Book Review: Who Needs Theology?

by Eric Landstrom


The Problem

Both Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson have laid a tough task before themselves. How do you affirm the idea that serious study of biblical truth can thoroughly enrich both the individual's faith as well as congregational faith when it is written that true servants are as children before God? How does a person convey their delight of theology to another who is happy to simply know that which they know already? Is it not foolishness searching after answers that perhaps only God Himself knows? Why not simply accept the Bible as a child accepts the love from a parent without question?

The problem of conveying to our fellow brethren that the study of theology is a good thing is further aggravated by the fact that fallible human reason was the manner that led to sin and corruption in the first place. In light of this it can be understandable why many brethren view the study of theology with the deepest of suspicion. But for those of us who love theology, the reflection of biblical truth is as rain to a meadow. Often the clouds may gather overhead, but as the drops of rain permeate and soak into the soil; so too does the understanding of theology saturate and underscore the believer's faith! As the sun banishes the stormy clouds overhead and causes the meadow to grow and blossom, so too does the knowledge of God increase the faith, hope, and love of the believer and bring them closer to God in their Christian walk.

Often times with books such as this, the theologian attempts to state that the underlying idea of theology is to answer the most basic question of "Why am I here?" This basic assumption logically follows, as the authors suggest, that the more profound question is how did something come from nothing? These are valid questions for an unbeliever to ask and it is hoped that the answers the unbeliever discovers will lead them to accept the Christian faith. The problem that Christians are presented by questions such as these is that they have already been answered through faith. Although questions such as what is the meaning of life are not frivolous, the Christian who is already in possession of answers now hungers for knowledge which penetrates and further reveals biblical truth. Therefore, what is the application of abstract "professional" theology to the humble Christian? The Christian--having already accepted the basis of those philosophical questions with the belief that the Almighty God created all that there is--asks why is there a need to delve into hypothetical theories that often lead Christians to bitterly divide?

It is the reflection upon my own question that I come to agree with Grenz and Olson that all peoples engage in the practice of theology--even the Christian who asks why we need theology because he already knows how it will end. Because the Christian who truly has reflected upon his faith already knows how he will die, it logically follows that he will then desire to increase his knowledge and learn more of how to live the life God expects of him. Thus the conclusion of denial affirms the study of theology. To confirm this conclusion upon the hesitant mind of our doubting brethren that theology has merit, effective theology needs to be shown to increase Christian faith, guard and defend against doctrinal errors, and increase the Christian in application of biblical truth in their individual lives to be truly acceptable.

I believe that Grenz and Olson do an excellent job of explaining to the layman why we need to further study the Bible and learn more of God (i.e., the practice of theology for the enrichment of faith). However I do not believe that they properly explained why the body of Christ has need for theologians, or justified why the body needs objective theology, something which is frequently perceived to dwell in abstract terms and definitions that seemingly have little to do with the Christian walk on the road to maturity. Further, while the authors do stress that everyone participates in theology, they fail to present the idea that all of us on one level or another do practice all five levels of theology as outlined in their book Who Needs Theology?

One of the problems I hold that the authors had in writing this book was the selection of the best approach to explain the differences within the practice and application of theology within the brotherhood of believers. For example, Grenz and Olson divide theology into five categories but fail to explain the role of the "professional" theologian in a way that the average Christian may clearly see how this kind of theology has application with in their own life. Why not further develop the idea and parcel the "professional" class into three groups that encompass the professional level of theological reflection and study so as to better define its roll within Christianity? Indeed, a trip down to a seminary reveals an academic class of Christian whose vocation is to train other Christians who will go and teach and preach to yet even more Christians. The "professional" Christian vocation is also made up of another scholastic subdivision whose job is to produce helps for other Christians so that they too may greatly accelerate their studies of the Bible. Certainly it is reasonable to stand on the shoulders of others that have traveled the same paths to enable the Christian student to "see" further down the path of understanding the Bible. The "professional" Christian also is made up of those who would further define and defend Christian doctrine and work to resolve philosophical dilemmas such as the problem of evil. Following the precedent the authors set, a chart of legitimate Christian positions along the lines of Grenz and Olson would then look something like this:

Interesting, no?

In the end where does all of this posturing and positioning leave the body? Does the rubberstamping of persons into classification help to unify our brethren in faith? Does it increase our understanding of the need for theology? In my opinion, it does not. Reading through this book gives me the idea that it started out as a series of individual essays that when combined as a whole, fell a few chapters short of a really good book.

Obviously the intent of the authors was to justify theology, remove the fear of theological reflection, and build a love of theology. While I personally do love theology, I feel that the authors could remove some potential tension by swapping out the word "critical" with the word "objective." I will illustrate what I mean: A Moslem is critical of the Christian faith, he is not objective. To the typical Christian when something is said to be "critical," it is often registered as an attack. This obviously is not the intent of the authors but this is the preconceived perception of those who question the worth of theology. Because of this, it legitimizes their concern and thus should be tactfully addressed.

