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The fact is that theology—real theology, the study of God—which should be foundational in church liturgy and in far more sermons than it is today, has lost its popularity, replaced by an emphasis on evangelism…

In the human quest for beauty, goodness, and truth, theology has taken a back seat. Our modern church buildings, both inside and outside, are less beautiful than they used to be. It is tempting to measure goodness by observing obedience to church rules, rather than viewing a truly godly life. What churches teach for truth today is often denominational dogmata instead of a real foundation of who God is. This has resulted in the death of true theology.

We tend to confuse Bible study with theology. There are plenty of topics to study in the Bible. What is the church? Is it universal, local, or both? What is man? What is literal in the Bible, and what should be considered a figure of speech? Should children be baptized, or should we wait for a verbal profession of faith? Should baptism be by immersion, by pouring, or by sprinkling? Should children be allowed to partake of communion? Should communion be open, that is, available to any professing believer; or close, available to members of the denomination, even if visiting; or closed, that it, limited to members of a local assembly? Is salvation once saved always saved, or not? Has God finished with the nation of Israel, or does He still have a plan for their future? In our daily lives, should we send our children to Christian schools, Christian camps, and Christian colleges and universities? These questions include dogmata which separate denominations, and they are certainly worthy of study. The prolegomena of Lewis Sperry Chafer’s eight-volume Systematic Theology lists fourteen types of theology: Natural Theology, Revealed Theology, Biblical Theology, Theology Proper, Historical Theology, Dogmatic Theology, Speculative Theology, Old Testament Theology, New Testament Theology, Pauline Theology, Johannine Theology, Petrine Theology, Practical Theology, and Systematic or Thetic Theology.[1] Yet are these questions, and are these divisions of theology, really true to the definition of theology? Theology is the study of God, Who existed before He created anything.

The emphasis on theology depends on both the denomination as a whole and the local church in particular. Some churches recite the Apostles Creed every Sunday, reminding us of the basic fact that God is a Trinity of Three co-equal and co-eternal Persons. Others relegate most theological discussion to the incarnation at Christmas and the resurrection at Easter. Perhaps this does not bother many Christians. But to a Jewish convert to Christianity such as myself, the dearth of real theology, real talk about who God is, different from what we were taught in Hebrew school, is painfully absent from sermons. And many people do not even understand their own religion, despite whatever training they had as children.

This does not mean that Christians never talk about theology. Seminary classes talk about it, as do books on systematic theology. But the identity of God is rarely spoken of in sermons apart from a creed recited every week.

Looking at books and listening to seminary downloads, it appears that the interest in theology dies with each generation of theology. A generation here is not the life expectancy of a person, but rather the formation of a new set of doctrine in response to pulling out of a denomination, or of modifying what already exists. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy could be considered first-generation Christianity. Then Luther, whose Bondage of the Will contains ideas which Augustine emphasized,[2] generated a new belief system, and the Roman Catholic Church birthed a new movement. A third generation was popularized by Calvin, a fourth by the Puritans, a fifth by the Baptists (assuming that the Baptists came from the Puritans), a sixth by some evangelical church which came from the Baptists, and so on. And it appears that as subsequent generations try to correct perceived errors, some baby gets thrown out with the bath water to the point at which the existence of the Trinity, and the deity of Jesus Christ, are both believed but rarely mentioned in church services. The essentials become replaced by dress codes and other forms of practical application rather easily as newer generations of the Christian faith appear. An evangelical church is more likely to emphasize not borrowing money as a doctrine, or the need to be in service any time the church door is open, than the deep teachings of the Trinity found in An Exposition of the Christian Faith by John of Damascus or the Catechism of the Catholic Church as promulgated by Pope John Paul II. In fact, surveying the Bible school and seminary teachings of several denominations, and the books written by members of these churches, shows a pattern of more emphasis placed on the essentials of the Christian faith in older denominations than in newer ones.

Why is this so? Newer denominations are often more sensitive to the intellectual needs of modern man, who rarely receives the training in the humanities given to people of education in the past. Some of the more popular tracks in universities today aim for professions such as law or medicine, with less emphasis on the humanities for the sake of understanding western thought and even theology, and more emphasis on careerism and often math, science, and engineering. Churches sometimes reflect this trend by emphasizing the here-and-now, the prosperity gospel, and the cult of popularity in the pulpit. Deep thought is rarely considered in the modern university system, so there is little incentive for it in the churches. Older denominations, formed at a time when the educated, while a small minority, were expected to delve into real explorations of logic and metaphysics, are more likely to carry on a tradition of deep abstract reasoning necessary for understanding the intricacies of the make-up of God than newer denominations founded to meet the needs of a populace less educated in such thought.

