The word theology comes from two Greek words: theos, “God”, and logos, “word” or “reason. Thus literally it means words about God, or reasoning about God. It also has been defined as “disciplined thinking about God.”
Now as you know, thinking involves categories and concepts symbolized by words. Therefore theology consists of studying and refining concepts about God, and about humanity in relation to God. If a statement does not relate to God in some way it is not truly a theological statement.
However, the term is used in both a narrow and broad way. In its narrow usage, to do theology is to reason very specifically about God himself, his nature and person. But the term also is used broadly to mean reasoning about anything in relation to God.
As we study and refine concepts about God, we soon learn that theological propositions by definition cannot be proven in a scientific way. For example, one can demonstrate that two apples plus two apples equals four apples. But we cannot empirically demonstrate that God exists, or that he created the world and the apples.
The apostle Paul, after his conversion on the Damascus Road, testified that that he had met the risen Christ on that road. But he could not have demonstrated that scientifically. He could testify to some sort of experience there, but an unbeliever could have said he was hallucinating. The point is theological experiences and propositions are theoretical in nature, rather than empirical.
One further general note about theology. It is not just a Christian endeavor. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and others also do theology. Of course I am writing about Christian theology.
As I indicated earlier the word theology is used rather broadly in Christian circles. There is a sense in which it covers all of the disciplines taught in theological schools. Thus under the general heading of Theological Studies you will find at least three categories of studies. People in biblical studies do Biblical Theology. Those in historical studies do Historical Theology. And those in doctrinal studies do Systematic Theology. A secular study of religion also exists. It is called Philosophical Theology or Philosophy of Religion.
In these studies, I will be emphasizing Systematic Theology. I will be teaching how Christians, especially Protestant Christians, traditionally have done their disciplined thinking about God. We will be talking about doctrines: the doctrines of God, man, sin, salvation, etc. And we will present these doctrines within a particular systematic framework called Wesleyan-Arminian theology. As we do so, we will point out the way that theologians in certain other systems, such as Reformed Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, would do it differently.
Now then, before we deal with the differences between Systematic Theology and the other kinds of theologies mentioned, I want to point out two additional distinctions that are important. First, theology is not the same as religion. Religion is a personal experience that involves the emotions and the will as well as the intellect. It has to do with what we experience subjectively at the core of our being. It is an inner experience that has to do with who we are.
Theology, on the other hand, has to do with our intellect. It is an attempt to think through one’s religion. It takes place in the head rather than in the heart. And of course systematic theology is an attempt to think through our religion systematically. So theology is not the same as religion.
Second, theology is not the same as faith. Faith is a commitment of the whole person to Christ. Theology is careful, orderly thinking about the revelation in Scripture of the God in whom we have faith (Dunning, p. 31f.).
All right, now that we have defined theology in general, and given some explanation of the use of the term, we must turn specifically to systematic theology. First, a systematic theology is contemporary. That is, the systematic theologian attempts to bring the doctrines of the Christian faith into contact with his present cultural situation. As times and cultures change, our understanding of the biblical revelation must change. For example, in 1 Cor. 8 Paul speaks about the matter of eating meat sacrificed to idols. One must understand that teaching very differently in a culture like ours, where no meat sacrificed to idols is sold in the markets, from the originals readers who lived in a culture where that happened regularly.
At the same time, the systematic theologian must not stray away from the original intent of the writer, or a perversion will occur. In other words the systematic theologian must keep a balance in his or her work. On the one hand theology must speak to the age and culture for which it is written; but on the other hand, there is a biblical and traditional norm with which the theologian must stay in connection or it loses its value.
Second, a systematic theology is, you guessed it, systematic. The whole point of systematics is that every doctrine in the system coheres with every other doctrine. Everything must fit together into a coherent, harmonious whole.
Third, a systematic theology is comprehensive. That is not to say that it covers every subject under the sun; but it does cover every area of biblical revelation about God and humanity.
A fourth characteristic of a systematic theology is that it has what I call a theological key. This is different from the biblical norm that we were talking about earlier. For an evangelical theologian the biblical norm always is there as a guide and corrective. Rather I am talking about a theological key that is guiding the theologian’s thinking in addition to the biblical norm. This key idea is what makes one theologian’s system different from others.
When a systematic theologian works, that person always has a key idea or ideas around which the whole system is formulated. That key idea or ideas controls the development of that particular theologian’s systematic theology. In the case of Wesleyan scholars, the theological key is the Wesleyan tradition. That is, they write from a Wesleyan theological perspective. And the goal is to do a Wesleyan theology that will be adequate for the 21st century.
There are three ideas that represent the heart of traditional Wesleyan theology; namely, justification by faith, sanctification by faith, and prevenient grace. We will flesh out the meaning of these three ideas later, but I want to mention a couple of points now.
All three of these concepts have to do with the theology of salvation, which is strongly emphasized in Wesleyan theology. The third idea, prevenient grace, is the most distinctive Wesleyan doctrine. The term “prevenient” comes from the Latin praevenire, a verb that means “to go before.” Prevenient grace is the grace of God that “goes before” salvation. It is the initiative of God towards the sinner that enables that sinner to accept Christ as Lord. It is grace that is bestowed on all humanity that removes the guilt of original sin, provides us with a conscience, and enables us to say “Yes” to Jesus.
Thus Wesleyan theology is very Christ-centered. Prevenient grace is given for the sake of Christ; it is possible because of the work of Christ; and it results in the glory of Christ, when we accept him as Lord.
To give you an idea of how another system is built on totally different main ideas, take the Reformed tradition, which is based on Calvinism, as an example. Calvinism is built primarily on two ideas. First it has an absolute understanding of the sovereignty of God. God is totally in charge of the universe, including all human events. This is seen especially in their theology of salvation.
The second controlling idea is called “unconditional election.” God elects people to salvation by his sovereign choice. We have nothing to do with it. If we are among the elect, it is because God arbitrarily chose to save us. If we are not, it is because God arbitrarily chose not to save us. I am committed to the Wesleyan tradition, which believes in freedom of human choice in every area, including salvation.