Many Christians know that something mysterious and powerful happens on the cross—and that it has something to do with salvation. They know that God created out of nothing. They know that Jesus was both human and divine. But what do those various doctrines and concepts have to do with one another? This is what Napkin Theology is all about. It is an accessible, rich introduction to Christian theology, illustrated with simple, memorable drawings that describe the classic concepts of Christian belief. In reading Napkin Theology, you can peer into the depths of two thousand years of theology in the length of a CliffsNotes guide. This is not Theology for Dummies; this is not watered-down. We explain terms like creatio ex nihilo and “eschatology,” because they contain truths that all Christians, and not just seminarians, should know. Theology is for everyone—so let’s start drawing.
[The following excerpt is pulled from the introduction of Napkin Theology.]
Recently, I (Emily) was telling a friend what I’d been learning in my Bible and theology classes when she interrupted me, looking rather embarrassed. “Sorry,” she said, “but I have a dumb question. What exactly is the difference between studying the Bible and studying theology? Aren’t they kind of the same thing?”
Her question wasn’t dumb—far from it. It took me a very long time to figure out what theology actually was. Unless you go to seminary or preach every week, it’s not really a word you hear that often.
But here’s the thing: even if you can’t describe what theology is, even if you’ve never heard the word before, you have still practiced theology at some point in your life.
So what is theology, anyway?
The word “theology” might conjure up images of bearded men with glasses who probably died a few centuries ago, poring over biblical commentaries and thinking Deep Thoughts. It might sound reminiscent of “biology” or “anthropology” or any number of “ologies” you’ve been forced to study.
In other words: it might not sound like something interesting, or relevant, or especially useful.
Yes, you’ll find a lot of bearded men (some of them with glasses) when you study theology. And yes, it is an “ology”—a field of study. When you start breaking the word apart even further, though, it doesn’t sound too bad.
Our word “theology” comes from two other words, ancient Greek words: theos and logos. Theos means “God.” Logos means “word.” It’s the same word used in the famous first verse of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Think of theology as a simple equation: God + word.
At its most basic level, theology is words and God, God and words. It’s words to God, words from God. It can also be words about God, which is often what people think theology is all about (remember the bearded men reading and thinking Deep Thoughts?). Really, however, theology is “God talk”—whether it’s God talking to us, us talking to God, or us talking about God and things related to God.
Of course, in practice, it’s a little more complicated. There are plenty of fancy terms and complicated lines of thinking to describe everything from creation to the last judgment (and everything in between). Theologians have developed a kind of shorthand to reference all the concepts and ideas they discuss. And unfortunately, that shorthand means a lot of people intrigued by God and the church think that theology is way too “academic,” way too “heady” for them to ever really understand it (or even be interested in it).
But think back to that most basic definition. Theology is “God talk”—which means that if you’ve ever talked about God or talked to God, then you’ve done your own kind of theological work, no matter how small it may seem. Even if you’ve never set foot in a seminary class, even if you’ve never read Augustine or Aquinas or Barth—and even if you’ve never heard of them—you’ve taken part in the world of theology.
If we’re already doing it, then why study it?
Theology can actually make your life better.
Really—hang with us here. The point of knowing things about theology is not to memorize terms and names so you can impress your friends or achieve a certain level of nerddom. The point of knowing anything about theology is so you can translate that knowing into doing, and more specifically following: following Jesus.
There’s a theologian named Beth Felker Jones who talks about how theology is primarily about becoming Jesus’ disciples. She writes that “we learn to speak and think well about God so that we can be more faithful followers of Jesus.” Theology, in its most basic sense, is “words + God.” Theology in its fullest sense is “words + God for the church, for the Christian.” If theology is not done with the intention of guiding believers into the ways of Jesus, it’s incomplete. It’s missing a vital element: faith.
People of faith need theology—good, sound, robust theology. You’ve probably heard the saying that goes “bad company corrupts good character.” Bad theology corrupts, well, everything. Throughout history, people have twisted their God-talk to justify all kinds of terrible things, from slavery to murder to domestic abuse. Right God-talk is needed to fight against that. It’s also needed to encourage fellow believers, to remind each other of what is true about our God.
We’ll discuss this more in the conversation about the theological term “revelation,” because many of the words we receive from God were first designed for a different audience than people today, in the twenty-first century. In theology, we often overhear other conversations, and we must be sensitive to that. For example, in the New Testament, we can read the apostle Paul’s letters to his protégé Timothy. And, well, we’re not Timothy—but we are the grateful recipients of that letter, which Christians before us deemed necessary to preserve. If we become arrogant and think that every word written throughout history is written directly to us, then it increases the chances that our God-talk won’t be accurate.
Studying theology gives us the humbling, exciting opportunity to study God and the things of God. It’s intensely personal—because when we study those things, we learn more and more about our own story. We learn about where we came from, where we’re going. We learn about the stains of sin that mar our lives. We learn about the God who saves and sustains us.
And all these ideas and concepts are interconnected—webs of thought, woven together.
You can’t study where we came from in the doctrines of creation without also thinking about the reality of sin: or, in technical terms, diving into some hamartiology. Thinking about doctrines of salvation means you’ll probably also think about eschatology: the field of study that deals with the last things, with where this whole universe is eventually going. It’s all part of this messy, wonderful feast of ideas that we call theology.
The book you hold in your hands is designed to make your approach to the table a little less daunting.
Hence the napkins.
When Tyler was a youth pastor and students would ask him questions about God and salvation and sin, he’d sometimes pull out a pen and a napkin. (He first learned this from his pastors and professors!) He’d draw a picture as he talked about their question, scribbling arrows and stick figures to help both him and the student understand the words a bit better.
Now Ty is a big believer in napkin theology—because theology is far from being the Ivy-League, ivory-tower thing so many people think it is. Theology involves so much of what we think about, sometimes on a daily basis: “What’s God up to? Why are we here? What’s this world all about?”
Napkin theology isn’t supposed to replace the big books and long lectures that address these same questions. But it is supposed to show that the most profound truths are much more accessible than we think they are.
Now go grab a pen and a napkin from the stack in your kitchen, or one of those Starbucks napkins that’s sitting in your car console. It’s time to start drawing.
Tyler Hansen works in Alumni Engagement and Development at Duke University. He is a graduate of Northern Seminary and Wheaton College and has served in various ministry roles.
Emily Lund serves as the communications specialist for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. She previously worked as an assistant editor for various brands at Christianity Today. She is a graduate of Duke Divinity School and George Fox University.