This can be viewed even as we look at church buildings. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church buildings are full of art. The Puritans wanted sterile churches, denuded of art work. Today’s evangelical church sanctuaries are essentially recording studios, with sound systems run by people sitting in front of consoles, with more than a hundred knobs apiece. These studios might have a cross on the pulpit but no other artwork. Religion there is cerebral. The pastor emphasizes a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but there is nothing in the sanctuary reminding the worshippers of this relationship, nothing but one cross. Jesus Christ is in the heart of the believer, but not in the environment. Surely such surroundings do not encourage the church member even to want to know more about the essence of God, who has now been relegated to shallow abstract thought. Just as natural science classrooms and labs have posters which are not only informative but add to the atmosphere of the classroom, so the traditional artwork of the older denominations lends an atmosphere to worship that can be lost inside the blank walls surrounding the modern church buildings of new denominations.

Jesus preached outside, or in a synagogue, or in the Second Temple, the last of which He prophesied would be destroyed. It is easy to assume that aesthetics do not matter. The need for expensive church buildings is debatable, with some people home-churching. Yet even today’s sanctuaries, lacking in artwork, are often in modern buildings costing millions of dollars, complete with central heating and air conditioning, and the modern necessities of handicap accessible facilities. How much would it cost to add some artwork reminiscent of the mainline churches? We have so modernized our buildings that we are more tempted to modernize our emphases. We emphasize the tithe more than the Trinity, dress codes more than Christ’s deity, fundraising more than fundamentals, understanding our goals more than understanding the essence of God. To put it in university terms, we major in minors.

Do we really need the artwork? Is the Church not a body of believers in which God dwells? Should our money not be better placed in mission programs or used to feed the poor? A look at Solomon’s Temple as described in 1 Kings could justify expensive buildings, decorated buildings, buildings with an aesthetic leading to thinking about God rather deeply. Knowing that some people worship God in hiding while in underground church situations, there is still the fact that edifices built strictly to obey local building codes and perpetuate the message through recordings to be put on-line create an environment of pragmatism rather than transcendence. And the messages are likely to become more practical and less transcendent.

The fact is that theology—real theology, the study of God—which should be foundational in church liturgy and in far more sermons than it is today, has lost its popularity, replaced by an emphasis on evangelism, itself a necessary function of the church, and by the rules of the denomination. In the days of classical education, theology was considered the queen of sciences. She pointed to the King, but the bishops have pawned off the responsibility to knights in shining armor who have rooked her. Should we not want her to go completely stale, it is time to check our motives and to rescue her.

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[1] Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Systematic Theology, vol. 1, pg. 4-5. Dallas Theological Seminary: Dallas, TX: 1947.

[2]Calhoun, David. Ancient and Medieval Church History, Augustine and Pelagian Controversy, Lesson 16, pg. 6. St. Louis: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2007.

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20 replies to this post
  1. Interesting article Dr. Merken,

    I think you are certainly right about the death of theology and even those 14 topics of theology are inaccessible as classical education is inaccessible to the modern mind. However, I was struck by your language when you suggested that Luther’s moment, which was a divorce, was like a birth. The divisions of the denominations are not analogous to pro-creation, but a separation, a division in the manner of the Greek diabolien- Here is why, Luther and every denomination since, how many 30 40 thousand? is an irreconcilable disagreement not the pro-generation of a loving sacrifice between two bodies. If theology is the queen of the sciences, which surely she is, and philosophy is her handmaiden, and the principle of contradiction is the first principle of all reality, which surely it is, than the contradictions between all the denominations means, de facto that there can be only one true Church, or none. If theology is Logos centered, then we know that there is unity in the Body of Christ and that His nature is integral not divided. Real theology cannot have 40,000 difference “points of view.” And to be honest, other than the fact that modern theology has been induced into a coma at best, I am not sure what you are concluding. Please tell me how we rescue Her without first dealing with 40 thousand pawns, all of whom have a different idea of how to go about it?

