Tag Archives: Doing Theology

Theology as Discipleship 1

Keith Johnson’s Theology as Discipleship arose from his work in the classroom in which students sometimes asked concerning the value and relevance of theological study. His response is to “argue that the discipline of theology and a life of discipleship to Jesus Christ are integrally related because the practice of theology is one of the ways we participate in the life of the triune God” (12). His argument unfolds over seven chapters, beginning in the first with a historical narrative to explain how Christian theology became separated from Christian faith and the life of the church and discipleship; that is, it became subject to canons of thought and presuppositions alien to its own confession. In the early centuries of Christianity the context of theology was the church, and its practice was related to pastoral and devotional concerns, and faithful life in the world. The presupposed connection between theology and discipleship began slowly to change, however, during the medieval period when the discipline of theology became part of the university curriculum. This change accelerated in the modern era as the role of the university and what counted as academic learning evolved.

Theologians felt pressure to justify their conclusions according to the academic criteria that governed the university. This meant that rather than starting with faith—which might distort their ability to assess evidence rationally—they had to begin with universally accepted premises and employ the methods of critical reason. No longer could they appeal to the authority of the Bible or the church’s tradition to defend their claims (29).

This pressure intensified as modernity progressed, and Johnson notes a further shift that occurred with Schleiermacher, who argued that theologians should “demonstrate that the church’s practices are a ‘necessary element for the development of the human spirit,’” and that they should employ a genuinely deliberative character in their work (30, citing Schleiermacher, Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study, 10-11, 97). Theologians must now be scholars in addition to saints, and their work was not simply for the church but for the welfare of the modern state, and so they were accountable not only to the church but also to the university. The best theologians had always engaged other disciplines, seeking to draw them into the intellectual framework of Christian faith. Now the direction of engagement shifted: “Theologians interacted with these same disciplines not in order to reframe them in light of their faith but to secure theology’s place in the academy alongside every other discipline” (31).

Formerly, theologians had pursued theological training in order to acquire knowledge, habits and skills that would shape them into the pattern of Jesus Christ for the sake of their service to the church. … Now, with the discipline of theology housed primarily in the university, the primary goal of theological education was to provide students with the technical skills they needed to perform responsible critical enquiry so that the church’s faith and practice could be brought in line with the standards of critical reason (31-32).

Thus Johnson proposes that theology begin with its own distinctive confession—the lordship of Jesus Christ according to Romans 10:9—and work itself out from there in accordance with its own rationality and in dialogue with other disciplines. In Johnson’s view theology must be both faithful and academic; to require a division between these is to misunderstand the nature and practice of theological inquiry. The remainder of the book is his attempt to view the discipline in this light.

Why Study the Biblical Languages?

MelanchthonIn her The Roots of the Reformation Gillian Evans devoted many pages detailing the recovery of the biblical languages by the Renaissance and Christian humanists which played a decisive role in the Reformation. Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) claimed that Hebraei bibunt fontem, Graeci rivos, Latini paludes—“the Hebrews drank from the spring, the Greeks from a river, the Latins from a swamp” (Evans, Roots, 264).

For a thousand years Western Christianity had relied on the Latin Vulgate and the numerous commentaries and glosses that had arisen around that translation. Copyist errors, traditional and philosophical interpretations, and certain translational decisions by Jerome in the fourth century all muddied the waters of biblical interpretation. Hence the humanist and Reformation cry, Ad fontes!—“Back to the sources!”

One of the Reformers, Philipp Melanchthon insisted that learning the biblical languages was essential:

Led by the Holy Spirit, but accompanied by humanist studies, one should proceed to theology . . . but since the Bible is written in part in Hebrew and in part in Greek—as Latinists we drink from the stream of both—we must learn these languages, unless we want to be “silent persons” (Evans, 264).

