Seven Theological Virtues
Our vision at Rooted & Grounded is to create theological content to grow the church in our knowledge of God in order that we would grow in our love for him and for our neighbor. Within this phrase is a statement of what we do and our goal in doing it. My aim in this article is to explain what we mean by “theological content.” In other words, I hope to answer the question: what is good theology?
Drawing upon Ephesians 3:14-21, we have identified seven key truths about good theology that emphasize the nature of theology and explain its value for our lives. While this list is by no means exhaustive, it does provide a framework for how to think through our study of who God is and what he has done for us in Jesus Christ.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
1. Good theology is biblical.
By drawing these seven principles from a passage of Scripture, we want to emphasize the importance of the Bible for knowing God.
In God’s grace, he has revealed himself to us. He has made himself known in order that we might know him. We see truths about him in his creation, but we only come to a saving knowledge of him through his Word and by his Spirit helping us understand the Scriptures. The necessity of his Word to know him is found in the fact that it is only by Scripture that Jesus Christ is revealed to us. Jesus tells us, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), and the only way we see Jesus is through the words of Scripture.
If we would know God, then we must come to know him as he has revealed himself to us in his Word. This truth means that Scripture is our primary source and our final authority for theology. As we consider who God is and what he has done, there are numerous factors shaping how we understand our Creator and Redeemer. We do not theologize in a vacuum. Our personalities, experiences, and cultures shape the way we think of God. The traditions in which we were raised influence both the content and the method of our theology. Our various educational backgrounds and our own reason effect how we understand God. We would be wise to consider the way these various influences shape our theology - often in subtle ways - but our primary source and final authority for theology is the Bible.
2. Good theology is Trinitarian.
Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3 is Trinitarian. He prays to the Father (v. 14) that the Ephesians would be strengthened through the Holy Spirit (v. 16) in order that Christ would dwell in their hearts through faith (v. 17).
As with Paul’s prayer, theology should be Trinitarian. That is to say, theology must consider God as he has revealed himself in his Word as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Being Trinitarian in our theology is nothing short of being Christian in our thinking about God. To do theology Christianly is to theologize in a Trinitarian manner.
As we begin to consider who God is, our understanding of God will be of him as the tri-unity. He is three-in-one and one-in-three. The church has used the language of essence and persons to attempt to describe this reality. God is one essence; he is one, unified being. He has no separate parts but is a unified whole. And yet, in this one God, there are three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We affirm three key truths: (1) God is one, (2) God is three persons, and (3) each of these three persons is fully God.
God’s nature requires that we think in Trinitarian terms as we consider him, but we also must view his works through a Trinitarian lens. The works of the Godhead are inseparable. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work in union in all matters from creation to redemption to recreation. However, we do identify a specific person of the Godhead with particular activities. In salvation, for example, the Father ordains, the Son wins, and the Spirit applies redemption. The three persons of God work in complete unity to accomplish the salvation of his people. The study of God must take into account the biblical record that reveals God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who acts in complete unison to save his people.
3. Good theology is doxological.
Theology should lead to doxology. In other words, the study of God should result in the worship of God. Ephesians 3:20-21 highlights the reality that God is worthy of all worship. He should be glorified in the church and in Christ for all time.
If God is indeed “the first and best of beings,” he rightly deserves our worship. His power and his character reveal him as one who is worthy of all praise. The more we consider who God is and what he has done for us in Christ, the more we will desire to worship him. Our God is a subject that the more we know about him, the more we will see his worthiness to be praised.
If our theology does not lead us to the praise and worship of God, then we need to consider the content and the method of our theology. Let us not forget that the subject of our study is none other than the Creator and Redeemer of the world. He is the one, true, and living God. He is the only God, our Savior, to whom belongs “glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 25).
4. Good theology engenders love.
Closely linked with the worship of God in and through theology is the fact that our theology should grow us in our love for God. This growth begins, of course, with the recognition that God first loved us. Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians in 3:17-19 is that they would come to know the love of Christ and so be filled with the fullness of God.
As we come to see God’s love for us in Christ, we will be filled with love for him, and this love for him will overflow into love for others. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), and out of this love for us, he calls us to love him “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Jesus continues from this first and greatest commandment and calls upon us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31). These two commands are intimately linked. We will not properly love our neighbor apart from loving God, and we cannot say we love God if we do not love others (1 John 4:20).