  2. Understanding theology requires expanding people’s vocabulary., immensely

    Our speed of light society wants quick explanations.

  3. Well, Steven, it’s to talk first and foremost about Who God is. I’ve been in evangelical Christianity for over 42 years now, and I’ve probably heard no more than a few minutes about the Trinity from the pulpit, and this includes Bible school! In Reformed churches I’ve had the Apostles’ Creed, but still little or no discussion as to what it really stands for. I HAVE heard about the tithe, about dress codes, about evangelism, church building, faith, discipleship, not murmuring about the food in the Bible school cafeteria, etc. Some of these issues are vital, some are just denominational control mechanisms, but none are as important as the discussion we usually have to read a book or listen to a seminary MP3 download to have, the discussion as to Who God is, how He is presented in both Testaments, about the Old Testament typology of the Trinity, and other things more important than why today’s guest preacher always wears white shirts.

    • American evangelical churches don’t begin their worship service in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

      I think you need to look into confessional Lutheranism.

  4. Dr. Merken, It is the rare pastor but I have come across a few that consistently speak about the trinity, revealed truth, divine law and the things we need to hear to come to know, love and serve God. There are certain small corners where these things still happen, but I fear as you do that it is a small remnant indeed. Do you have any return on the issue of the birth vs. divorce analogy, I would be interested in hearing your take on that. Luther made fundamental breaks with Catholic Doctrine and Sacred Scripture- please do describe how this is a birth and not a divorce.

  5. There are tons of good resources and venues out there if they were just known better- Relevant Radio for instance, now coast to coast, and websites too numerous to mention, but some included below. Men’s conferences continue to flourish at a tremendous rate.
    As a non-teacher layman I like and use Jesus’ approach on the Emmaus road. I developed a 24 week confirmation program ( ok I’ll admit that exhausted me!) that incorporated some visuals such as you tube, and clips from Steve Rays Footprints of God, along with practical metaphysics, philosophy, theology, history and religion to explain the universe along with the Salvation Story of OT and NT, Gods covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, and how they were all fulfilled in Jesus, and passed onto us through the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Sacraments( With many thanks to The St Paul center in Steubenville for so much good material!)
    My 4th grade CCD is learning in the next 3 weeks how Gods Anointed ones, esp. priests, prophets, and kings, were used by God to bring his people back to a Covenant relationship, how Jesus is the ultimate PPK, and how we can fulfill those roles in bringing ourselves, families, and world back to God. They were anointed with oil as we are in baptism and confirmation, a priestly people who are also types of kings and prophets. But as Bishop Barron says, there is no communion without suffering in a broken world, so pick up your cross! You don’t have to be a priest or sit in church to learn our place in His-story, but you have to have the desire to learn. The truth written in salvation history will set the heart on fire like nothing else for many I’ve interacted with.

  6. Dear Dr. Merken,
    Thank you for teaching contemporary science, technology, engineering and mathematics into the Christian context.
    Actually I would like to recommend to your best students the following biology course from the 1960-es, which were also the era of pope Paul VI and the great catholic Church reform, and which were in general the era of great popularization of basic science, when most ordinary people were still more or less in touch with the God of Nature:
    Biological Sciences Curriculum Study,
    The Regents of the University of Colorado,
    1963-1968, Boulder, Colorado, U.S.A.
    I only have the updated 1979 Danish translation: Biologisk forskning, from the Church’s flea market, apparently thrown away by Nicolaus Steno’s High School. (This was also the great era of pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body.”)
    Since then rich people in big cities have greatly increased in numbers, and young people are often taught superficial nonsense in STEM courses, I guess, because so is it in Western Europe. Generally it seems that politicians seek to overstimulate gross national product economical growth, despite that people do not really need that much money. Especially some natural scientists are actually well aware of the mysteries of the so called seventh day of creation, namely that natural history with humankind needs not be everybody’s war against everybody. In fact I say that the human being has free will, when it contradicts [thanks a lot to another commenter for this word] itself against death and the world, so that it is free to let live or to let die, and to care for or not to care for the world, hence nobody needs to suffer bondage of the will, if he or she can let go of death and the world to the Lord God. On the other hand, if the human being wants to control death and the world on behalf of the Lord God, then he or she must fall into that bondage of the will. It is not simple. Augustine and Luther did not quite agree on this difficult question as to free will.
    As you can understand, I am a devout adherent to Paul VI. Humankind need to rediscover natural and cultural history.
    Yours sincerely, Robert Udmark, B.Sc.

