In my first year of seminary, I (Amy) had a Greek professor who not only taught extremely well but who loved to joke with his students. He would joke about how Greek wasn’t like our theology classes, where we studied “rainbows and unicorns.” No! Greek was where we actually studied the Bible! He was entirely joking but I have often thought about how true this statement is – for a lot of people.
Why study theology? Shouldn’t we study the Bible instead? After all, the Bible is more important than theology. And theology isn’t really necessary . . . or is it?
But let’s back up. Before trying to convince anyone how necessary it is to do theology, an illustration will help demonstrate that everyone does theology when reading Scripture. Unconvinced? Read on.
Let’s take an example. Read this verse:
“For this is the way God loved the world; He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (NET).
What does this verse mean? Before continuing on, read the verse again (slowly) and give yourself 15-30 seconds to understand what it says.
Did you give yourself time to think about the verse? You’re ready to move on. Let’s dissect this verse and see how you did at not theologizing the verse.
First, what God loved the world? What God gave his only Son to save humankind? What God is this that offers a way of eternal life to everyone who believes in him? By claiming the evangelical view of God as the “Father” (one of the persons of the Trinity), you just did theology. Another Christian, in error, might claim this God as one substance who takes on the modes of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – distinct from the doctrinal view of the Trinity. There are, of course, repercussions of denying the Trinity (another discussion for another time).
Automatically, a person who reads this verse will view God as having certain characteristics. Perhaps you view this God as distant and uninvolved in your life (theism). Perhaps you view God as absolutely determining your life (determinism). Even if the verse continues to describe a hopeful offer (“eternal life”) from a downright disturbing outcome (“perish”), one may still ascribe to God that which is deserving of him or be completely in error.
Second, who is the world? John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world” that He gave his only Son. Salvation (ie: eternal life, and yes, my word choice is theological) is offered to the world. So who exactly is the world? Who gets “saved”? Some of you read this verse and automatically interpreted world as anyone who hears the gospel (Arminianism). Others of you interpreted it as only the elect (Calvinism). Still, other interpretations are that God will save everybody (Universalism), despite if they actually hear the gospel or not. Or maybe you had a different view.
Third, who is this “Son” of the Father? Some of you say “Jesus Christ” and answer correctly. Let’s just go with Jesus Christ of the Bible. What do you mean by Jesus Christ? Did he actually exist? Did he actually save the world? Did he die and rise again? Would you describe him as the “Godman” (100% God and 100% man)? Who is he and what did he do to ensure eternal life? John 3:16 says he offers salvation so what did he do to ensure it? Did he actually ensure it? Is salvation offered by following his moral example and thus receive this eternal life (Moral Theory) or was he our substitute and salvation is offered through faith (Substitutionary Atonement)?
Keep in mind that interpretation is doing theology. And since we interpret Scripture every time we read the Bible, we do theology. So theology is necessary because it’s automatic. But it’s also necessary to do theology well, to do more than just read a verse or a passage and think we know what it means, close our Bibles, and walk away.
What difference does it make? What’s at stake if we don’t do theology well? Does it really matter if we differ in what “world” means in John 3:16? Does it really make a difference if some believe that all will be saved, or if only those who hear the gospel will be saved, or that God only died for the elect? Yes! Does it matter how we define God? Yes! Does it matter how we describe God’s Son? Yes! But perhaps the most at stake is how we answer the question of how a person receives salvation.
In order to receive eternal life we have to believe in Jesus because John 3:16 says so. So what do you believe about him? And what do we have to believe? Well, if you believe you just have to be good like Jesus, then it’s all up to you to do enough good to get into heaven. That’s a lot of work and not even a guarantee – because how much good do you have to do? How much is enough? The problem is that even one bad thing discredits you because God requires perfection. One wrong move for an athlete in the Olympics deducts him points – even if every movement before and after that error was perfect. Believing in Jesus as our substitutionary atonement means he was our perfect sacrifice. He was 100% without error. And it is his perfection that removes our guilt. His perfection was the perfect sacrifice. So it is his death and resurrection that makes it possible for us to enter into heaven. God does the work for us. We are asked to believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our sins and we will have eternal life.
“For this is the way God loved the world; He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
For a full exegetical argument and explanation of John 3:16, click here.