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Likewise Martin Luther, according to biographer Scott Hendrix:

Erasmus need not have worried that Protestant reformers would destroy good scholarship. All the leading reformers were trained in the classics and most had earned advanced degrees. They had no intention of abolishing the study of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, since the knowledge of those languages helped to make the reformation possible. Writing to a familiar supporter in 1523 Luther emphasized that point:

“Do not worry that we Germans are becoming more barbarous than ever before or that our theology causes a decline in learning. Certain people are often afraid when there is nothing to fear. I am convinced that without humanist studies untainted theology cannot exist, and that has proven true. When humanist studies declined and lay prostrate, theology was also neglected and lay in ruin. There has never been a great revelation of God’s word unless God has first prepared the way by the rise and flourishing of languages and learning, as if these were the forerunners of theology as John the Baptist was for Christ” (Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, 169).

Luther’s final sentence is well worth considering. I have often repeated to my students a comment my former Greek professor made to me: “If you can learn to read the Scriptures in the original languages you will gain 20-25% additional insight into the text.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff & Wesley Hill on Same-Sex Marriage

wolterstorffA few weeks ago Nicholas Wolterstorff, a renowned Christian philosopher, publicly affirmed same-sex marriage in an address delivered at a Christian Reformed Church. According to a report of the lecture, Wolterstorff approached his subject by recounting how his own mind had changed:

Wolterstorff opened by acknowledging that he is not an authority on the matter, and as such, would present a narrative of his own journey to an affirming stance on same-sex marriage in the church.

It was through relatives, students and former students who were gay, as well as people in committed, same-sex relationships, that Wolterstorff was drawn to more closely consider the traditional views he’d grown up believing.

“I’ve listened to these people. To their agony. To their feelings of exclusion and oppression. To their longings. To their expressions of love. To their commitments. To their faith. So listening has changed me.”

Many Christians will resonate with Wolterstorff’s experience: they, too, have known and loved gay people, heard their stories, shared something of their struggles and longings, and hoped for something different. Still, as I read the account of his lecture, I was not convinced that Wolterstorff was dealing faithfully with the biblical texts he was citing—somewhat surprising for a Reformed Christian.

Wesley HillThen tonight, as I was preparing to post a short piece on this lecture, I came across a response to Wolterstorff’s lecture by Wesley Hill—who identifies as Christian, gay and celibate. Hill, author of Washed and Waiting and Spiritual Friendship, accused Wolterstorff of lacking hermeneutical charity, of taking cheap shots, and so of writing a shallow lecture. Hill writes,

Clearly, there exists in the church today the possibility of genuine, reasoned, substantive debate over the rightness of same-sex marriage. Some of the most humane and beautiful Christian writing I’ve read in recent years has come from same-sex-marriage advocates like the Episcopalian Eugene Rogers and the British feminist theologian Sarah Coakley. And that’s why Wolterstorff’s lecture is particularly dismaying: By firing cheap shots and caricaturing the traditional views he hopes to overturn, he hampers a debate whose depth and maturity could be further deepened.

The two papers are worth reading, not simply to engage the topic which occasioned the lecture and its response, but more importantly, to think about what it means to read Scripture and to practise theology.

Reading Karl Barth on Election (4)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:34-44, The Foundation of the Doctrine.

In the second sub-section of Barth’s prologue to the doctrine of election, he considers the source and foundation of the doctrine. He begins by identifying four insufficient bases for the doctrine including simple repetition of the tradition, the utility or usefulness of the doctrine, Christian experience, and a focus on the omnipotent divine will. Of these, Barth focuses especially on the third and fourth items which although wrong in form (52), are yet somewhat correct in intent or substance, in that they at least direct their attention to the elect person and the electing God. Barth declares his methodological hand early:

We must at this point recall the basic rule of all Church dogmatics: that no single item of Christian doctrine is legitimately grounded, or rightly developed or expounded, unless it can of itself be understood and explained as a part of the responsibility laid upon the hearing and teaching Church towards the self-revelation of God attested in Holy Scripture. Thus the doctrine of election cannot legitimately be understood or represented except in the form of an exposition of what God Himself has said and still says concerning Himself. It cannot and must not look to anything but the Word of God, nor set before it anything but the truth and reality of that Word (35).

Barth does not reject tradition, of course, but insists that it cannot be the subject and norm of dogmatic effort. Rather its function is to serve the Word.

