Everyone is a theologian! The question is not whether you are a theologian or not, but whether you are a good one or a poor one. When we think about theology, we can become narrow minded. Theology sounds stiff and boring. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. The breadth of theology lies along a spectrum of reflection from “folk theology” to “academic theology.” The late Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson in their book Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God 1 suggests that there are five kinds of Theology. They are listed below.
What is folk theology? It is unreflective believing, which is based on blind faith in some sort of tradition. This is not a criticism of believers who have not been tutored in formal theology. It is, however, a theology void of critical reflection and embraces simplistic acceptance of beliefs that are built around clichés and legends.
Folk theology can be seen in every religion, denomination, and among those who do not consider themselves a part of a denomination. Spiritual piety and intellectual reflection are seen as antithetical to one another. Folk Theology is often experiential and pragmatic; the criteria for true belief are feelings and results. Folk theology is often expressed by Christian bumper stickers, shallow choruses, and clichés. The church has been duped into believing almost anything. Among the latest is that God has hidden a special code in the original text of Scripture that provides the true meaning of the text. Folk theologians often seem to be living by the old quip, “Don’t confuse me with any facts; my mind is already made up.” Folk theology encourages gullibility, vicarious spirituality, and simplistic answers to difficult problems that come when living in a secular and pagan world.
Folk theology begets sacred cows. One can starve and be “tossed by every wind of doctrine” if sacred cows are not butchered. Sacred cows make great gourmet burgers.
The difference between folk theology and lay theology is reflection. Lay theology begins when a person starts to question the simplistic, superstitious, and childish (which is different than child-like) beliefs of folk theology. While lay theology may lack sophisticated tools, it begins to put the mind into action and thinks about issues. Lay theology begins when a believer begins to think about the words of the choruses being sung in worship. Do I believe what I’m being asked to sing? People who begin to think and question are often held at arm’s length by those with a folk theology. This reaction often discourages a person from continuing to think and ask questions to gain a more examined and reasonable faith. Non-thinking believers give the impression that Christianity is anti-intellectual and often prefer comfortable myths to reasoned faith.
The difference between lay theology and trained theology is that trained theology is developed by the active pursuit of some training in theology. It is more reflective than lay theology. Again the church has been hoodwinked into believing that trained theology is for professional ministers. This is simply not true. Because all believers are called to minister, believers need to be equipped as ministers for teaching, preaching, exhorting, and evangelism. Lay Bible institutes, correspondence courses, or evening church courses can enrich the ability to interpret Scripture and apply it to everyday life situations.
Professional theology is often a vocation that uses advanced tools to think and reflect about theological issues and how they relate to the present world. Professional theologians use critical thinking as a matter of course. This may sometimes make them seem to be skeptical of Christian beliefs. Professional theologians teach pastors in church-related colleges, seminaries, or universities. It is a servant role. It serves the Christian community by helping people think so they can be more effective in their witness, work, and service to Jesus and his church.
Academic Theology is highly speculative, philosophical, and is often aimed at a dialog with other theologians. It may be disconnected from the church and often has little to do with Christian living. These disconnects can lead to questioning the value of academic theology for the life of faith.
So Who Needs Theology?
Folk theology and Academic theology have little to no value in the life of the believer. In my opinion, folk theology has no redeemable value, while academic theology may have some theological nuggets to digest from time to time.
So who needs theology? The individuals that make up the community of God called the church. Believers need to grow in their faith. Of course, every believer does not need to become a professional theologian, but should be processing out of folk theology and moving toward trained theology. Dr. Ed Cook suggests:
Much of our theological outlook comes from unchallenged ideas that have been popularized from theology and passed down from generation to generation in such a way that common Christian beliefs might be accurately described as a folk religion. That is not to say that all common Christian beliefs are wrong, but only that investigating common Christian beliefs in light of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience may help a person of faith sort out truth from error and discover ways to live into the larger story of God.
Questions to Consider
- What “folk theology” do you hold?
- Where did you get your “folk theology from?
- Why do you hold on to it and debate it so fervently?
- What steps can you make in the next few days to shed yourself of that pesky “folk theology” and begin to move toward being “trained?”
- Genesis 1-11: A Continental Commentary
- The New American Commentary Volume 1 – Genesis 1-11
- Genesis 1-11: Tales of the Earliest World
- The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament)
- The NIV Application Commentary Genesis
- Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic 1996), 27-34. Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God ↩