  7. Of course I must regret my above attempts to revive some biology curriculum from the 1960-es. I just read Dr. Merken’s thoughtful article elsewhere on standardized tests (and it is possible that my rather impulsive comment which I wrote there became lost with a computer error on my part.) Basically it has recently become my point of view that there is no standardized science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum as such. On the other hand there exists sacred scripture, tradition and doctrine which is common to humankind, or at least which is common to Christendom. In between these two extremes, theology which must be the most common to all, and STEM which must be the least standardized, I think, are cultural and natural history which are more or less common and standardized through our communities or our natural habitats. It is not so simple, of course, because people live in time and space, and meet one another, and walk together and settle down, or do never settle down. There is no theory for history as such, other than God’s unimaginable plan of salvation. But we know some lessons from tradition, and politicians must some times make reforms, according to desires for future society as well as according to hypotheses for how humans and nature do pray and work or how they do not. Probably the most permanent of natural truths have been put into written doctrine on the first few pages of sacred scripture. These first few pages of sacred scripture, I speculate, all human beings have in a certain manner written in themselves. Thus people do not have to read sacred scripture, it is my point of view, to belief in the Lord God. As regards Newton’s mathematical time and Darwin’s natural history, those must be subordinated to the usual epistemological paradoxes of modern science, which means that the human being on the so called seventh day of creation is really primary to our own mathematical concepts for time. Of course nobody wants to throw away Newton’s and Darwin’s provisional theories at the morning of the twentyfirst century, but mathematical time needs not be raised to common dogma, in so far as modern mathematicians and computer scientists have failed in their attempts to reduce the world to logic and information. My advise to politicians for a kind of dereform is to give up the all too modern dogma of gross domestic product economic growth, and to stop overstimulating the economy with too centralized government and too standardized schools and too big financial debts. This here commenter who is a physicist has only recently become a reader of the Imaginative Conservative, and wishes to express some humility towards other commentators and the contributors. We need to rediscover the mysteries of the so called seventh day of creation. (If this can also be done literally while keeping both saturday and sunday as civil holidays, the poor of the world will probably not protest, but I am afraid the twentyfirst century is not so easy for good politicians to dereform.) People must also seek God, especially so according to the real principles for religious liberty that contemporary theology reads from the dignity of the human person. Thus perhaps the liberal arts as well as honourable labour as well as STEM probably deserve less standardization from politicians. On the other hand metaphysics and theology deserve that we rediscover our common hopes. In other words we cannot pass laws on the Lord God of Nature contrary to the hopes and dignity of the human. And we must forgive those politicians who think they can define some kind of science contrary to the first few pages of sacred scripture, because we have all sinned. The so called ethical demand must be given and not taken. Whence it is the humble life of religious people – or of conservative men and women – “to care or not to care.”

  8. In the article you state “The prolegomena of Lewis Sperry Chafer’s eight-volume Systematic Theology lists fourteen types of theology: Natural Theology, Revealed Theology, Biblical Theology, Theology Proper, Historical Theology, Dogmatic Theology, Speculative Theology, Old Testament Theology, New Testament Theology, Pauline Theology, Johannine Theology, Petrine Theology, Practical Theology, and Systematic or Thetic Theology.[1] Yet are these questions, and are these divisions of theology, really true to the definition of theology? Theology is the study of God, Who existed before He created anything.”

    You say the list does not have the true definition of theology: the study of God. Chafer lists Theology Proper, which you include, which is the study of God.

    • Yes, I noticed that as well….As a Catholic I think we hear about this subject from the pulpit more or less a few times a year. Trinity Sunday is usually the main one. Christmas usually touches on Christology, as does feast of Annunciation [if one goes to mass during the week.] Pentecost can also be an occasion for this topic at times.

      • I also noticed that the definition of theology in the text (or rather the description of various approaches to theology) was solely in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Eight volumes on theology and all of eastern religion is ignored???

  9. For example, genuine ecclesiology is being replaced by pseudo-biblical pragmatic church growth strategies and techniques gleaned from the business and marketing world. Efficient results, practical life-advice from the pulpit. Theology is largely considered a luxury item at best, mostly a barrier to “effective” outreach.