But we shall be doing Calvin the most fitting honour if we go the way that he went and start where he started. And according to his own most earnest protestations, he did not start with himself, nor with his system, but with Holy Scripture as interpreted in his system. It is to Scripture that we must again address ourselves, not refusing to learn from that system, but never as ‘Calvinists without reserve.’ And it is to Scripture alone that we must ultimately be responsible (36).

In turning to Scripture, however, care must be exercised lest Scripture be misused:

Is it right to go to the Bible with a question dictated to us by experience, i.e., with a presupposition which has only an empirical basis, in order then to understand the statements of the Bible as an answer to this question, which means chiefly as a confirmation of the presupposition which underlies the question? … If it is to be a question of the divine judgment, as it must be in dealing with the doctrine of election, then Scripture must not be brought in simply as an interpretation of the facts of the case as given by our own judgment. The very facts which we consider must be sought not in the realm of our experience but in Scripture, or rather in the self-revelation of God attested in Scripture (38).

Barth insists that the doctrine of election cannot be read off our experience of the results of gospel proclamation and human response. Such an approach not only is a misuse of Scripture but presumes that the judgement of human experience is equivalent with divine judgement. Barth’s discussion in this matter, then, is a decisive repudiation of Calvin’s approach (39-41), whom he accuses of feeling very competent to distinguish “if not the reprobate, at least the stupid and deceived and wicked who in that age formed so distressingly large a majority of men” (40).

The fact which above all others inspired Calvin, and was thus decisive for the formation of his doctrine, was not at all the contrast between the Church on the one hand, and on the other the heathen world entirely unreached by the Gospel. … Again, it was not the positive observation that at all times the Gospel has both reached so many externally and also seemed to prevail over them internally. … [but] that other fact of experience which excites both pain and anger, the fact of the opposition, the indifference, the hypocrisy and the self-deception with which the Word of God is received by so many of those who hear it (80 per cent, according to the estimate there given). And it is this limiting experience, the negative in conjunction with the positive, which is obviously the decisive factor as Calvin thought he must see it. It was out of this presupposition, laid down with axiomatic certainty, that there arose for him the magnae et arduae quaestiones [great and difficult questions] for which he saw an answer in what he found to be the teaching of Scripture (39-40).

Behind this approach is a presupposition that election concerns God’s eternal and decisive foreordination of every individual in their private relation to God, which is then understood, on the basis of experience, in terms of election and rejection. Although Barth accepts that every person does indeed stand in a private and individual relation to God, and that this relation is indeed decisively determined by God’s election, he nevertheless rejects the presupposition that election is focussed first and primarily on the individual, and the corollary idea that each individual’s private relation to God is thereby unalterably established and determined in advance. God’s election is gracious and free, focussed specifically and primarily on Jesus Christ and his people, and only then on the individual (41-44). The great danger, Barth suggests, is that reading divine election from our experience of the fruitfulness or otherwise of the proclamation of the gospel will result in a portrayal of the electing God who resembles “far too closely the electing, and more particularly the rejecting theologian”! (41)

Reading Karl Barth on Election (1)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:3-12, The Orientation of the Doctrine .

Barth begins his account of the doctrine of election by reviewing the method he has applied in his earlier volume on the doctrine of God; that is, he will allow only Jesus Christ as he is attested in Scripture to be the first and final word in theology. Having established his methodological point, he goes on to insist that the doctrine of God can never be a doctrine of God alone, or put differently, a doctrine of a solitary or isolated God. A Christian doctrine of God—made known in Jesus Christ—includes the reality that God stands in a definite relation ad extra such that we cannot speak of God correctly apart from this relation. This relation is the covenant between God and the man, Jesus Christ, and the people represented by him. God’s decision for this covenant is a divine self-determination such that we can no longer think of God in abstraction from this man, covenant and relation (5-9).

