Far from being boring and irrelevant, theology is how the Church finds the words to describe the treasure it has been entrusted with, says Alister McGrath. Without it, Christianity collapses
What’s the point of theology? Why bother with it, when we ought to be focussing on church growth, new ministries and better forms of outreach? It’s a fair question. So, here’s my short answer: far from being pointless pontificating, theology cannot be separated from the beating heart of the Christian faith. It helps us grasp the powerful and compelling vision of a life transformed by Christ. And we have to keep this vision alive; the future of the Church depends on it!
For many, it seems to have no connection with the Bible. Fair enough – I know too many theologians who ignore the Bible. But most theologians, especially in the early Church and at the time of the Reformation, see the Bible as being at the heart of faith. Early Christian theologians saw themselves as trying to weave together the threads of biblical passages in order to better see the bigger picture that emerged.
In the end, theology matters because Christianity matters
For me, theology explains what Christianity is all about to those beyond the Church. It helps individual Christian believers to deepen their faith and understanding. And it enables churches to be constantly refreshed, renewed and challenged by the vision of reality that brought them into being in the first place.
A question of perspective
In his poem, The Window, George Herbert draws a distinction between looking at a window and looking through it. Similarly, we can look at Christian doctrines – for example, the doctrine of creation – and explore it as an idea, explain its biblical roots, how it is expressed in the creeds and how it has been understood by various theologians. But we are actually invited to do something much more interesting: to allow Christian theology to become a window through which we view ourselves and the world. Herbert wants us to look through Christian doctrines. He wants us to use theology so that we can develop a deeper and richer engagement with God and our world. As Christians, we need to practice looking at the world in a Christian way, and appreciating the difference that this makes.
Theology helps us grasp the powerful and compelling vision of a life transformed by Christ
In the end, theology matters because Christianity matters. It is impossible to read the New Testament epistles or the sermons of early Christian writers without a sense that something new, exciting and transformative has taken place in and through Christ. It opens up a new way of understanding ourselves and the world. We are invited to enter this new world and make it our home.
The priceless pearl
Theology is the Christian community’s attempt to imagine, describe and analyse this new world of faith - enabling believers to grow into and flourish within it, and outsiders to gain a sense of what Christianity is all about. The Church has always struggled to find the right words to describe the treasure that has been entrusted to it – a treasure upon which its identity and survival depends. That’s why theology emerged as a principled, imaginative and utterly necessary attempt to find the best ways of describing, communicating, and commending the pearl of great price that lies at the center of our faith (Matthew 13:45–46).
Without that pearl, Christianity collapses. Theology aims to preserve that pearl, exhibit its beauty and explain its significance. Yes, churches need guidance on how to manage congregations, communicate effectively and use the latest technology effectively. But these are supplementary to the mission of the Church, which depends on it having something to say and to show which cannot be found elsewhere. Like it or not, theology both preserves that identity-giving vision and offers a tried and tested toolkit for commending it.
In a few months’ time, I retire as a professor of theology at Oxford University. After dedicating my academic career to theology, there is much more that I could say on the subject, especially about the ways in which theology links up with wisdom, wellbeing and wonder – a major theme of my new book What’s the Point of Theology? (SPCK). But I hope that this short article will give you a sense of what it is about, and why it matters, because it really does.