Maurice Wiles and the Definition of Theology

OxfordThere are many questions in life with the potential for multidisciplinary and eternal significance. Among these are such questions as “Is there a god?”, “Do right and wrong exist?”, and “What happens when we die?” [1] Theologian Maurice Wiles adds to this list yet another question in his book titled What is Theology? To begin this work, Reverend Wiles defines theology as “reasoned discourse about God.”[2] If the term theology is broken down into its semantic parts, “theos” means “God” and “logos” means “word” or “reason.”[3] Therefore the definition of the Oxford English Dictionary is fitting: “the study and nature of God; religious beliefs and theory when systematically developed.”

Wiles goes on to say that the work of Christian theology is to provide a coherent account of the teachings of the Bible taking into account more than Church history. While Wiles is correct in saying that it’s difficult to determine where certain doctrines began, it seems clear that the development of Christian doctrine through councils and creeds appeared for several reasons.[4] First, there was apologetics. Early Christians were under constant scrutiny, first from the Jews who thought they were committing blaspheme by preaching multiple Gods, and then by the Greeks who felt that early Christians couldn’t understand the difference between one person, two people, and even three persons. Second, certain Christian doctrines and beliefs were developed and confessed by thinking Christians who sought deeper implications of their beliefs.[5]

What is Theology (Wiles)However, the one aspect that affected the creation of formal doctrines and creeds the most was theological heresy. In The Making of Christian Doctrine, Wiles argues that heresies made the Christian Church commit to beliefs that are not Biblical.[6] Wiles is correct in saying that homoousios is not explicitly discussed in the New Testament, but there is sufficient evidence that this idea can be derived from the words of Christ in John chapters 10[7] and 17[8]. Originally, even the more philosophical doctrines of the Christian church find their root in the words of Scripture and the beliefs of the Church. While Greek philosophy was useful in combating early Christian heresy, it is important to realize that philosophy has never been the basis for good theology.[9]

Wiles specifically discusses the topic of the eminence of scripture, making clear that the Christian Church has never been without scripture of some kind, whether it was the “Jewish” Old Testament or the emerging “Christian” New Testament.[10] It is important to note that even in the absence of widely accepted new revelation, the development of Christian doctrine and apologetics progressed. The message of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, the core of the Christian faith, were not some late blooming philosophized ideals that suddenly emerged after years of debate; we see them professed in early in the book of Acts. Christ crucified and Christ raised –this is the core of Christian theology.

Church-HistoryRegarding Church History, Wiles discusses how history is an important part of theology, and the importance of using both church and world history to provide context. Through the ages, there have been many schools of thought concerning Biblical interpretation and meaning. Even among the Church Fathers, there was discrepancy in interpretation. Many Alexandrian Fathers held the Bible to be more allegorical and open for interpretation, where as others such as John Chrysostom held a more literal interpretation of scripture.[11] For most of human history, the meaning of a written text had been embedded in what the author intended to convey. Yet in recent years the idea that the text itself has meaning or that the reader assigns meaning to the text have grown increasingly popular. A result of these views on interpretation is that the same text can give different readings to different readers, and ultimately, the meaning of a text is lost. Without the text of the Bible, theology is based solely upon the precepts of philosophy and reason. This is not to say that such theology is completely baseless, but how are we to know that fallen minds have been correct in their reasoning without a guide to help them along? Any blind man can claim to have walked a straight line, but only with a standard can he proved correct.

When discussing the topic of Christian Doctrine, Wiles writes that doctrine is “inescapably confessional” but “Theology, by contrast, is the attempt to elucidate those truths and to apprehend their significance more fully.”[12] Why this distinction between theology and doctrine? Every person has a framework within which they interpret the events of the world around them. From this “worldview”, each person holds beliefs which answer the “ultimate questions” in life. Whether a person consciously knows it or not, how they live reveals what they believe about topics such as theology, philosophy, ethics, biology, sociology, law, politics, psychology, economics, and history. Thus, every person holds a set of theological beliefs –their own individual theology; perhaps not explicit doctrines, but theology nonetheless. Often times, people have bad theology because they have failed to study God. Consider baseball: Everyone can (and probably does) have an opinion about baseball. Yet, in order to have a valuable view, one must be informed concerning baseball. In the same way, everyone has a view of God, and thus the study of God enables one to better know and formulate opinions concerning the nature and person of God. Charles Ryrie says that “there is nothing wrong with being an amateur theologian or a professional theologian, but there is everything wrong with being an ignorant or sloppy theologian.” Thus the question becomes, ‘how do we learn to perform good theology?’

Bible CommentaryWhen addressing how to do good theology, Wiles equates study of the Bible, Church history, and basic reason with the other sciences, saying “Theology should be seen as having the same sort of relationship to the other science as they have to one another.”[13] This is becoming an increasingly less favorable view, as many seek to draw a line of distinction between the realms of faith and reason.[14] In years past however, theology was regarded as the “Queen of the Sciences”. Why has there been such a change? The idea that reason should rule all may have certain merit. Yet there are questions which mystify Reason: Does man have a soul? Is there spiritual existence? Is there an afterlife? What about Heaven and Hell? These are metaphysical questions, not the type that can readily be answered by a physicists or a psychologist. While the sciences have developed incredibly since the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, to ascribe to them the omniscient status that God has held for so long seems an error. In the same vein, to decry all metanarrative or all knowledge seems to be a step in the wrong direction. There is nothing wrong with reason, but we cannot rely solely upon it for answers to absolutely everything.

Theology can be simply defined as the “study of God”, and thus it is. But the study of God is much more than an abstract idea that can be confined to a classroom. What a person believes about God will affect who they are and how they live. There are many disagreements within the Christian faith concerning matters of Biblical interpretation, Church History, and issues of doctrine of many sorts. Yet within all of this turmoil, there is the belief that Jesus Christ came to earth, died, was resurrected and will come again. True theology is to live out that belief.



[1] This essay was originally written for “The Development of Christian Doctrine” by Margaret Yee, Oxford University Hilary Term 2011. [2] Maurice Wiles. What is Theology? London: Oxford University Press, 1976. 1. [3] Ibid. [4] Marice Wiles. The Making of Christian Doctrine. London: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 5. [5] Ibid., 35-36. [6] Ibid., 31-33. [7] “So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.'” John 10:24-30 ESV. [8] “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. ” John 17:20-24 ESV. [9] Michael E. Bauman. “Tertullian and Justin Martyr.” Summit Ministries. Pagosa Springs, CO. Lecture, 30 Sept. 2009. [10] Wiles, Doctrine, 42. [11] J. N. D. Kelly. Early Christian Doctrines, Fifth Edition. London: Continuum, 2009. 72, 76. [12] Wiles, Doctrine, 42-43. [13] Wiles, Theology, 69. [14]  This idea is itself often called ridiculous. As Michael Bauman states in his book Pilgrim Theology, “To declare science a procedurally-agnostic or atheistic endeavor is to have a theology…” You cannot have just faith or just reason.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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