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. 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, 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.
This essay is the first in a two-part series; part two may be found here. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Systematic Theology, vol. 1, pg. 4-5. Dallas Theological Seminary: Dallas, TX: 1947.
Calhoun, David. Ancient and Medieval Church History, Augustine and Pelagian Controversy, Lesson 16, pg. 6. St. Louis: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2007.