The term theology scares people. It sounds formidable, abstract, and academic. Many of us see it as disconnected from real life. As a result, we feel a tension between doctrine and practical living.
In this first lesson, we’ll learn how it’s helpful to understand that theology is a study of God in Scripture to know God – not just know about God. In this lesson, you’ll be equipped to:
- Explain the concept of theology as the study of God
- Describe how God demonstrates what he’s like in nature
- Illustrate ways God reveals himself in acts of history
- Demonstrate why God shows himself in Scripture
- Summarize the reason why we should study theology
- Distinguish between knowing God and knowing about God
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Knowing God Through a Study of Scripture
By Steve Childers and John Frame
1. Theology is a study of God
What is theology? The basic concept of theology is found in the meaning of the word. The first part of the word comes from the Greek word theos for God. The second part of word is from the Greek word logos, that can mean word, reason, account, or knowledge. So, theology can be defined as an account or study of God.
Like the study of any topic, the study of theology is greatly enhanced by defining key terms and concepts. So, throughout our study of theology, we’ll be carefully defining several terms and providing you with a growing glossary of terms you can use to help you along the way.
This is especially true of terms not used in the bible. Even the word theology is not a word used in Scripture, but it’s still a word that can help us better understand what the bible teaches. Other terms like this include Trinity, general and special revelation, God’s transcendence, immanence, person, substance, being, nature, hermeneutics, exegesis, inerrancy, and a host of other words.
2. Theology is a study of God in Scripture
If theology is a study of God, that raises the next question, “Where does God reveal himself so we can study him?” We need a more precise definition of theology. God reveals himself to us in three primary ways.
a. God reveals himself in nature.
One of the ways God reveals himself to us is in his creation, through nature. In Psalm 19: 1-2, we read,
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
When we look up into the sky on a star-lit night or look down into a microscope at living cells, we see masterful design and majestic beauty that proclaim the glory of a masterful and majestic designer. The Apostle Paul refers to how God reveals himself in creation, saying: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made (Rom 1:20).” This revelation of God in nature is called general revelation. We’ll study this in much greater depth later.
b. God reveals himself in acts
But God does much more than reveal himself in the beauty and wonder of his creation. The eternal God also makes his invisible presence visible by sometimes breaking through into our temporal world. Theologians use the Latin phase “Magnalia Dei” to refer to these magnificent acts of God breaking through in history. The writer of the book of Hebrews refers to these magnificent acts by telling us that God spoke to his ancient people “Long ago, at many times and in many ways… (Heb1:1a).”
We learn from Scripture that God sometimes reveals himself directly and personally to individuals. Other times, He reveals himself by dreams, visions, and miracles. The Apostle Paul teaches that God writes his law on our hearts so that our consciences will bear witness to him (Rom 2:15, 2 Cor. 4:2, 1 Tim 1:5). One of the primary ways God revealed himself to his people in Old Testament times was through the prophets of Israel. Hebrews 1:1 tells us “…God spoke to our fathers by the prophets (Heb 1:1b).”
But, the ultimate act in history, through which God reveals himself most fully, is in the first century when God reveals himself through the person and work of his one and only Son, Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 1:2 we read, “…in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” In the person and work of Jesus Christ, God reveals himself like at no other time in history.
In Hebrews 1:3 we read, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature…” This means that when we see the power, wisdom, and goodness of Jesus Christ, we are seeing the power, wisdom, and goodness of God. Jesus said, “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him (John 14:7).”
c. God reveals himself in Scripture
Since we could not be there to experience first-hand all these magnificent works of God in history, God, by his Spirit, has graciously recorded his acts and words for us in the ancient Scriptures. We’ll study later how God gave us the Scriptures. But for now, our focus is on how theology is a study of God’s revelation of himself to us in the Scriptures.
3. Theology is a study of God in Scripture to know God
Now we come to the important question, Why do we study theology? The word logos, from which we get the second part of the word theo-logy, conveys not only the idea of the study of God, but also the knowledge of God that is the result of that study. This brings us to a fuller definition of theology as a study of God in Scripture to know God.
But how can we, as mere creatures, know the creator? Isn’t it arrogant, or even delusional, even to claim we can know God?
Here we raise another foundational pillar in our study of God. The Scriptures teach that God is incomprehensible. Through the prophet Isaiah, God declares: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isa 55:8-9).” In the New Testament, the Apostle echoes this when he writes, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways (Rom 11:34-35)!”
Although the Scriptures teach God is incomprehensible, they also teach that God is knowable. Because God is incomprehensible does not mean he is unknowable. Of course, we cannot know God exhaustively and completely. Only God knows himself at that level. But we can still know God. The Apostle Paul describes his knowledge now in comparison what his knowledge will be like in the age to come, by writing: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known (1 Cor 13:12).” Theologian Herman Bavinck writes,
While our knowledge of him is accommodated and limited, it is no less real, true, and trustworthy. As God reveals himself, so he truly is. His revealed attributes truly reveal his nature.
Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry on earth, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and prayed to God the Father on behalf of all his followers, saying, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3).”
The knowledge of God Jesus refers to here is the very essence of eternal life. This knowledge is not merely knowing about God, or about godly behaviors. It is knowing God like you would know another person. This is a personal knowledge of God that can only be found in Jesus Christ.
Theology is a study of God in Scripture to know God. We study God’s revelation of his magnificent acts and words in Scripture, not merely to understand Christian doctrine academically, but to know, love, serve, and honor God personally.
Bavinck, H. (2008). Reformed Dogmatics. God and Creation, Baker Academic, p 95
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