I believe that the analysis of our faith is a good thing and support the idea that all Christians should reflect upon their beliefs and the impact that God makes in their walk. Even the criticisms of the critical Moslem have their benefit, for they work to further define and thus strengthen the unity of the Christian faith. The failing of the particular approach employed by Grenz and Olson does very little to remove the perception that there is a division in the body between the clergy and the laity.

This perceived chasm is a problem because as Christians, we must all accept the doctrine that the body of Christ is made up by an equal brotherhood of priests no matter how educated or how "spiritual" individuals may consider themselves to be. As brethren we are all in this together and we should seek to separate ourselves from the Nicolaitane error that there exist different "levels" or castes among Christians. I believe that the authors' of the book Who Needs Theology would readily accept that idea. In fact, I believe that was one of their premises for authoring the book in the first place--that various practices of reflection upon our own as well as others' beliefs is a good thing because it defines our faith and allows a basis for which to share the Gospel with our culture. However, the approach used by Grenz and Olson to try to define the role theology plays in the devotional life of the Christian community has set up a dichotomy that I believe does not truly exist.

Certainly if I were faced with trying to explain why we need Christian theology to an indifferent and potentially hostile audience, I too would wonder what the best approach is. Although I recognize that it is hard to write and easy to critique, I also recognize in the authors' attempt to justify theology for the masses, they intentionally tried to remain as theologically neutral in regard to doctrine all the while trying to show the necessity of Christian reflection. To do this they offered the idea that we could look at the different divisions of Christian theology after first carefully arguing that all peoples are in the act of practicing theology. Rather than divide the body of Christ up into segments that ultimately work to justify a division between the clergy and the laity, I believe we should concentrate our studies on the different styles or approaches of the study of God that the body of Christ pursues. In this way the emphasis is moved from the "ivory tower" mentality that many Christians hold towards Christians whose vocation is to be professional ministers and servants to a spirit of unity that delegates the different tasks to different portions of the body of Christ.

There comes a point in the walk of those called to teach when it is recognized that they are no longer studying the Bible just for their own edification. This much is true, but there is a new emphasis that delights in learning so as to be able to share and edify others as well. Depending on how far this is carried, these same persons may find themselves needing to defend biblical truth against false doctrine and out-right apostate teachings or they may find themselves seeking to harmonize seemingly contrary teachings within the Bible. Tackling these different aspects of the Christian faith naturally moves the emphasis to the method employed to suit the task at hand, rather than the position of the individual taking up the task. As I see it, this is the failing of the book Who Needs Theology? Rather than elaborate on the different applications that theology has regarding subjects like evangelization or defining and defending the Christian faith, Grenz and Olson chose to speak more of the positions of those that propagate the faith. But their approach fails to address that the hesitation people hold towards theology isn't upon the practitioners themselves, but upon the ideas they proliferate. These ideas largely fall within well defined battle lines that are drawn along the movements of liberalism, fundamentalism, neo-orthodoxy, and evangelicalism. And for the most part, people recognize this. Regardless of where you fall, you must contemplate that it was theologians who started these movements, these divisions, in the first place.

It is because we war over a battlefield made up of ideas that the fear of the professional theologian perpetuates. Without a doubt many ideas that theologians contemplate are given to vain philosophy. Because of this many people would rather distance themselves from the occupation altogether rather than determine which of these ideas are theological dead ends and which ideas are truly constructive.

We should recognize, as the authors suggest, that theology in and of itself is not necessarily evil. At the same time we would do well to also recognize the limitations of our own philosophical reasoning which may not encompass truth. In contrast, theology derived from wisdom reinforces its truthfulness time and again by its application and further reflection reveals that when a truth proves itself true in all applications it is applied, it is based off of an attribute of God Himself. Additionally, we must recognize that we are all sinners and because of this the conclusions reached based upon our logical reasoning do not necessitate their truthfulness in the eyes of God.

As Timothy George wrote in summary of a debate regarding the future of the Evangelical Movement in consideration of the new Openness theological question:

Theology that is both Christian and evangelical arises out of the wonder and terror of having been confronted with the living God. It issues in confession, thanksgiving, and praise. As Martin Luther declared: "It is not by reading, writing, or speculation that one becomes a theologian. Nay, rather, it is living, dying, and being damned that makes one a theologian." Theologians are not freelance scholars of religion, but trustees of the deposit of faith that they, like pastors, are charged with passing on intact to the rising generation. In the pluralistic culture of the academy, evangelicals must become subversives or else lose their souls.[1]

The authors have asked, "Why do we need theology?" I believe that Thomas C. Oden provided an answer that best justifies the need for theology that is both objective and reflective, saying, "If there is no immune system to resist heresy, there will soon be nothing but the teeming infestation of heresy."[2]


[1] The Future of Evangelical Theology, Christianity Today, February 9, 1998
[2] Ibid.

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