Jesus Christ is indeed God in His movement towards man, or, more exactly, in His movement towards the people represented in the one man Jesus of Nazareth, in His covenant with this people, in His being and activity amongst and towards this people. Jesus Christ is the decision of God in favour of this attitude or relation. He is Himself the relation. It is a relation ad extra, undoubtedly; for both the man and the people represented in Him are creatures and not God. But it is a relation which is irrevocable, so that once God has willed to enter into it, and has in fact entered into it, He could not be God without it. It is a relation in which God is self-determined (7).

The covenant relation established by God has two aspects. First, because God is the sovereign lord of the covenant it is a covenant of grace, and thus of love and freedom, the covenant of the God who loves in freedom. Second, as Lord of the covenant, God claims humanity as his covenant partner. Grace also rules, and those claimed by God are made responsible to God. As such, election issues in ethics. “Being responsible” is the nature and meaning of human existence.

God ordained and created him as partner in this covenant; God elected and called him to that position; and in that position He makes him responsible. How could God draw him to Himself, as He does, without making him responsible? God constitutes this “being responsible” the whole meaning of his existence (12).

Barth’s Relentless Questions

Barth at DeskOne of the features of Barth’s mind and work concerns the relentless nature of his questions by which he penetrates his topic, lays open its inner dynamic, and presses his criticism. Barth probes and interrogates his conversation partners by means of his questions. An example is seen in Church Dogmatics II/2:63-64. Barth has shown that the Reformers and their heirs want to look to Jesus as the ground of their assurance with respect to divine election. Strong statements are found in the tradition, by Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Bullinger, the Helvetic Confession, the Formula of Concord, and so on. Nevertheless Barth subjects the tradition to a dozen probing questions, although ultimately, they are all variations of the one central question:

In all these texts, however, (even those of Luther and the Lutherans) there is something unsatisfactory about the christological reference, factually important though it undoubtedly is. The reason for this is that notwithstanding all these earnest protestations the following question still remains unanswered: Is it the intention of these thinkers that serious theological attention should be paid to the assertion that the election is to be known in Jesus Christ? Does this assertion contain the first and last word on the matter, the word by which we must hold conclusively, and beyond which we must not conceive of any further word? Is it a fact that there is no other basis of election outside Jesus Christ? Must the doctrine as such be related to this basis and this basis only? Must it take account only of this basis? In this matter of election are we noetically to hold by Christ and Christ alone because ontically there is no election and no electing God outside him? Or is it rather the case that we are to understand this assertion merely as an impressively stated pastoral rule, a practical direction regarding the attitude which, rebus sic stantibus [as things stand], we ought to adopt towards this matter if we are not to be plunged into doubt or despair? Is it the case, in fact, that behind the pastoral (and in some measure the historico-psychological) truth that God’s election meets us and is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, there stands a higher truth which, for the sake of prudence and charity, must be withdrawn from the practical usage of the Church, a truth which cannot be denied or entirely suppressed, but which is so dangerous that it must be covered over and kept out of the reach of the curious like a kind of poison? Is it the case that, according to this higher and dangerous truth concealed for practical purposes in the background, while Christ is indeed the medium and instrument of the divine activity at the basis of the election, and to that extent He is the revelation of the election by which factually we must hold fast, yet the electing God Himself is not Christ but God the Father, or the triune God, in a decision which precedes the being and will and word of Christ, a hidden God, who as such made, as it were, the actual resolve and decree to save such and such men and to bring them to blessedness, and then later made, as it were, the formal or technical decree and resolve to call the elect and to bring them to that end by means of His Son, by means of His Word and Spirit? Is it the case, then, that in the divine election as such we have to do ultimately, not with a divine decision made in Jesus Christ, but with one which is independent of Jesus Christ and only executed by Him? Is it the case that that decision made in Jesus Christ by which we must hold fast is, in fact, only another and later and subordinate decision, while the first and true decision of election is to be sought—or if we follow the pastoral direction had better not be sought—in the mystery of the self-existent being of God, and of a decree made in the absolute freedom of this divine being?

