Is Theology Really Applicable?
The short answer? Yes. It’s applicable to about every aspect of life, or at least it should be.
While theology is often dismissed to the world of academics and religious leaders, I can think of no other topic with a greater potential for impacting the everyday life of the average person. While I will be dealing specifically with Christian Theology, the study of God as He is revealed in the Bible and through Jesus Christ, this remains true whether you are a follower of Christ or not. What you understand and believe about God absolutely changes the way you live! If theology is applicable to our lives, it should also be approachable.
Theology is Approachable!
It may seem like a contradiction to tell you theology is approachable, and then begin with a word study in other languages, but just trust me for moment.
As with most words, ‘theology’ has taken a route through a few different languages before appearing here in modern English. You’re welcome to go study the journey of the word, but I’d like us to take notice of a theme in the progression of the word.
Roots of Theology
Just in the progression of word itself, you can almost see the topic of theology become less about speaking, and more about a science or study. Dare I say it, you can almost feel theology becoming less approachable! What begins as simply speaking about God and writings concerning him, becomes the more formal “reasoning and discussion”, and eventually an even more distant “study of religious faith”.
I recognize that these are just words, and I’m not saying that the study of God has changed in the same way the word has. I am saying that changes in the definition of theology betray a change in our cultural understanding of it. I much prefer to pursue a theology that is concerned with how I speak about and know God, than a dry study of religion. That change in approach makes theology more approachable, and I think more applicable (more on that in a minute).
A quick disclaimer before we move on: I’m not saying that theology is easy, or simple, or that it comes naturally to us. But it is worth pursuing! In the same way that we learn to speak, we can learn to speak about God. Not all of us will go on to pursue graduate and post-graduate studies in “God-speak”, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all speak clearly, and speak what is true about Him.
Branching Out and Growing Closer
God desires more than just our words. Yes we want to speak the truth with clarity, but God wants more than a well-spoken people. Jesus rebukes the religious leaders of His time saying “these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8). These leaders were intellectual, well educated, and could probably talk circles around the average person, but they were distant from the heart of God. They got caught up in only knowing about God, and not knowing His heart.
One way this could happen to you and I, is through pursuing the study of theology for the sake of knowing alone, and not the application of it.
For the visual learners like myself, perhaps the analogy of climbing a tree could be useful here. I don’t know if you climbed trees as a kid, but I climbed plenty. If you want to get to the top of a big tree, you reach for the closest branch, and you work your way to the top. Since your goal is to get to the top (or near as you can) you never move out too far on a given branch, but stick close to the center. Let’s consider a few of these branches and where they might lead:
The branch of philosophy has the benefit of helping us think deeply about what we believe, and why we believe it. However, when it becomes a search for knowledge, only for the sake of knowledge, it becomes less stable. The further away we move from the desire or intent to apply knowledge, the slower our actual growth becomes. A person may continue growing in knowledge, but stop growing in love for the God they study.
God desires not only people who speak about him, but people who speak from hearts that are near to Him.
Another branch might lead toward the highly practical pursuit of social justice. What does it look like to care for the poor? What does it look like to reflect God’s heart for diversity? These are good questions to ask! If we’re going be near God’s heart, we must care about the things He cares about! The risk here is that we might pursue the reformation of social systems over the restoration of relationship with the King.
We cannot truly bring justice to the most marginalized without introducing them to the Jesus who justifies them.
Applicability as a Guide
As I consider the options a person might be presented with, the temptation for me, is to consider every direction at once, and end up going nowhere at all. It is in this way that I have found the word ‘applicable’ to be very helpful on my journey. Over the course of time we will grow in our knowledge of God and His kingdom, but we should always remain centered around a desire to apply it. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer describes theology as “stage directions that show us how to live”(4) and I think that definition gets it just about right. I don’t only want to read the directions, I want to act them out for God’s glory and my good!
The apostle Paul describes this process as being “transformed by the renewal of your mind” and presenting yourself as a “living sacrifice” to God (Romans 12:1-2).
So my ‘application’ in “applicable theology” is really twofold:
The Practical Application
How do we apply this to our lives? That’s a question I hope to continue asking and I exploring as I go on this journey. Lots of topics can benefit from being put through the grid of ‘applicable theology’, which involves asking:
Some of the topics I hope to touch on in the weeks and months to come include:
I hope in the process, we are encouraged to not exclusively hunger for knowledge, but thirst to know and love God more through our pursuit of Him. To not only be a lifelong student, but a lifelong disciple with a longing to grow into the image of Jesus.
Grace and peace,
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