The Importance of Thinking Theologically

The Bible is crammed with material proclaiming to be of eternal importance and consequence. 

From beginning to end there are teachings, commandments, stories, poems, allegories and character studies.  It is, to say the least, a repository of teaching for which one may study and meditate upon for a lifetime.

Those of us who seek to provide teaching and instruction, are faced with a most formidable task.  Our good intentions have not always produced what we intended.  In our interest to simplify and package complex biblical truths in manageable containers we have sometimes chosen to give pint size overviews when the subject demands a gallon’s worth of thought and theological reflection.  In other words, we have a tendency to boil down, condense and summarize ideas into bullet points which have a tendency to become canonized and thought of in terms of indisputable truth packets.

Recently I delivered a presentation for a group of preachers entitled, “What Is Shaping Our Theology Today?”.  I harvested some outstanding quotes from theological thinkers which I want to pass along to you as an encouragement……whether full-time ministry types or people in the pew.  Think Theologically.

Consider for yourself whether you have the tendency to think in bullet points.  For those of us who do preaching and teaching, I would suggest that we even use discretion in the utilization of Powerpoint slides as a way to present complex theological ideas.  All I’m saying in this is that we recognize the pitfalls which one can fall into by formulating
“The five steps to Salvation” or “Five Acts of Worship” or “7 Things Identifying the Church of the New Testament”.

So the following is for your theological reflection.  These quotes are in no particular order nor do they represent a complete sampling of those who very well could be quoted as outstanding theological thinkers.  They say something important.  And yes, these quotes are little more than “bullet points” but are offered as an encouragement to

“think about how you think about……”

the Great Work of God.

    IN this season of harvest,  I bring to the threshing floor these quotes and ideas to get us thinking exploring and conversing.

From Tom Olbricht, Hearing God’s Voice, My Life With Scripture in Churches of Christ.

Just as a preacher is not worth his salt who cannot explain a text in such a manner that it can be understood by a specific audience, so biblical theology is not helpful unless it can be brought to bear upon a specific context.  The effort to do so is what I designate “theology”.  Biblical theology is an undertaking which focuses only upon the message found within the Scriptures, the message located in the inspired text.  It is once for all, and sits in judgment on all subsequent theology.  Nevertheless, the church cannot do without theology, which is the effort to communicate the theology of the Scriptures to a specific age.  While biblical theology is immutable, theology should change as needed to communicate with its own era and social context.  The theologian in my view, should know from the outset that his theology is doomed.  He should highlight the self-amortizing nature of theology.   p. 373

“Human fallenness almost always leaves its mark.  Even theology itself (to borrow a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins) wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.”   Michael Bauman- Professor of Theology and Culture, Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, MI.


From Kenneth Cukrowski, Mark Hamilton, James Thompson,  God’s Holy Fire,

How does a teacher take the data of Bible study and craft it into a lesson that allows God’s Word to address the church today?  How can names, dates, outlines and word studies challenge the church to live faithfully?  If the teacher cannot think theologically, then the lesson is often a mind-numbing, soul-deadening experience.   p. 188

With its focus on the recovery of the practices of the early church, especially baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the Restoration Movement has served Christianity well.  We have, however, tended to ignore the restoration of the theology of the early church.   The presence of theological meaning is important because in its absence church practices tend to devolve into mere ritual and legalism.  However, when practice and theological meaning are connected, then our actions are not primarily an expression of our own willpower.  Rather, Christians should act because of what God has done and because of who they now are as his people.   In addition, it is important to recognize that having a theological foundation provides some protection against being overly influenced by bad, but popular theology.  p. 188

Theological reflection is necessary not only in the study, teaching, and preaching of Scripture, but also in the daily life of individual Christians and the church.  p. 190


Theology seeks first to provide orientation to religious communities through critical and constructive engagement with their convictions, rituals, and practices – “to foster the knowledge and love of God” as the Yale Divinity School mission statement puts it.   Miroslav Volf,  Captive To The Word of God, p. 9

Second, theology’s goal is to shape how life is lived in the broader society, indeed on the whole globe, in the light of God’s purposes for the world.  Church and society are the two main “publics” of academic theology, those for whom it endeavors to interpret reality so as to offer guidance about what it means to live well before God.   Miroslav Volf,  Captive To The Word of God, p. 9