On Studying Theology: A Letter to My Students

Theology TogetherThis week marks the beginning of a new semester, and what a blessing to have the campus full of students again! There is a buzz about the place that simply is not here while the students are away. It is a joy to see our continuing students again, and great to see a whole lot of new students joining us. They’re excited too, and I hope their excitement grows even in the midst of challenging assignments and pressing deadlines. I look forward to another year of getting to know each other and growing together as we study and learn together. And as a new semester starts, I think about some of the things I might like to say to new students just starting out in this most joyful and perilous of endeavours…

*****

The opportunity to study is a privilege. During our recent orientation programme, our mission’s director Lloyd emphasised this, by reminding us of the many, many people in our world who would value the opportunity to study but for whom it is not possible. A survey of history shows that only the most privileged members of society gained this opportunity.

If this is true, then theological study is a double privilege. We are invited to give our attention to reflect on Scripture and tradition, history and theology, ministry and practice in a systematic and sustained way, and so to grow in our understanding of God and his word, his will, his people, and his mission. We are invited into conversations and reflections about these matters that have been underway for millennia, as each generation seeks afresh to understand the reality within which our entire existence unfolds. We are invited to dialogue with and learn from spiritual and intellectual giants who have lived this life before us. And this invitation comes with the added benefit of being able to do all this in the company of friends and fellow-travellers.

In so doing we are also invited into a process of learning intended to issue in personal transformation. Theological study in a seminary context is not merely an academic and critical exercise—although it certainly is that—but also a self-involving discipline that engages the learner in the subject matter under consideration. How could it be otherwise?

Theology is not a religious studies programme or a course in professional practice. Nor is it a purely historical exploration of the origins, history, traditions, and content of the biblical texts and Christian tradition. Such study is possible, of course, and included within the orbit of a theological curriculum. But theology goes further, for theology is faith seeking understanding. The object of study in theology is not the Bible nor the Christian tradition, but the God who is revealed in and through Scripture, and to whom the Christian tradition seeks to bear witness. In theology, we have to do with the living God who calls and claims us even as we engage in study about him.

Quite some years ago I was engaged as a student representative on a review panel of the theology programme in a university context. During one of the meetings, the panel chair proudly proclaimed that their (theological!) institution had been in existence for almost 100 years and in that time faith had never yet entered the classroom. Even though only an undergraduate at the time, and still without the resources to think through the matter, I thought to myself, “That can’t possibly be right! How can one study theology as though God does not exist?”

This division of head and heart, this split between the spiritual and the academic is not only dehumanising and depersonalising, but alien to the object of theology, detrimental to the life of faith, and debilitating to the ministry of the church.

Augustine Reads Gentile_da_FabrianoHerein lies perhaps the most insidious danger theological students face in their studies: the temptation to allow the critical faculty to overwhelm or squeeze out the life of faith. Often this change of heart creeps up unnoticed on the student. The busyness and pressure of the workload and other life responsibilities crowd out one’s devotional life. The heady pursuit (pun intended!) of academic knowledge and grade-point excellence may issue in pride or even arrogance. Sometimes students are drawn to the avant garde opinion, the innovative or radical position, without sufficient attempt to evaluate it in the light of the gospel. Tradition and even contemporary Christian practice may be despised as old-hat, wrong-headed, offensive or dangerous. Realisation of the missteps and faulty beliefs God’s people have taken and held over the years may generate cynicism.

In all these ways and more a distanciation may take place whereby the student may become estranged from their faith, tradition, and faith community. They find themselves in the position of the spectator, standing apart, standing over against God, not necessarily as an enemy or an unbeliever, but in a more agnostic sense. God, or the people of God, no longer conform to that which we think appropriate. To some degree isolated in their “objectivity,” they may seek like-minded companionship and confirmation and the stance begins to solidify.

But wait! Is it not the case that sometimes Christian belief and practice has actually been foolish, wrong-headed, offensive and dangerous? Yes, sadly, that must be admitted. Christian justification of adventurous wars, slavery, persecution, and the oppression of others have marred the Christian story, and very careful, deliberate thought is required to identify how and why these aberrations have arisen; and how, by means of a deeper grasp and application of the gospel, they may be identified for what they are, and new ways of being the people of God learned, commended, and modelled.Here the work of theology comes into its own: theology for the sake of the church’s life and mission in the world. Theology as a Christian’s willingness to be drawn more deeply into the life and activity of the gracious God revealed in Jesus Christ, to become a participant in the drama of redemption as it continues to unfold in our lives, the lives of those around us, and the world at large. Theology as the response of those who find themselves called into the fellowship of the Lord Jesus Christ, and who wish to understand, express and obey his lordship in all of life. Theology, that is, as faith seeking understanding.

