What is Theology? With Reference to Charles Ryrie, Millard Erickson, and Special Reference to John Webster

Theology is used frequently, and very often, generically. I use it in a certain way, personally, with a certain understanding when I use it. But what has become apparent to me, particularly because of a recent post on FaceBook, is that what theology and theologian actually entail, definitionally, is not as apparent as I had thought. In this post I will try to offer some definition of what I mean when I refer to theology and theologian.

When I first graduated high school in 1992 I attended what at that time was called Southwestern College in Phoenix, Arizona. For my first semester Systematic Theology class we used Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology.[1] Here is my first real exposure to a definition of what Systematic Theology, or simply theology entails:

The word “theology,” from theos meaning God and logos meaning rational expression, means the rational interpretation of religious faith. Christian theology thus means the rational interpretation of the Christian faith.

At least three elements are included in that general concept of theology. (1) Theology is intelligible. It can be comprehended by the human mind in an orderly, rational manner. (2) Theology requires explanation. This, in turn, involves exegesis and systematization. (3) The Christian faith finds its source in the Bible, so Christian theology will be a Bible-based study. Theology, then, is the discovery, systematizing, and presentation of the truths about God.[2]

This a pretty straight-forward vanilla understanding of what theology is. There are components hidden within Ryrie’s definition that I think need some interrogating, and we will do some of that as this post proceeds.

After my first exposure to Ryrie’s theology I left Southwestern (after a semester), and just went home and starting working. After awhile though the Lord, through some circumstances, began to tug on my heart which eventuated in me enrolling and attending Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Oregon. The primary, school-wide, go-to Systematic Theology text used at Multnomah was Millard Erickson’s Introducing Christian Doctrine (this text was used at both the under-grad and grad levels). This became the occasion for my next exposure to a definition of what theology entails. Erickson writes:

To some readers, the word doctrine may prove somewhat frightening. It conjures up visions of very technical, difficult, abstract beliefs, perhaps grounded dogmatically. Doctrine is not that, however. Christian doctrine is simply statements of the most fundamental beliefs that the Christian has, beliefs about the nature of God, about his action, about us who are his creatures, and about what he has done to bring us into relationship with himself. Far from being dry or abstract, these are the most important types of truths. They are statements on the fundamental issues of life: namely, who am I, what is the ultimate meaning of the universe, where am I going? Christian doctrine is, then, the answers that the Christian gives to those questions that all human beings ask.

Doctrine deals with general or timeless truths about God and the rest of reality. It is not simply the study of specific historical events, such as what God has done, but of the very nature of the God who acts in history. The study of doctrine is known as theology. Literally, theology is the study of God. It is the careful, systematic study, analysis, and statement of Christian doctrine. Certain of its characteristics will help us understand the nature of the theological enterprise:

1.Theology is biblical….2.Theology is systematic….3.Theology is done in the context of human culture. 4. Theology is contemporary….5. Theology is practical….[3]

These were my first exposures to what theology entails. At a certain level they are pretty benign and descriptive: i.e. theology is the study of God. But on further analysis what these definitions, respectively, provide for, despite Erickson’s protest that theology is not dry and abstract, is a rather intellective-centered, abstractive process of reducing Scripture and God to propositions. And in Erickson’s case, he sees theology quite philosophically, even “world-viewish,” as if a primary task of Christian doctrine is to provide answers to profane philosophical questions about the meaning of life and so forth.

This was not satisfying for me, but until I hit seminary these were the types of definitions of theology I “labored” under. When I finally hit seminary in 2002 things changed. Dr. Ron Frost, my historical theology and ethics professor in seminary, introduced me to historical theology. At this point I realized that theology had a history, and that there was whole lineage underlying the ideas and doctrine I understood to be Christian Systematic Theology. At this point my horizons broadened and the world opened up; I began to read Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Sibbes, Perkins, Gunton, Barth, et al. and the world of theology took on a whole new shape and hopefulness for me.

One thing led to another over the years, and I am where I am currently. Once Frost (and Paul Metzger) opened these doors for me, and as I went through them and kept reading and studying I of course bumped up against Thomas F. Torrance and Karl Barth, and then John Webster (and others). For the rest of this post I will engage with, in particular, Webster’s thoughts on what theology entails.

I am going to share from Webster at extenso (at some length!), as you read what Webster has to say—and it will require some sustained attention on your part to follow the various lines he is tracing—you might think “hmm, this sounds a lot like what was shared from Ryrie and Erickson.” Superficially that could be the case, but if you pay attention closely you will see that Webster is actually critiquing the approach that Ryrie and Erickson describe; Webster highlights the ontology of theology as couched within soteriology and theology proper, as if theology as a human endeavor has an ordered place relative to God and the idea that God has spoken (Deus dixit). Here is Webster:

The presentation of the genus and tasks of systematic theology has to begin quite far back. Understanding what systematic theology (or any other division of theological study) is about depends upon grasping the nature and ends of rational creatures; and such an account rests finally upon an understanding of God and the works of God. Systematic theology is an exercise of reason in the domain of God’s saving and revelatory goodness to creatures. Undertaking it well requires that practitioners orient the work of the mind within that domain, in order to receive instruction and assistance in their task. This is why a primary requirement of the pursuit of the task – neglect of which is so easy and so disastrous – is the confidentia divini auxillii of which Aquinas spoke in the prologue to the Summa theologiae.

