Theology is like Math, and that’s a good thing

My wife and I recently began attending Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University at our church. There was one statement that smacked me across the face pretty hard. In fact, when Dave said it, my wife leaned over to make sure I wasn’t going to get up an make a scene. Dave, while talking about his famous class on money described it this way:

“It’s not theological in the sense that it’s only theoretical.”

Uh…Dave? Theological and theoretical are not synonymous. If you want to say, “My class isn’t only theoretical” then maybe you should just say “My class isn’t only theoretical.” See how easy that was?

I can’t fault him too much, I suppose. It’s a common idea. I teach a class on Theology, and during the first class session I ask students what they think of the subject. Sometimes there is a brave student who is willing to admit a hatred for theology. They can’t stand meaningless arguments about topics that don’t matter. Who cares how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Because for them, that’s what theology is. Theology is old white men arguing over concepts that no one understands, concepts which do not matter in the slightest to anyone on the planet.

But that’s false. It’s completely false. Allow me to use an analogy. I often hear people bemoan mathematics. “I don’t use Algebra on a daily basis. It was a waste of time learning it.” To this I’m often tempted to respond, “How well did you learn Algebra? Perhaps had you grasped its concepts more completely you would recognize that you use it frequently.” Have you ever had a known quantity of money, a known price for an item and wondered how many you could purchase?

Oh no! The word problems have returned! I’ve always feared this day!

But seriously, this is actually pretty common and not that hard. You have $5 and you want to buy something that costs $1. How many can you buy?  5? Congratulations you algebraic genius! You just solved for x in your head. See? You do that all the time without even thinking. Guess what else you do all the time? Theology.

But seriously...this is pretty cool.

But probably not like this.

At its heart, Theology is simply the act of describing God. Atheists are theologians (or as Alvin Plantinga has often said, atheologians). They describe God. They say he doesn’t exist, and that’s a description. So, they are engaging in theology. Just like them, any time you’ve said or thought anything about God, you’ve engaged in theology. Just like math, the question is not if you will use it. The question is whether or not you will use it well.  You are a theologian.  But are you a good theologian?

Fortunately for those of you who hate math, there’s help available. If you have to determine an unknown value, you have to use Algebra. But perhaps you can get someone to help you with that. Maybe you have a calculator. Or you can Google it. The good thing about math is that getting the right answer is typically relatively simple once you know the principles.

But where’s our theological calculator? I don’t have one. What I do have is lots and lots of data (Scripture, Church History, personal experience, etc), and lots of people with which to process that data. That’s exactly what we should do. That’s how we check our answers, so to speak. If you think something about God, ask someone else. Cross-check your data. Explain why you think that. Then listen to what they have to say. Carefully weigh their data. Then invite another person to the table to share their data. Then another. And another. God gave us each other for a reason.  Unlike math, the teacher of this subject wants you to ask your neighbor.

Now you are having a theological discussion. And it’s not only theoretical. Your answer is a description of God. If that description is accurate, then it will lend itself towards a more accurate experience of Him. If it is inaccurate, you will expect the wrong sorts of things from Him. Like any relationship we want our expectations to be appropriate.  For instance, some people think God heals.  Some don’t.  If He doesn’t, then expecting Him to heal would likely end in frustration and pain.  But if He does, then we should ask for it and expect it.  How do we know which way is right?  We do careful theology.  We study.  We discuss with one another.  And we act accordingly.  Theology should be the most practical thing in your life.

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