How, then, might theological students avoid falling into the snare that this danger represents? I don’t know that I can say something definitive here, but I think I can make several suggestions. First, maintain a robust Christian devotional life including prayer, Scripture reading, and other spiritual disciplines—not just to pass assignments, but to grow in your knowledge of and relationship with God. Second, maintain regular participation in a local congregation’s worship, fellowship, and mission. It will be especially helpful if you have peers or a mentor who will journey with you as a Christian while you are undertaking your studies. Together, these practices become ‘means of grace’ that help keep our hearts and lives oriented toward God, and the community and mission of his people, so that theology is undertaken in this context.

peanuts-snoopy-and-sound-theology-floodThird, and closely related, if you find your studies are disruptive such that old patterns of thought, belief and life are challenged or even overthrown, be reassured that this is surprisingly common. My own study journey involved a prolonged season of quite profound doubt—caused by my studies! My faulty foundations needed some substantial work and strengthening in order to build something stronger, taller and more enduring. When the ground is shifting under your feet you need something firm to hang on to. This is when your peer relationships, mentor and spiritual practices will be especially helpful.

In my experience—admittedly limited—a means to address this kind of disruption is twofold: first, a deeper engagement with the gospel and the tradition is required. When questions arise, it is not time to withdraw from the field, but to seek a means of addressing them that is consonant with the gospel, and the major doctrinal and practical convictions of the church. Second, an attitude of trust or respect for authority will be immeasurably helpful. Most learning in any field involves a kind of deference to authority until our own learning becomes sufficient that we too might be called a ‘master.’ Most questions are not altogether new, and it is often the case that the tradition has the resources to address the questions adequately or initially, until we have learned sufficient to think independently or afresh about them. The great temptation here is simply to jettison the tradition before we have mastered it. The tradition is certainly not infallible; nor are our interpretations of Scripture infallible. But it is folly to abandon the tradition before we have heard it and heard it well.

Fourth, seek to integrate what you are learning into your everyday life. Allow your studies shape your worldview, character and behaviour as well as your thought processes and knowledge. A primary fruit of theological study is wisdom for life. How are your studies shaping your life, your relationships, priorities, choices, and morality? Again, peers and mentors can be very helpful here, and help keep us honest and grounded.

Finally, recognise that the ultimate purpose of theological study is not a higher grade or erudite knowledge; rather, “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5 NASB). Paul also warns that “knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies” (1 Corinthians 8:1). If our theological studies lead us to love God and love others more deeply and more truly, we are engaging in them appropriately. If our theological studies are not ultimately issuing in such love, something has gone awry—perhaps in the mode or content of instruction, or perhaps in the approach of the student. Either way, it is something to be aware of and discuss.

For myself, I love the way reading and studying theology has deepened my faith, broadened my vision, enriched my ministry and changed my life. I hope that you also find that studying theology brings you into closer proximity to and alignment with Jesus.

Theology is Too Hard! A Letter to My Student

Theologians_Top 10 of All TimeLast semester I had a Graduate Diploma student who could not take a class on-campus, so I organised a Directed Study Contract for him to take the unit in that mode instead. We met a number of times during the semester to discuss the lessons, assessments, etc, while he did most of the work on his own. After the semester finished he sent me the following note:

And thanks for making DSC allowances for me – much appreciated. From talking to [my friend who took the class on campus], I did miss a lot of good discussion during the lectures, though. 🙁

I have a love-hate relationship with Theology now: I love the idea of it, and thinking about it is really uplifting, but I hate that it’s sooooo hard!

I am afraid I just couldn’t let that last line slide, so here is how I responded:

Hi ….!

Yes and No!

Yes, we had some very good students, and so good discussions in the class – I think you would have enjoyed it.

