Tag Archives: Doing Theology

Theology as Discipleship 4

In the sixth chapter Johnson argues that the “mind of Christ” and the pattern of Christ’s humble obedience go together. On this basis, then, a Spirit-filled life of humble, self-sacrificial love is a defining mark of a theologian who shares the mind of Christ. The theologian pursues knowledge rightly when they do so for the sake of others, out of a desire to serve them by pointing them to God and sharing his love with them (148). Johnson’s emphasis is on the pursuit of theological knowledge, for our finitude and fallenness mean that we cannot, in and of ourselves, gain the knowledge of God. Rather, this knowledge comes to us only as a gift of grace. Thus the theologian “must proceed under the assumption that we are not free to determine how our discipline operates. Our knowledge of God does not result from an act of our will, as if we can know God simply because we want to do so” (151).

In a certain sense the act of seeking is itself the goal of our work, because this act produces the exact kind of intellectual and moral formation God desires us to have. Put differently: the practice of theology should be ordered around the goal of seeking God rather than finding him precisely because the act of seeking is what forms us to adopt the humble way of life that corresponds to the mind of Christ (152).

Theology, then, is as much a matter of prayer—of communication with God—as it is about gaining new insights and information. That is, “we are theologians who live on our knees before God, with an open Bible in front of us and the voice of the church in our ears” (155). Johnson unpacks this picture of faithful theological work in his final chapter in which he sets forth nine practices of those who practice theology as disciples:

  • They measure their thinking and speaking about God by the person and work of Christ as revealed in Scripture.
  • Their thinking stays within the limits of faith in Jesus Christ; that is, they resist reductionist attempts to remove all mystery, erase all doubt, or answer every doctrinal question in an all-encompassing system.
  • They endeavour to live obediently in the pattern of the incarnate Christ’s obedience to God.
  • They engage in their theological work for the benefit of others.
  • They use their theological work to serve the church and its mission.
  • They pursue both truth and unity.
  • They practice their discipline with confidence while avoiding defensiveness.
  • They utilise the insights of the non-theological disciplines to enrich their own thought.
  • Finally, they pursue their work with joy, for their work is an act of worship that anticipates the worship they will offer to God into eternity.

Theology as Discipleship 3

In chapters four and five Johnson turns his attention to scripture, providing a functional account of biblical authority. Because God elects his witnesses and identifies with their words—as Christ does with his own witnesses in the New Testament—and because God continues to use scripture as a medium of revelation, it is authoritative. Through these words the ancient witness and the contemporary hearers are linked in the one story and activity of the gracious God.

God’s movement of grace in the past, and the biblical authors’ obedient response to it, reverberates here and now as God uses the authors’ past actions to produce our faith and obedience in the present. In this way, Scripture itself ties God’s various saving acts together to form a single story, a unified history of God’s grace and our response to it (93).

Despite this beginning, Johnson’s description of biblical authority quickly passes over to an ontological and christological account. Scripture is inspired by God—breathed out by God as God’s own very speech, and as such is God’s Word in human words. Even more specifically, Jesus Christ is this inspiring God, who thus stands at the centre of scripture and is therefore, the criterion of all biblical interpretation. Theology, therefore, is learning to think in accord with “the mind of Christ,” illuminated by the Spirit and guided by the scripture.

Scripture’s purpose is not to help us fit God into our lives but to see how our lives fit into what God is doing in history through Christ and the Spirit. Rather than trying to insert Scripture into our reality by figuring out how we might apply it to our lives, our task is to reinterpret our lives and the whole of reality in the light of Scripture (106).

