William AmesTheology. What exactly is theology? Quite literally, we might say that it is a word (logos) about God (theos). One of the most renowned phrases employed to explain theology comes from the Middle Ages, when Anselm of Canterbury (ca. 1033–1109), in his Proslogion, described it as “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). Generally speaking, when we think of theology, we think of thinking. It is something we conceive in our minds and believe.

While this may be the common perception, many in Christian history have, in fact, connected theology with practice. The English Puritan William Ames (1576–1633) does this quite starkly in the opening of his highly influential The Marrow of Theology, which became a standard theological textbook in seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century New England, leaving its imprint particularly on the likes of Jonathan Edwards. In his Marrow, Ames defines theology as “the doctrine or teaching [doctrina] of living to God.”

Ames fleshed out this active view of theology in the rest of his volume by connecting faith (book 1) with observance (book 2), the two basic elements—in Ames’s mind—of theology. I provide a few excerpts below from book 1, chapter 1 in Ames’s Marrow to illustrate how he framed his overarching approach to theology, an approach that highlighted the active, volitional implications of thinking about God:

1. Theology is the doctrine or teaching [doctrina] of living to God. . . .

2. It is called doctrine, not to separate it from understanding, knowledge, wisdom, art, or prudence—for these go with every exact discipline, and most of all with theology—but to mark it as a discipline which derives not from nature and human inquiry like others, but from divine revelation and appointment. . . .

4. Every art has its rules to which the work of the person practicing it corresponds. Since living is the noblest work of all, there cannot be any more proper study than the art of living.

5. Since the highest kind of life for a human being is that which approaches most closely the living and life-giving God, the nature of theological life is living to God.

6. Men live to God when they live in accord with the will of God, to the glory of God, and with God working in them. . . .

8. Although it is within the compass of this life to live both happily and well, εὐζωία, living well, is more excellent than εὐδαιμονία, living happily. What chiefly and finally ought to be striven for is not happiness which has to do with our own pleasure, but goodness which looks to God’s glory. For this reason, theology is better defined as that good life whereby we live to God than as that happy life whereby we live to ourselves. . . .

10. Now since this life so willed is truly and properly our most important practice, it is self-evident that theology is not a speculative discipline but a practical one. . . .

13. Theology, therefore, is to us the ultimate and the noblest of all exact teaching arts. It is a guide and master plan for our highest end, sent in a special manner from God, treating of divine things, tending towards God, and leading man to God. It may therefore not incorrectly be called θεοζωία, a living to God, or θεουργία, a working towards God, as well as theology.[1]

 

[1] William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, ed. John Dykstra Eusden (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1968), 77–78.

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