In contrast with a “hermeneutic of suspicion”  Volf suggests:  Approaching the Bible as a genuinely sacred text calls for a hermeneutic of respect rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion.   We approach it with an attitude of receptivity appropriate to the presumption—maybe always only a provisional presumption—that it is a site of God’s self-revelation.  We read it expecting that by finding ourselves and our world in the story of God’s dealings with humanity, we will (re)discover our true identities and world’s proper destiny.  We study it anticipating that we will discover the wisdom to help individuals, communities, and our entire planet genuinely to flourish.  We read it trusting that we will learn better to love God and neighbor.   Volf, p. 34

But should we not mistrust the proposed hermeneutic of respect?  It seems to undermine critical judgment and leave us in an excessively passive relation to the text.  Yet this need not be the case.  First, “respect” and “receptivity” are not incompatible with critical judgment: instead, critical judgment ought to accompany them.    p. 34


From Randy Harris,  God Work – Confessions of a Standup Theologian

Epistemological humility – Be humble about what we know (and how we came to know it, I might add  GMC)

We hold the views we do because we think we are right.  The question is whether we are open and humble enough to say, “It is possible I might have it wrong.”  Humility is a trait very close to the core of the gospel.  Perhaps God would like to hear us say, “I wonder what I’m going to learn out of this.”  Not “What am I going to teach,” but “What am I going to learn?”    Randy Harris,  God Work – Confessions of a Standup Theologian, p. 17

Theology grows out of spirituality – It is a lot easier to have doctrinal conversations among prayerful people who have taken seriously the call to follow Christ in every word, thought, and deed.  If we first attend to our spiritual lives, our relationship with God, and are bathed in prayer, the conversations go a lot differently.  As I grow older…. more rapidly, I find myself less interested in fencing over doctrinal issues which will not change the people in the conversation.  I’m interested in what will lead us into a deeper and fuller relationship with God.  Harris, p. 18

Be contextually faithful-  I do not believe the church looks exactly the same in every context.  Missionaries generally understand this.  ….My hero for contextual faithfulness is Paul, who is not, as far as I can tell, a systematic theologian.  He doesn’t sit in the library and write theological treatises because he’s having a slow day or because he’s in prison and doesn’t have anything else to do.  He writes theology to particular situations, and the situation often makes his theology to particular situations, and the situation often makes his theology come out quite differently.   Harris, p. 20

I want to say to those who are younger that truth matters.  It always matters.  Be rigorous.  Be committed.  And I want to say to those who are older that humility matters.  Be humble.  Be prepared to admit that where you’re located sometimes impacts the way you see things.  Be ready to admit with me that disagreement with me is not necessarily disagreement with God.  Harris, p. 74


Notes from Scot McKnight – The Blue Parakeet

3 Ways people read their Bibles…..most people are not aware of how they read the Bible.

1) Reading to Retrieve- Some of us have been taught to read the Bible in such a way that we return to the times of the Bible in order to retrieve biblical ideas and practices for today.  There are two kinds of “return and retrieve” readers—some try to retrieve all of it and some admit we can retrieve only what can be salvaged.  p. 26

What we need is not a return to the first or fourth or sixteenth or eighteenth century but a fresh blowing of God’s Spirit on our culture, in or day and in our ways.  We need twenty-first-century Christians living out the biblical gospel in twenty-first-century ways.  p. 28

2) Reading through tradition – Ordinary people need to learn to read the Bible through tradition or they will misread the Bible and create schisms in the church.  …..I believe we are called to read the Bible for ourselves.  (But not entirely on our own.)  The reformation’s best and most dangerous, revolutionary idea was putting the Bible in the hands of ordinary Christians.

3) Reading with tradition –

God was on the move;

God is on the move;

God will always be on the move.

And God is still on the move in your life, is He not?

So in this season of harvest here are a few ideas intended to encourage us to think theologically.  These ideas are not so much harvested fruits ready for serving but seeds to be planted for future harvests.  May we be moved to think of and yearn for a relationship with God with all the theological richness open to us as lifetime learners. 

About Gary Cleveland

An old chunk of coal waiting to become a diamond some day. I spend the bulk of my time focused on spiritual development. I teach, preach and stand by the hurting and wounded. I believe our heavenly Father offers us daily opportunities to discover who we are and what we can yet become. I serve as a bringer of good news in and around the city of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
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