Can We Know Theology?

2015 Jan 4

Theology is the study by humans of things relating to God. Doctrine is the accepted beliefs that we hold on this topic.

When we humans study a subject, we do our research. Then we assemble all the facts as we know them into a mental model that fits everything together. We check the model by seeing if it matches to what we observe and if it explains well what we know from our sources. And then we make adjustments to our mental model to make it better as we learn and understand more.

God tells us about himself through what he has made, through what he has done, and through his direct communications to humans. These sources provide facts that we interpret, and try to consolidate into a cohesive picture. However the difference between God and humans is very large and so this presents challenges for our understanding. We need to use our imagination to extend our thinking in the parts where God is unlike us.

It is from these processes that theology is constructed.

Choosing our Theology

Theological views can have a lot of variability. As individuals we each might imagine theological things differently, and certainly we will make unique observations out of our own world. Most of us have limited time for theological study, so we choose to trust the teaching of scholars that we respect. But, even these experts are not in full agreement. So out of this range of theological thinking, people choose their doctrinal beliefs.

If we believe God is a loving, understanding, and rational being, then it would be consistent to assume he has communicated clearly to us about those things we need to know, those things we need to be certain about. I believe he also told us enough about other parts where we don't have much information. (For example, it is surprising how very little the Bible has to say about angels, but that's OK.) These other things could simply be non-crucial or unimportant for us to know as humans.

Uncertain vs Reliable Theology

We can definitely be certain of some parts of theology, but other parts not so much. To some theologians this is frustrating. They want to know all truth correctly, but sometimes there is very little original source material from which to work. So, they make the best explanations that they can, and this does involve imagination (and usually, philosophy). So, it is important to know which theological things are less certain because it is possible we could be wrong about them.

In the sciences it is common to measure and track uncertainties in data. This is so that data with low certainty will be treated as having less authority. This is critical for the process of coming to the most accurate scientific conclusions. This perspective is useful in theological thinking as well. Knowing which parts have low certainty enable us then to know where we should remain flexible in our thinking as we continue to learn.

It is also important to know which things we need to get right. These might be things that are theologically very clear, or they might be things that God asks us to get right. The good news is that this is a small, very knowable list. But, it contains all the best, most profound, and life changing stuff that helps us become people with love and good character, like Jesus.

So, some things in theology are reliably knowable. This especially includes the parts that teach us to love each other. Jesus' most clear command to us is to love each other beneficially. Jesus then demonstrated the meaning of this command by dying to protect and help the people that he loved. This message to us by what he said and by what he did are unmistakably knowable.

The Results

But there are also some things in theology about which we have uncertainty. Interestingly, when we recognize these limitations, they will also guide us to love each other. We will see that we need to be humble because we don't know that we can be right about these other ideas. So understanding our own theological uncertainties, we can be relaxed and lovingly accommodating for others that have different ideas in these areas.

So, the result of knowing theology in a good way is that it guides our actions and our conversations so that our love for others will be evident. When we then look like Jesus, people will recognize that we are Christians.


Part 2: What is the Value of Doctrine?


The value system perspective used here is based on ideas from the work of Darren Twa.