And No, theology’s not “sooooooo hard”!

The difficulty with doing units the way we do is that we make it harder than it needs to be by exposing you to a whole range of view points on a whole range of subjects all at the same time. That’s hard! (so, Yes, perhaps it was hard!)

But, if you take the time to read Erickson (Christian Theology) & Migliore (Faith Seeking Understanding) through and one at a time, you will get first a solid conservative take on theology, and then a briefer, broader more liberationist but still (mostly) orthodox take on theology. Then at leisure think through the issues that arise around each of the topics. Or you could work through sections in both correspondingly. Erickson on Scripture, Migliore on Scripture. Either way is fine. But done over time it is not “so hard”! (Note: these are the two texts we use at present in the Seminary in our introductory units on theology).

Then pick up Grenz (Theology for the Community of God) or McGrath (Christian Theology), and then one of the Reformed theologians such as Horton or Frame (because Reformed theology emphasises doctrine there are probably dozens to choose from!). Along the way pick up Olson (The Story of Christian Theology) for a survey of the development of theology over twenty centuries, and Stassen and Gushee (Kingdom Ethics) or another fairly comprehensive ethics text to remind yourself that theological convictions always include moral commitments. Perhaps also choose another theological text along the way to diversify yet again, perhaps reading a theology from a Roman Catholic or a feminist or an Asian or a (fill-the-blank) perspective.

If you took a year, or even two to do this you would be well set for a lifetime of theological reflection that enriches your whole approach to faith and life. And the slower more systematic approach will help alleviate some of the difficulty experienced in a seminary setting. (If you were to go onto to do the whole MDiv, though, some of these “pieces of the jigsaw” would begin falling into place.)

Once you have laid a good foundation like this, then you are in the position to dive deep into either or both according to how your interests have developed:

  1. One of the great masters ancient or modern: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Bavinck, Barth, Pannenberg, etc; or,
  2. One of the great loci or issues: the doctrine of God, atonement, pneumatology, theological anthropology, ecclesiology, etc, etc; or even a third possibility emerges,
  3. The integration of Christian faith and thought with another discipline or field of endeavour: philosophy, ethics, science, politics, psychology, business, education, technology, etc.

Perhaps that third option should be a permanent option no matter where we are in our theological endeavours, but as always, there is a crying need for specialist engagement with every sphere of life from a deeply informed Christian base.

So, what’s your summer reading going to be? And 2016?

I think the letter might have worked, because the student then responded back…

Thanks so much for taking the time to write that email response! That’s a great guide which I will definitely work through! Much appreciated!

 I think you’re right – it’s the approach of picking a topic, then doing a few readings on it, discussing it, then moving on to the next topic which makes it hard. You don’t have time to a) learn about the topic in a broader sense (just very particular parts of it) and b) get to know how the authors *think* about everything. I’ve heard Keller say once or twice that you know when you’ve read someone enough when you can pose hypothetical questions and just *know* how that particular author/theologian would’ve answered them. I’m not at that level with any author!

There is some wisdom here. I read two very different authors many years ago (Trevor Hart and John Piper), telling how they had been advised in the early years of their development to choose a theologian with whom to “go deep,” so that, after some years of study, that theologian would become your dialogue partner. Piper chose Jonathon Edwards, and Hart, Barth. Both testified that their decision to sustain a life-long study of and “dialogue” with a particular theologian had proven to be an incalculable blessing in their life, and in their ministry as a Christian theologian.

More Facebook Theology

AnchoriteJust yesterday another question popped up on Facebook and again I have attempted to answer it, however inadequately. I should note that this is a very good question but also one with very demanding implications. There are actually two questions and I am aware that I have not addressed the second question specifically, but I think my answer to the first will provide indications of how I might address that second answer. As it happens, I am also in the midst of marking a series of graduate essays on precisely this question: “What is systematic theology, and what use is it?” Some of the essays have been excellent, and I may ask a student if I may reproduce their essay here. In the meanwhile, here is the question posed and my answer:

Christians have been discussing theology for nearly 2000 years. If systematic theology is “faith seeking understanding” then what understanding has been revealed through all the discussions (in all the seminaries, in all the towns, in all the world)? What do we understand now that we didn’t understand when Jesus completed his earthly ministry?

