture. Knowing Scripture and Theology requires diligent study and the use of the wisdom provided by the greatest teachers of the church. We do well to remember our need to know and understand classical Christian theology.

However, as we learned in 2 Peter, and as we will observe in 1 John, to know and understand classical Christian theology does not mean only that we can provide correct formulations of doctrine. Biblical theology is a living and breathing theology that transforms our entire being. True Christianity is far more than an intellectual assent. For example, it is important to affirm a coherent, orthodox doctrine of the person of Christ, but if we do this without following His example, we have not really formulated an orthodox doctrine at all (1 John 2:22–23, 26).

Few other books of the Bible present this understanding of theology as comprehensively as the apostle John. Again and again he repeats the essential marks of a Christian — right thinking (the incarnation), right living (obedience), and right attitude (love). Our theology is not truly God-centered if we emphasize one of these at the expense of another.

Personally, I have not always had so much difficulty with the formulations of correct doctrine. It is making sure that this doctrine helps me to obey God and to love others that is the hard part. I suspect that is true for many others as well. We can manage knowledge far better than we can manage our own lives. We can control our thinking, but we cannot make others more lovable.

As Reformed Christians we should be grateful for the great doctrinal heritage that has been passed down to us. We should be pleased that the works of our heroes are the ones by which others are measured. We should be grateful for the humble submission to Scripture evident in our tradition.

But let us not forget that our tradition has also understood the transformative nature of doctrine. For instance, John Calvin is revered as a man of great piety. Christians in the Reformed tradition have shown love for God and for others by starting hospitals in this country and around the world. The most cogent Christian ethicists today remain thinkers who are firmly established in Reformed theology.

As we seek to be true to Scripture, we must never cease asking God to conform us to His Word. As we study 1 John over the next few months let us be careful to affirm classical orthodoxy, but let us never think that right thinking alone will lead us to self-sacrificial acts of love and obedience. Let us endeavor to build Christian fellowship with believers who differ from us on non-essential matters of the faith. Let us seek to obey Scripture so that we are not only passionate about doctrinal precision but passionate about love and obedience as well.

The Study of God

We have been comparing and contrasting this month how God has related to His people in the old and new covenants as a part of our year-long study revolving around new covenant fulfillments of the old covenant. To better understand our covenant Lord, we will now spend the next week looking more closely at who He is by using Dr. R.C. Sproul’s teaching series The Attributes of God.

A study of the Creator’s attributes is more controversial in our day than many of us might first imagine. This is due in large measure to the prevalent skepticism regarding whether God is actually knowable. Secular universities employ professors of religion and philosophy who teach dogmatically that it is impossible to know anything true about God. Every religion is merely an attempt to come to grips with the reality of the transcendent, so none of them can have a monopoly on the character of the Creator and what He demands from the world. We are all groping in the darkness, walking blindly up the many different mountain paths that lead finally to the same place. Popularly speaking, “humble” people admit there are many ways to “ultimate reality,” and only the arrogant are sure about who God is and the way to redemption. This gives orthodox Christians a “public relations disadvantage” in postmodern culture. We are “prideful and intolerant” for claiming certainty about what is supposed to be unknowable — that Christ Jesus alone is the way of salvation (John 14:6).

These popular attitudes merely reveal the world’s false understanding of the incomprehensibility of God. To say that God is incomprehensible is not to say He is unknowable. Scripture is clear that God is transcendent — He is infinite, and our finite minds cannot fully grasp the depths of His being. Yet because we are made in His image (Gen. 1:26–27), we can know Him truly, if not fully. For instance, we can meaningfully and truly know that our Father is good; nevertheless, it will take an eternity for us to comprehend the depth and breadth of His goodness (Ps. 145:3).

God’s Word continually holds out to us the possibility of really and truly knowing our Creator (Hos. 6:3; Matt. 11:27; John 12:45). And as we grow in our knowledge of Him, we become ever more aware that our understanding is incomplete, requiring us to bow in worship before the Lord’s majesty (Rom. 11:33–36).

Theology and Doxology

Gerrit Scott Dawson

Angelic beings approach the throne of the triune God. They arrive in His immediate presence because they need no mediator. No sin prevents them from entering, and God gave these creatures the capacity to draw near without being incinerated by His glory. Is it safe to say these angels know better than we do? But what do these knowledgeable ones do in God's presence? According to Revelation 4:10, they fall down, cast their crowns, and sing. In short, they worship God with their whole beings.

I read a lot of theology books. That's my job—and my passion. But every time I pick one up, I raise a silent challenge: "Make me sing." I go to a lot of worship services. That also is my job—and my passion. My challenge is, "Take me deeper." The knowledge of God and the praise of God, theology and doxology, belong together. They are dance partners in the fulfillment of our chief end: to glorify and enjoy God forever.

Theology that doesn't make us sing has failed in its mission, no matter how correct it may be. Worship that doesn't take us deeper into Christ has also failed, no matter how glorious the music or how applicable the sermon. Praising God properly means deepening our knowledge of this God we adore. Our hearts should be set aflame when we really explore how the Father sent His Son into the world to save us, and then joined us to that Savior by sending His Holy Spirit into our hearts. Great theology stirs the heart. Excellent worship grows our knowledge.

Let's take, for an example, two stanzas from Joseph Hart's hymn "Come Ye Sinners." The lyrics have been reset several times in both traditional and contemporary styles, a testimony to their enduring power. The words take us deep into the work of Christ in a way that inspires us to give our hearts in worship:

View him prostrate in the Garden, On the ground your Maker lies, On the bloody tree behold him; Sinner, will not this suffice?

In just four short lines, we enter the narrative of our Savior's work. A great theological paradox is evoked through vivid imagery. We behold not just a man, but God in the flesh. The transcendent Creator of all has His face to the ground of creation. The impassible God unites Himself to a human nature that can suffer agony. Who can fathom this? But then Hart lets his theology become a call to worship: "Sinner, will not this suffice?" Does knowing what God has done not move you to worship?

The next stanza continues our journey into theological mystery, as Hart answers for us the enduring theological question, "What is Jesus doing now?"

Lo! Th' incarnate God ascended, Pleads the merit of his blood, Venture on him, venture wholly, Let no other trust intrude.

Hart evokes this crucial passage from Hebrews: "He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (7:25). Jesus continues in His priesthood, applying on our behalf the finished work of His sacrifice, not only for justification but for our growth in sanctification as well. What a wonder—Jesus lives to pray for us. How could I rely on anyone else? "Yes," my heart cries as I sing this theological truth: "I will venture on Jesus. I will give my life wholly and only to him."

John Calvin was one of the most doxological theologians. In writing about the Lord's Supper, Calvin rejoiced to affirm that through union with Christ, "whatever is his may be called ours." In what is now a very famous passage, Calvin articulated this wonderful exchange:

This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness. (Institutes, 4.17.2)

With this in our theological hymnbooks, how could Calvinists ever be the frozen chosen? This is the greatest deal in the universe: God trades us His life for our death, His peace for our anxiety, His heavenly home for our orphaned exile, His forgiveness for our sin. Then, amazingly, He considers it a great bargain. Such news makes me want to get up from this keyboard and run around the block shouting.

Theology is meant to set us singing. Our worship is meant to take us deeper into the glorious truth of our Redeemer's work. These two are meant to be dance partners into eternity.

Since the beginning,

our aim has been to help Christians know what they believe, why they believe it, how to share it, and how to live it…

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