To unfold the matter a little more full: (1) Determining the possibility, nature and responsibilities of theology requires appeal to material theological doctrine. Indeed, prolegomena to systematic theology is an extension and application of the content of Christian dogmatics (Trinity, creation, fall, reconciliation, regeneration and the rest), not a ‘pre-dogmatic’ inquiry into its possibility. ‘[D]ogmatics does not wait for an introduction.’ The fact that in its prolegomena systematic theology invokes doctrine means that this preliminary stage of the argument does not bear responsibility for establishing the possibility of true human speech about God, or for demonstrating how infinite divine truth can take finite form in human knowing. Prolegomena is, rather, the contemplative exercise of tracing what is the case, and explicating how and why it is so. (2) More closely: specifying a theological sense of scientia is a derivative task, one to be undertaken only after clarification of the economy of salvation and revelation within which theological reason fulfils its calling. Recall the order of the very first two articles of the Summa theologiae: Aquinas only asks whether Christian theology is a science (1a. 1.2) after asking whether another teaching is required apart from philosophical studies (Ia. 1. 1) and, crucially, the answer which he gives to the first question is, in essence, an appeal to the saving and revelatory works of God as that by which the human good is secured and made known. ‘It should be urged that human well being [salus] called for schooling in what God has revealed, in addition to the philosophical researches pursued by human reasoning.’ The setting of theology is thus not simply the immanent sphere of human inquiry, but the transcendent vocation of rational creatures. Schooling in divine revelation is necessary ‘because God destines us for an end beyond the grasp of reason … Now we have to recognise an end before we can stretch out and exert for it. Hence the necessity for our welfare [salus] that divine truths surpassing reason should be signified to us through divine revelation’. (3) A definition of theology and its various tasks thus rests upon teaching about God and the human good; and the deepest disagreements about the nature of theology commonly arise, not simply from divergent conceptions of scientia, but from differing understandings of God and the creatures of God.

Adopting this starting point in the context of mainstream Anglo-American scholarly study of systematic theology presumes what Lewis Ayres has called ‘a wider critique of the culture of systematic theology’. Much might be said by way of analysis of that culture (or cultures: at least on the surface there is not much consensus). One feature, commonly encountered but not often remarked upon, is that of granting a certain priority to an understanding of systematic theology as a mode of public engagement over systematic theology as an act of contemplative intelligence. Positioning systematic theology in this way affects not only conceptions of the ends of theology (as, essentially, a practical science of Christian history and action), but also conceptions of its sources, its modes of argument, the virtues required of its practitioners and – and most of all – its material content, for in systematic theologies of this type, rather little tends to be said of God in se. This may go along with disinclination for, even suspicion of, systematic theology as dogmatics, and preferences for conceptions of the systematic task as open, free and cumulative learning.[4]

As usual with Webster he is careful to sketch out a theological taxis or order or ontology even for defining what theology is in the first place. As Webster does with his doctrine of Scripture, here in his defining of theology, he acknowledges, as he must, that theological endeavor is a creaturely and intellective endeavor, but he places that activity within the realm of God’s Triune life and Self-revelation; more particularly he places theological activity within the prior reality of salvation. It is here where genuine doxological reflection about God can take place. It at this point that theology has the capacity and resource to press deeply into the interior reality of God, and where theology is not just an exercise in answering philosophical world-view questions (Erickson) or a process of rational abstraction (Ryrie and Erickson). Instead, theology is a dialogical exercise where Christians engage with the living God and make Him known as they participate in His effervescent life.

Theology for the Christian, as Webster hits upon, can take on different cues and diverse shape; depending upon the conception of God the theologian starts out with to begin with. Theology in its most base form is simply study of God, but after that things pick up and we get into the complexities of how that task takes shape; and under what type of pressure. I would contend with Webster that the best pressure is the pressure provided for by God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ; this should be the context the theologian operates within, a context where doxology and the living Triune God are at its center.

I would like to say much more, and unfortunately this post ended up taking a bit of a different shape than I’d hoped for in the beginning; but hopefully there has been something interesting communicated.




[1] Which might clue you in on what type of school it was. It was a Conservative Baptist Bible College, with all the doctrinal distinctives and culture that typically attends a Conservative Baptist Bible College.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (USA/Canada/England: Victor Books, 1986), 13.

[3] Millard J. Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine, ed. L. Arnold Hustad (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1992), 15-16.

[4] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark International A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 133-35.