As he thinks in his heart, so is he- Proverbs 23:7a NKJV
One practical definition of theology would be:
Theology is the framework people use for understanding God and how God relates to all areas of life.
Here’s the thing:
All people, (atheist, Christian, agnostic, heathen, pagan, Buddhist, whatever) have a theology. Literally. All people. Theology isn’t just for monotheistic Jews, Muslims and Christians. Even when a person believes nothing about God they still believe something about God. Unbelief in God, just like belief in God, swiftly becomes a framework for understanding the world and how it works. Christians, agnostics, atheists, pagans and humanists all believe something about God. It might be the wrong thing, theology does not have to be good to be theology. Because ideas and beliefs have consequences, we all live out our theology (good or bad).
Here’s a couple of examples of what I mean:
A Christian who believes consciously or subconsciously that God rewards good works and righteous behavior with tangible blessings like a big fat bank accounts, well behaved children, good health or the perfect marriage will (consciously or subconsciously) endeavor to use their good behavior to manipulate God into blessing them with whatever their desire happens to be. The ultimate outcome of prosperity gospel theology is always disillusionment because it is a belief system not rooted in Scripture (John 16:33, Matthew 13:21, Acts 14:21, 2nd Corinthians 6:4-5, 1st Peter1:6). A Christian with this theology ultimately becomes angry with God when they don’t get whatever earthly reward they feel they are entitled to. This often leads to licentious living because the believer figures “if God’s not going to do His part, and reward me for my goodness I might as well live it up and party on”.
Someone who adopts a theology that rejects belief in original sin will ultimately end up with a soft spot for lawbreakers and delinquents (Psalm 36:1-4, Psalm 51:5, Romans 1:18-32, Romans 7:18-25). Most of these social justice warriors will work their tails off to create a system that goes easy on thieves and bad guys. Rejecting original sin leads well-meaning but wrong-headed people to believe crime is always the fault of someone besides the criminal. These soft-hearted but shallow thinkers will blame poverty, lack of quality education and society at large rather than the law-breaker for their law-breaking ways. It is true, our upbringing does shape us but at the end of the day (metaphorically speaking) people have freewill and make choices (Joshua 24:15, Ephesians 4:26, 1stPeter 4:3-5).
Anyone who believes God will not allow Christians to suffer or go through difficult situations will become cynical and disillusioned when suffering, hardship or persecution becomes a reality in their lives. And it always does. Because this brand of bad theology always leads to disappointment with God it is the number one reason Christians drop out of church and turn their backs on Jesus.
A Christian who believes Christians don’t have to do anything to become holy will never mature in Christ because they will shun proper Christian behavior as “works theology” (Philippians 2:12, Romans 1:7, Ephesians 5:3, 1stThessalonians 4:3-8). This will leave them ineffective and unproductive as Christians (2nd Peter 1:3-11)
Conversely, right theology leads to right thinking, and right thinking always leads to right behavior. Knowing trials, difficulty and hardship are tools God uses to mold us into the image of Jesus causes us to rejoice (more-or-less) in the midst of our trials (James 1:2-4, 1st Peter 1:6). Understanding original sin gives us insight into the behavior of others. It doesn’t preclude anyone one from having compassion for the sinner but it does help us understand that people make choices about what they do. Understanding that holiness is more than a gift we are given at salvation empowers us to become all God created us to be.
Understanding how our theology is impacting us is helpful because it gives us a framework to understand why we are responding to God the way we are. It helps us answer questions like:
Why do I despair and believe God hates me when the going gets tough?
Why do I struggle with so many sinful strongholds?
Why am I angry at God all the time?
At the root of every one of the above problems is bad theology of some sort.
Understanding the theology motivating us also helps us to flesh out our own motivations and understand the root cause things like chronic sin, wrong thinking and our reactions. Understanding why we do what we do is the first step in changing our thinking, reactions and behavior. When understanding is combined with a repentant heart God is glorified and the world is blessed because we grow into the image of Jesus (1st Corinthians 3:18).
Understanding that even unbelievers have some form of theology opens the door for intelligent conversations about how a person’s underlying belief system is motivating their thinking about all sorts of issues. Anytime we can have an intelligent conversation with a non-Christian we have a pretty good shot at making some spiritual inroads with them. Spiritual inroads are always a win.
Theology is not just for geeky old guys.
Theology is something we all have whether we realize it or not, so we should put some real effort into making sure what we believe about God lines up with what God says about Himself in His word.