Ah, dear friend, you need not have worried that your question would in some way offend me – I love it when students ask questions! Still let me address your question, though I suspect as you will note, that you already know the answer!

The irony of your question is that you are doing theology in the asking of it. What relation does a man who lived two millennia ago have to do with us today? What is his significance? On what grounds is that significance based? Why is this Jesus not lost in the mists of history as were so many of his contemporaries? Why should anyone today pay the slightest attention to him? The answer to any and all of these questions involves the doing of theology. This, of course, must be done afresh in every generation.

There are likely many ways of approaching this task, but a time-tested and proven way is to approach the task historically. This works well for several reasons, not least of which is that we are all very unoriginal and manage to come up with the same problems, questions and errors that have been raised time and again in the history of the tradition. The tradition gives us exemplary answers to some questions; shows the limits of our ability with respect to other questions, indicates exemplary and less-than-exemplary methods in approaching these questions, highlights the fact that the very questions we ask are often contingent on our own place in history, and shows us many, many bypaths that are best avoided. For example, the innocent idea (delusion?) that one can simply read the Bible for oneself and come up with the unsullied truth.

One can, of course, simply read the Bible and come up with faith, and this too is a wonderful thing. But even that faith will generate a range of questions that will then be answered with a host of better and worse answers. And so theology begins…

Further, virtually everything we know of this Jesus comes from a very small collection of a ancient sources, written in ancient languages, in ancient contexts so very different from our own. Thus all kinds of hermeneutical issues are raised – afresh in every generation. Get two people reading the same biblical text and you will end up with two – or likely more – possible interpretations of what the text means and what its significance is and what the range of its applications might entail. Thus theology is inevitable, again, as a fresh work in every generation…

But you know this already – I suspect it is the implications of it you avoid. But, alas, you cannot and will not avoid them even if you take the life of an anchorite. Or you could become a fundamentalist of one kind or another…that always remains an option!

Why Study Theology?

The Evangelist St. Matthew with his symbol, the angel (The National Library of the Netherlands)
The Evangelist St. Matthew with his symbol, the angel (The National Library of the Netherlands)

I found the link to this story which appeared a couple of years ago in The Atlantic on the ACT website. Entitled “Study Theology Even if You Don’t Believe in God,” it argues that theology is still the “Queen of the Humanities” because “theology is the closest thing we have at the moment to the kind of general study of all aspects of human culture that was once very common, but is now quite rare.”

To study theology well requires not faith, but empathy. If history and comparative religion alike offer us perspective on world events from the “outside,” the study of theology offers us a chance to study those same events “from within”: an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who—in the world outside the ivory tower—still shape plenty of the world today.

I do not agree that one can study theology well without faith. Without faith, I think theology devolves to religious studies rather than theology. But here I am showing my bias. Her central point, I think, still stands, all the more in a world where the humanities are marginalised in favour of other more robust and ever-so-practical disciplines, such as business, law, and the sciences. I am all for business, law and the sciences, but I fear the loss of the humanities threatens us with the loss of our humanity. While instrumental reason can effect vast changes in our understanding and utilisation of the world and its resources, it may do so at the expense of those very factors which constitute us as truly human. According to businessdictionary.com, instrumental rationality is the dominant mode of thought in the industrialised world, and works by reducing all factors in any situation to “variables to be controlled.” Such reductionism sounds somewhat like the unjust judge of Jesus’ parable: “I fear not God nor respect man.”

Theology protests such reductionism by insisting that humanity is created in the image of God, to serve as a steward in God’s creation, ordering all things to God’s good purposes. Theology reflects upon the nature, origin and destiny of humanity and the human community within the orders of creation and redemption. Such reflections serve to limit human greed and hubris, and so the uses toward which instrumental reason may be devoted. The study of theology can serve as a bulwark against the dehumanising features of modern technological society, helping us retain a vision of what it means to be human, instead of seeking to be gods.