An implication of this view is that interpretation of scripture is not a free-floating, ad hoc, or reader-centred enterprise. Christians and theologians alike are to learn to speak of God appropriately by being inducted into communities and practices of interpretation, and participating with the community of faith in the present activity of God. Thus Johnson identifies three key interpretive principles. First is what he calls the Augustinian principle: all true biblical interpretation will lead to deeper love of God and neighbour. That is, interpretation is measured by outcome rather than by content alone. Biblical interpretation is itself oriented toward discipleship. Second is the ecclesial principle: we read and listen with others, including the tradition of the church. Believers continue to give their attention to (a) the message of Christ, (b) that of the apostles, and (c) the present work of the Spirit. In fact, Johnson suggests that interpreters start with the present work of the living Lord and Spirit as an exercise in hearing, following and participating now in the life and work of God. This, he suggests, is theology as discipleship. But both poles of this interpretive scheme are necessary. Unless we give our attention to the message we are in danger of drifting. Yet the present work of the Spirit also opens the possibility of new and surprising interpretations that we might never otherwise have noticed. This leads finally, to the third christological principle which insists on interpreting all scripture in the light of Jesus Christ as the criterion of interpretation.

Scripture, then, is central to the work and practice of theology. It is the chief creaturely means through which God speaks (110).

Our calling is to help the church think and speak about God correctly so the church can partner with Christ in God’s saving plan for history, and we interpret the biblical text in light of this calling. Our primary goal is not to extract isolated doctrinal truths from the text and then use them as the building blocks of a theological system. Our goal is to help the church interpret Scripture faithfully so that the church can follow Christ as the Spirit leads. This means we interpret each passage in light of how Christ and the Spirit are prompting us to live in relation to God and neighbor right now … We engage in this task knowing the text will be interpreted properly only in light of the living Christ. …Our proper response is to read it with humility, openness and the expectation that God might surprise us (129, original emphasis).

Theology as Discipleship 2

In chapters two and three Johnson develops his understanding of the nature of Christian life as a participation in and partnership with Christ. The practice of theology takes place within the context of, and as an aspect of, one’s discipleship. Johnson narrates the biblical story of God’s saving work in history culminating in Jesus Christ as the true reality that frames our existence. As such, theology begins “from above,” from the narrative depiction of Jesus Christ as the revelation of God. All reality and history can be truly understood only with reference to Jesus Christ—and never the reverse. Theology cannot start from below as though to fit the idea of God into a preconceived understanding of reality. God’s eternal will and purpose was to create all things in and for Christ, and to reconcile them by him. In the Holy Spirit believers are united to Christ and so given a share of—a participation in—his eternal life and knowledge of the Father. This knowledge which although partial is true, is the ground of theology. Johnson adopts a clear image to indicate the true though partial nature of our knowledge of God:

Participating in Christ is not the same thing as being Christ. He knows God by nature because he is God by nature; we know God as finite and temporal creatures who have been given a share in Christ’s mind by grace. In this sense, we are much like a passenger who gets picked up by a train halfway through the train’s journey. On the one hand, the passenger truly participates in the train’s journey and has accurate knowledge of both the train and its movement toward its destination. On the other hand, the passenger’s knowledge is “only in part” because she has participated in only part of the journey: the train and its journey long preceded her participation in it, and she has not yet arrived at the destination and has no knowledge of it (58, original emphasis).

Our union with Christ is for the purpose of partnership with Christ in his work. The pattern of this partnership is God’s own being and work; God intends that we live in correspondence with him. Thus God gives commands that, as we obey them, help us to live in likeness to him. And God acts, empowering our own responsive action. Sin is the refusal to live in correspondence to God, choosing to become “like God” in our own way.

In union with Christ believers are made hidden participants in the eternal life of God, and by the Spirit Christ begins to live his life in and through us. Jesus has joined his life to ours, and has incorporated his people into his life, so that his history has become our history. His faithful obedience liberates us to be also faithful and obedient in him, corresponding in our own life to his life. The work of theology is one particular aspect of this overarching partnership. This work involves helping the church use human words to speak appropriately of God. This requires bringing human language about God into conformity with Christ, who is in himself the revelation of God and as such, the criterion of all speech about God. “Our thinking and speaking about God will be true if our words correspond to who Christ is, what he has done and what he continues to do within created history. This means that our primary task as theologians is to bring the meaning of the words we use for God into conformity to Christ” (81).

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).

john1118greekwordle

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.