Who Needs Theology?

The late great R.C. Sproul published a book in 2000 titled The Consequences of Ideas in which he traces, in survey fashion, the contours of Western thought through the ages and its resulting effects on culture. It is one of the best of its kind since it is accessibly written and yet comprehensive in its scope. He starts with the pre-Socratics and takes the reader through the big ideas of Realism, Idealism, Rationalism, Empiricism, Skepticism and Existentialism (the order is intentional); and yes, all these “-isms” have had their consequences.

There is no time and space for elaborating on the evolution of these ideas. However, suffice it to say, the need for theology is dire. For in the study of theology we find the answers to all of humanity’s deep questions, i.e., meaning of life, existence, God, etc. Going back to our progression of ideas above, somewhere between Skepticism and Existentialism, something terribly happened in the world of ideas for which Christianity is still suffering the consequences. 

Consider the following historical segment in the development of ideas. In the 18th century Immanuel Kant, who many consider is the father of modern philosophy, struggled with whether we can know God. Rationalism and empiricism failed to provide satisfying answers. As his ideas developed he argued that our minds distinguish between the phenomenal and the noumenal1; the former being the things perceived by the five senses, the latter being things beyond the realm of knowledge, which included the knowledge of God. He did not set out to argue that objective reality did not exist. However, the wall dividing the phenomenal and noumenal is so wide that one cannot go around it, too deep to get under it and so high that no one can climb over it. But since ethics, the second of Kant’s concerns, is necessary for human flourishing, we must, as Kant argues, live “as if” God exists.

A generation later, Soren Kierkegaard, living under the Kantian revolution, develops his ideas which ultimately leads to the foundation for existentialism. Wracked with guilt about the decadence around him plus his own father’s adultery, Kierkegaard concludes that life only makes sense through pain and suffering. In one of his works he advances his notion of the three stages of life2, each with increasing moral standing. The first two debased stages can be achieved through deliberation. The Religious Stage, the highest of the three, cannot be reached by thought according to Kierkegaard. However, since this is desirable, one must act with pure subjective passion and take a “leap of faith” to the top. This is fodder for what Francis Schaeffer, writing in the 20th century, called the leap to the “second story.” Facts, science, (phenomenal) etc., being bolted to the first story and anything religious (noumenal) is sent to the second story where one has to leap to get there. It’s in the second story where subjective feelings reside, a place where knowledge is impossible.

Ironically, Kant and Kierkegaard were theologians. But their works have derailed Christianity in disastrous ways. The church since the Enlightenment has struggled to regain her prominence and relevance in society. It’s also in this cultural milieu that many Ivy League universities had its beginnings with the mission to educate students in theology in order to evangelize the world. Unfortunately, many of these institutions capitulated to culture and lost their Christian moorings. Anyone today would be hard-pressed to see any vestiges of faith except in the dark corners of these places, relegated to speculations and mere opinions. The distinction and separation between the sacred and secular was secured. 

Some of these institutions remained strong in the faith, but accepted the sacred/secular divide, decided to separate themselves from culture. This is how fundamentalism began. It had great intentions, unyielding to the ebb and flow of culture and go back to basics, the fundamentals of the faith. Despite the noble and courageous efforts of the founders of these places of higher learning were, they missed an important thing: culture. 

Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson in Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God reminds us:

“Christians have always sought to articulate their faith within the context in which God calls them to live and minister. We share the same task. Like our forebears, we desire to set forth our beliefs in a manner that will assist us in being the people of God in our world. That is, we desire a theology that is not only biblical and Christian but also relevant.”3

Of all the theological tools available to us, culture, I believe, is where most of the work needs to happen. The challenges of culture today, i.e., LGBT+, political divisions, tolerance, racial tensions, etc. are not incidental to our theology. They ought to be front and center. That’s not to say that we allow culture to dictate our theology. But more often than not, the church turns a deaf ear to issues that matter most to the folks in our community. The transformative power of the Gospel is more than this, but definitely not less. 

So, who needs theology? To echo Grenz and Olson, we all do4. But let’s add one more thing.  As believers let us also make it our goal to make theology attractive enough that all will want to study it.

  1. R. C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts That Shaped Our World (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2000), 122.
  2. Ibid., 150.
  3. Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove, IL, USA: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 98.
  4. Ibid.,46.

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