Theology - General

Does theology matter to churches?

The other night, when reading a letter I wrote to my parents during my first year as a missionary in the Philippines at the age of 26, I chuckled when I saw that I had signed off with: “Love, Terry, ‘your incurable theologian.’” How right I was. Forty five years later I still haven’t been cured. Paraphrasing the wonderful comment olympic sprinter Eric Liddell made to his sister in the film “Chariots of Fire,” I can say: “God made me a lover of theology and when I do theology I feel his pleasure.”

This bRoger Olsoneing the case, I read with considerable sympathy Roger Olson’s blog post today, “Where Does Theology Really Matter?” He recalls Karl Barth’s complaint about churches that don’t listen to their theologians. “He was clearly profoundly disappointed that his life’s passion and work was largely ignored by the churches he intended to service.” Olson emphathizes with Barth, and he writes: “I originally took up theology as my life’s work for the service of God and the church. But sometimes I wonder what good it has done. Rarely have the churches I attend asked my advice about anything. When I have offered it, it has usually been ignored.” Here are a few of his perceptions of our time:

Over the years I have noticed that in every city with which I’m familiar the largest churches, even ones with strong denominational ties, are mostly devoid of any serious theology.

Folk religion is overwhelming theology in American Christianity. A few are fighting back against that tide of feeling-centered spirituality. Most of them are strongly Reformed theologically. I give them credit for their focus on theology even if I disagree with some of its tenets.

But he finds few churches “where there is a general mindset that theology matters to sound Christianity,” by which he means

churches that care that the songs sung in worship have lyrics that are true. I mean churches where Sunday School classes for all ages at least occasionally take up issues of belief and culture and do not just dabble in Bible stories, ethics and spirituality. I mean churches that build theological teaching events into their regular annual Christian education programs. I mean churches that care what their small groups are reading and studying and encourage them to increase their understanding of the Christian faith beyond devotions and spiritual life. I mean churches where the sermons challenge the mind as well as the heart and display to the discerning listener evidence that the preacher reads theology and thinks about issues deeply. I mean churches that invite and welcome biblical scholars and theologians to speak and teach and ask their advice about Christianity. I mean churches that treasure their theological heritage even as they think critically about it. I mean churches that call as pastoral staff members people with theological training and encourage them to stay lively and in touch with that through lifelong learning and periodical continuing theological education.

But here is Olson’s “advice to young theologians,” nonetheless:

 Don’t expect the churches to value what you have to offer. For the most part, they won’t. But don’t give up; persevere like Karl Barth. Sow seeds of truth wherever and however you can.

That is good advice, I think. God wants us to love him with our minds, as well as our hearts, souls and strength. If you are one of those whom God has given a love for the pursuit of truth about God, then nurture it. There are others like you, and God may bring you together with them in surprising ways and places. Furthermore, God has given you this desire to know him and his revealed truth, and he has a role for you to play in the world. We are not responsible for the results of our efforts, we are simply called to be faithful to God’s promptings and to nurture the desires and the gifts that he has given us, using them in the ways that he makes possible. I hope you feel God’s pleasure as you do theology.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

2 replies on “Does theology matter to churches?”

I am currently teaching a short theology course at West Highland Baptist Church in Hamilton, part of an adult education program that they do on Sunday evenings in 8-9 week segments 2-3 times per year. This is my third time to be involved there, but it is encouraging to see a church that takes it seriously and invites seminary professors to participate. My experience tells me that God’s people are more interested in theology than pastors are inclined to recognize. There may be more hope than we think, but in any case, Eric Liddell, you, and I do it because God made us this way.

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