Tag Archives: Doing Theology

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…

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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.

The Way of Theology

Busch, Karl Barth Life[Karl Barth] was indeed happy to be dubbed “orthodox” as long as that meant being a theologian who was open and ready to learn from the Fathers. But he rejected any restriction to the doctrinal position of any teacher, school or confession. He could not and would not approve of the confessionalism which had become topical:

“Confessions exist for us to go through them (not once but continually), not for us to return to them, take up our abode in them, and conduct our further thinking from their standpoint and in bondage to them. The church never did well to attach itself arbitrarily to one man – whether his name was Thomas … or Luther, or Calvin – and in his school to attach itself to one form of doctrine. And it was never at any time good for it to look back instead of forwards as a matter of principle.”

Barth did not want even his own Dogmatics to be understood as fixing a new doctrinal standpoint. “I have never understood the whole Church Dogmatics as a house but as the introduction to a way which must be followed, as the description of the movement of something that can only be described in dynamic, not static, concepts. A house is a static object.”

(Busch, Karl Barth, 375.)

How to Think Theologically (Stone & Duke)

Learning TogetherHoward W. Stone & James O. Duke, How to Think Theologically
(Second Edition; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).

I picked this book up at the book table during our recent ANZATS Conference. The next day they replaced it with a third edition copy – D’Oh!

Stone & Duke have written their smallish, easy-to-read book with students and interested lay people in mind. Their basic premise is that all Christians are theologians simply because they are Christian. Their passion, however, is that Christians approach all of life with a theological frame of mind; that they learn to live in the everyday rough-and-tumble world informed by and responsive to a developed theological framework which helps them in their decision-making and action. In a word, their desire is to nurture informed Christian life rather than supply an academic method for “getting the right answer.”

The book is divided into three sections with chapters 1-4 laying the foundation for theological reflection. The chapters explore what theology is and how it is approached, adopting the ancient characterisation of theology as “faith seeking understanding.” The authors rightly insist that theology is a human activity, a response to God grounded in faith. Theology is personal but not private. It is an interactive practice, dialogical, corporate and communal, grounded and occurring in the Christian community. These chapters address the distinction between “embedded” or implicit and possibly pre-reflective theology, and “deliberative” theology, which is an explicitly chosen and committed theology, based in critical reflection on one’s beliefs and practices.

Stone & Duke use the metaphor of a craft to describe theology. Theology is something learned and developed through practice and growth in skill. The task of theology is to interpret all of life through a lens of faith, bringing all the various features, facts and experiences of life into explicit relation to Christian theological categories and truth claims. But even this lens, and these categories need to be assessed, and Stone & Duke provide four tests for assessing our theological perspectives:

  1. Is it “Christian” – i.e., conformed to the gospel?
  2. Is it intelligible, and plausibly coherent?
  3. Does it have moral integrity?
  4. Is it valid – i.e., true to life, Scripture, and actually true?

Ho to Think TheologicallyThe authors identify the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral—Scripture, tradition, reason and experience—as the resources (rather than “sources”) required for theological reflection. Of these, Scripture is primary, but reason is the most active, at work in our interpretation of Scripture, in the exploration and evaluation of tradition and experience, and in the work of building connections between theology and all the other disciplines of academic inquiry.

Chapters 5-7 form the heart of the book, and provide the three categories of thought that are to guide life-related theological reflection. The first category is the gospel which more than anything else, is the story of the love of God revealed Jesus’ life and ministry, death and resurrection, and the meaning of this story as it is unpacked in the writings of Scripture. Theological reflection involves bringing all of life into explicit correlation with the major features of this story including what it means to embody this story in the world, and how this gospel is communicated and its benefits received by people through faith.

The second category concerns the human condition, by which Stone & Duke mean the reality of sin as the basic problem of human existence, and how that problem finds resolution through the provision of salvation and the means of grace. The authors insist that without clear thought around these matters, we will fail to address the issues of real-life at the level required to see God’s transformative work. The final category of thought required for fruitful theological reflection is vocation which addresses the inescapable question: “What must we do? How are Christians called upon to act?” (100). In many situations a variety of responses and actions are possible, so Stone & Duke provide guidance for choosing the most fitting response, which include assessing the real reasons for why we typically act as we do, identifying distinctly Christian reasons to guide our response. The point is “to choose one particular view or action that is the most fitting expression of Christian faithfulness in a given situation” (107).

It is worth noting that Stone & Duke do not prescribe the particular way in which these critical categories of thought must be believed. In fact, just the opposite. They insist that there are varieties of ways in which issues of gospel, sin and salvation, and vocation have and are understood in the Christian tradition, and that deliberative theological reflection will be open to explore, question and evaluate each of them. Their intent is to help communities of believers come to grips with the content and meaning of these doctrines within their own traditions and situations.

The final section of the book (chapters 8-9) detail some of the practices involved in critical theological reflection and the spiritual disciplines which support it. These chapters locate the practice of theological reflection in the community of faith, and insist that theological reflection be aligned with spiritual formation. Participation in Christian community and practices of spiritual formation help serve to keep theological reflection from becoming merely an individual and purely cognitive exercise in which the believer’s faith becomes privatised and intellectual rather than spiritual. For these authors, “spiritual formation is a bridge between theological reflection and day-to-day experience” (127).

We need a theology that prepares us for the difficult business of being Christian in the fray of the real world, undergirds our commitment, and guides our action. … To act in accordance with our Christian commitments, often there will not be the luxury of extended theological consideration. The theological work has to be done in advance—deliberative theological reflection—so that its results can inform our every choice. … [As Christians we] need a foundation of prior deliberative theological reflection to prepare us as best as possible for dozens of daily choices as well as the life-altering decisions we face. … We believe that developing basic clarity on the issues raised by the three diagnostic exercises (gospel, the human condition, and vocation) will stand the Christian in good stead when facing the myriad of difficult situations that every day presents (129-130).

Paul commended the Roman church saying, “I myself am satisfied about you, brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another” (Romans 15:14). This useful book will help contemporary Christians and churches follow in Rome’s footsteps, providing a means to develop the skills of theological reflection with an eye toward this kind robust discipleship and praxis. The clear framework and practical case studies illuminate how congregations might actually practise theological reflection. Leading congregations in intentional and systematic reflection on the gospel, the human condition, and vocation will help them think Christianly, something urgently needed in a culture in which we are very often more shaped by the culture than we are by Christ.