Augustine identifies this double love - the love of God and of neighbor - as his key for interpreting all of Scripture:
Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scripture or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all.
- Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.36.40, trans. D. W. Robertson (Prentice-Hall, 1958).
Reading of Scripture and theologizing from it should lead us to love God and our neighbor more.
5. Good theology is practical.
Good theology is practical. Good theology changes how we live. The practicality of good theology is intimately tied to point 4. It is difficult to imagine something more practical than loving another, particularly as it manifests itself in caring for someone in need. In Ephesians 3, this prayer itself demonstrates Paul’s love for the Ephesians. His affection for them leads him to desire their good. He works hard and prays for their own spiritual growth.
Theology is practical for our lives with one another, but we could also broaden this to say that good theology is practical for all of life. William Ames describes theology as “the doctrine of living to God.” People, he elaborates, “live to God when they live according to the will of God, to the glory of God, God inwardly working in them (1 Pet. 4.2-6) that [they] might live after the will of God.” Theology is about living life in a manner that honors God. Theology helps us to approach everyday with the goal of glorifying our Lord, and yet, as Ames highlights, only as God works in us can we live in such a manner. In this same paragraph, Ames continues, “Christ Jesus lives in me [in order] that the life of Jesus might be manifest in our bodies. . . Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (William Ames, The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, 1.6).
I highlight Ames here because he went to great lengths to show that theology is not just about knowledge but concerns the will as well (Marrow, 1.9). Our desire with this site and the content we produce is to help the church grow in our understanding of God, but knowledge alone cannot be the end goal. True theology effects our hearts and our wills as well. Good theology shapes how we live.
6. Good theology is communal.
Good theology is communal. Stated negatively, good theology cannot be done in isolation. In his wisdom, God has saved us into a community of faith, the church. As you come to faith in Christ you are united to Christ, and through that union with him, you are united to his body, the church. Through Christ, we are one with our fellow believers. The church is where we grow in knowing God.
The communal nature of theology is subtle but clear in Ephesians 3. First and foremost, this prayer is for the whole church of Ephesus. By its nature, then, this is a communal exercise. Paul enhances the shared nature of contemplating the love of Christ when prays for this church that they would “have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” Knowing the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge - which is a great way to summarize the task of theology - is something that the church in Ephesus joins with all other believers in pursuing.
Practically speaking, the communal nature of theology means that individual believers need to be committed to a local church. It is this localized, specific community of faith where the work of theology will be done week in and week out as one hears God’s Word faithfully preached and taught, discusses it in small groups, and is held accountable to it through personal relationships.
The body of Christ extends beyond your local church to include believers from all times and locations. Another way, then, that theology is communal is through resources from other believers throughout the world and throughout the history of the Christian faith.
In his introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis highlights the value of reading old books:
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. . . .The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.
The Holy Spirit works in us individually to help us understand the Scriptures that he inspired, but he has also been at work and continues to work in others helping them to read and to interpret his holy Word. We would do well to heed the wisdom of the church as a whole, hearing from historical voices and voices from around the world.
7. Good theology is eschatological.
Eschatology is the study of the last things, and so to say that good theology is eschatological means that theology looks forward to our future hope. Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3 has at least two forward-looking elements. First, the doxology at the end of the prayer clearly points to a future hope: “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” This is a prayer that God would be glorified for eternity. Second, the goal of this prayer is “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,” which is an everlasting pursuit. We will always be growing in our knowledge of this love that surpasses knowledge. We will be able to contemplate God’s love for us in Christ for an eternity and still not comprehend it to the fullest degree.
To say that good theology is eschatological is to say that theology should give us hope. It gives us hope that Christ is king, that he is putting all his enemies under his feet, that he will raise and judge all people, that he will make all things new, and that he will usher his people into the new creation. Theology points us to our future hope in Christ.
While we look forward to Christ’s return, good theology also helps us recognize that we are already living in the last days. Hebrews 1:1-2 speaks of our current age as the last days. The cross of Christ is the turning point of history, so that as we live on the other side of the cross, we are in the last days. Christ Jesus tells that the kingdom of God is at hand; it is already present because he has come. However, the kingdom has not yet come in its completeness. Theology points us to the hope that will come when Christ returns but also helps us live in this present age.