  10. J. Steve Lee,

    I guess I erred in that respect. I started reading the old eight-volume series over 30 years ago, but I doubt that I even finished the first volume (the eighth is a series of indices, as I remember it). I’d have to check my books to see how far I made it. I DID concentrate on some of what he wrote about the covenants. I’m glad that Chafer has theology proper.

  11. Theology in American culture has always been a tough sell. Just ask Alexis de Tocqueville who came to the exact same conclusion as Mr. Merken back in the 1830s. The more things change . . . But theology, like truth, is not something that can be escaped, as Douglas Groothuis argues in his wonderful book, Truth Decay. Every human being has a concept of God (theology), man (anthropology), salvation (soteriology), the end times (eschatology), and so on. Our lives are driven by assumptions about these things, among others. If we don’t think and talk about these things proactively, they will be determined for us by a hostile secular culture. Church leadership is wholly lacking in this regard. From my perspective, the theological, and cultural, education of my family and children is completely up to me, with helpful assistance from my wife. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all up to parents.

  12. “The fact is that theology—real theology, the study of God—which should be foundational in church liturgy and in far more sermons than it is today, has lost its popularity, replaced by an emphasis on evangelism.”
    It think it is safe to say, more people of the modern era are uncomfortable with Jesus that in the past. God is an easier substitute if you will, because God is God, not in any form human or otherwise. Jesus forces us to make decisions, takes sides and people of the modern era prefer to sit on the fence or worse, let others make the decisions for us, therefore, blame can be geared towards the decision maker rather than the individual. Why evangelize when you offer nothing when a person comes into a particular religion. It is clear what Jesus emphasized we are to do, The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 25 and so on. Jesus spells out what and how we are to conduct our life, every nook and cranny of it, not what is convenient, but every nook and cranny. A great example of this is Church teaching over the past 50 years has looked the other way on artificial contraception while 75% of couples in childbearing age are using it. No mention of the sin involved, in fact, no mention of sin period.
    Any theology, in my opinion must include a detail study of Jesus Christ, what He taught and how we apply His teaching in our daily lives. Without that, all we have is blind leading the blind.
    Thank you.

  13. My statement on evangelism could easily be misunderstood. I am FOR evangelism. But the threat of an overseeing pastor to fire teachers in his Christian school who didn’t go out evangelizing, all the while not dealing enough with real theology, is more what I had in mind. It’s easy to get people psyched up for programs, for action, for church attendance, for tithing and offering, for getting ready for the mission field, while ignoring the development of the mind in the areas most important for us in order to understand the essence of God.

    • No one “understands” “the essence of God”, really…unless you count analogy and the via negativa. Or so I am told. Then again, isn’t there something about God that we apprehend in some manner, which is the real explanation for why we adhere to Christianity? Speaking for myself anyway, I had an initial religious experience, then subsequently many other experiences [still ongoing] which I think it is fair to say are religious experiences, even though they seem religiously mundane, like prayer, reconciliation, moments of fellowship, acts of charity. There seems to be some kind of apprehension of God in such moments. What does that apprehension consist of, if it is not “knowing” God in some way? But maybe that is different than “understanding” God.

  14. Somehow every human being has sacred scripture in its heart, according to an interpretation of the apostle Paul.
    There seems to be some kind of crazy cultural inversion, so that our Christianity has become rather work for money and for power than real prayer to God, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has become an atheistic prayer for politicians instead of honourable work for the poor as it can be. The cure for this ancient disease in humankind must probably be found in the first few pages of sacred scripture with proper order to the human being.
    Especially liberty to the poor with practice of the liberal arts on the so called seventh day of creation is a great hope.
    Obviously this is not so simple, because it is … theology.
    Especially in the old testament we find the one hundred and fifty Psalms which perhaps express human faith as it is (probably the holy family sung them, I speculate) and in the new testament we find five great evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul who express Christian doctrine from their point of views (synoptic or Petrine, Johannine, Pauline). However the holy Bible is not one book, but an entire library of many different kinds of literature. Hence theology does not really threaten other honourable studies. Churches, schools, libraries and homes are not the same. Even in Christian monasteries those have different places.

  15. In the past 3000 years of human history, the creation of gods and religions has been man’s greatest mistake. But then, without them, we might not be what we are today. There could emerge a different civilization.
    If it was a mistake, it must be the most beautiful one ever. Let them be, let them be..

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