Sunday, April 19, 2009

Why theology? Why?

What are we to do with theology? There was a time when a greater sense of optimism reigned, and theologians labored under the hopes that, with the right methods, theology could reach a consensus concerning the meaning of revelation, Christology, historicity, and whether or not Tupac was still alive (well, three out of four). For a wide variety of reasons, such optimism has not reigned within the field of theology for quite some time, and it poses the question, why? If theology is bound to be an exercise that will never achieve its end goal, why continue to practice it? What about the negative effect that theology can have? Does it have value for the everyday life of the Church? These are all valid questions, and they are worth wrestling with. To begin, I believe one of the positives that have come out of this line of questioning is a more humble approach. Those who practice theology have a tendency to do so with an awareness of the pitfalls that they must deal with when attempting to ascertain the ways of God. Of course, it is worth asking whether a chastened approach is enough to make theology a worthwhile pursuit, and I believe that it is. Simply put, I strongly hold that theology is a lasting part of the Church’s role on this earth, and that it is worth the time and effort necessary to make theology accessible and relevant for the body of Christ. Thus, the point of this first entry is to demonstrate what I have seen as some of the weaknesses of this pursuit, as well as the reasons I have found to commit ourselves to responsible theology.

To be perfectly honest, the practice of theology is an easy target, and in many cases this is justified. It is not hard to find examples of dangerous sides of theology. Church schisms, arrogance, and the loss of childlike faith as the result of theological inquiry are just a few of the dangers of the idolization of theology. And yet, those who would propose that we simply rid ourselves of academic theology are often misinformed or overly optimistic. While I think it’s going too far to categorize theology as a “necessary evil”, to a certain extent it is only necessary as a response to our human brokenness. However, there is more to theology than a defense against sin. At its heart, theology is a joyful exercise, because it privileges us to be able to venture into God’s mysterious realms (hence the title of this blog). That’s what this first post is about, it’s about why I feel the study of theology is worth our time and efforts, despite its flaws.

On my read, this discussion has to begin with the flaws in theology. Simply put, theology was never intended to be complete, there are too many weaknesses inherent in our approach. The first weakness in theology is that it is systematic. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way out of this predicament. As humans our mode of thinking demands a systematic approach. Of course, the God of the Bible defies our systems and our ways of thinking, for he is in no way systematic. This is both a flaw and a strength of theology as we know it. On the one hand, even our best efforts will fall short of understanding the one we seek to understand. On the other hand, any God that fits into the systems that we create is hardly worth the effort of studying, much less worshipping. So, we who study theology must be content to live with the fact that our method will never achieve its stated aim, which is to understand the ways of a God who defies comprehension.

The second great weakness of theology is like the first, in that it is rooted in language. Just as God is not limited by systems, neither is he limited by language. Of course, this does not assist in our attempts to comprehend God’s truth. However, the fact of the matter is that theology is a constant struggle to find the language that most accurately sums up a God who defies the very language we rely on. So, just as our efforts to understand God through our systematic way of thinking are doomed from the start, so also is our reliance upon language to grasp a God who is beyond definition.

Finally, to lift from Brunner’s Christian Doctrine of God, a final objection to the study of theology is the assertion that it would be preferable to maintain a strictly Biblical theology, and dogmatic or systematic theology can have the effect of setting up an objective authority outside of scripture. In fact, the very reality that academic theology exists seems to go against the doctrine of sola scriptura. As protestants, and particularly as evangelicals, there is an understandable desire to trust solely in the revelation of scripture, and the dogmatic nature of theology seems to go against this noble goal.

In the face of these valid concerns, the question remains – why devote our attention to theology? Is theology simply an ivory-tower exercise with no edifying value for the Church at large? Well, this may come as no surprise, but I have come to believe that theology, despite its weaknesses, plays a vital role in the life of the Church. The first reason to pay attention to theology is the fact that theology has long been viewed as a necessary component in the Church’s role as a teacher. Whether it takes place in the context of confirmation classes, the creation and memorization of creeds, or the use of apologetics to defend the faith, the study of theology has been an integral part of the Church’s mission from the outset. To me, the story of Priscilla and Aquilla’s correction of Apollos’ theology is revealing in that Acts 18 states that Apollos’ ministry benefited from his improved theology. Simply put, from the outset the Church has recognized the need for dogmatic theology which is teachable and systematic, both as a teaching method and as a defense against heresy. Dogmatic theology is not intended to supplant Biblical theology, but to provide it in a simpler form, and the Church has consistently used it in this manner.

Of course, theology will always fail to grasp the fullness of God. On my read, this is actually an advantage for theology, when carried out properly. The greatness and otherness of God should incite the theologian to be more awed and in love with the God they seek to understand. Unfortunately, theology can often lead to arrogance, when the emphasis is placed upon our knowledge rather than God’s greatness (Eph. 8:1). However, the goal of theology is to devote our minds to knowing God more, and when this is done in true humility, the end result will always be like that of Job, who saw his questions float away when he came into the presence of God. If we could all experience what Job did, then surely our need for academic theology would be exhausted, as it will be in the next life. However, until this takes place, the careful study of God’s revelation is an opportunity to appreciate the truth he has revealed, and to be awed by the truths that are beyond our comprehension. As Proverbs 2:1-6 states, God rewards those who pursue him by rewarding them with wisdom and understanding. So, while one key purpose of theology is to grasp God’s gift of self-revelation, another purpose of theology is to instill a sense of wonder due to the fact that God is too awesome and complex to ever be fully understood.

Finally, theology has a final use as a defense against heresy and incorrect understandings of scripture. Of course, this should not be understood as a statement against the sufficiency of scripture. As an evangelical, I strongly believe that all theology must be responsibly drawn from scripture. However, it is evident that it is all too easy to misunderstand or misuse scripture. This is partly due to human depravity, and our ability to twist the Bible to fit our own ends (Eph. 4:14), and also due to our simple naivety (Rom. 16:18). In fact, it is revealing to look back to early Church history, and note that within 400 years the Church had found it necessary to adopt the Nicene Creed in order to combat incorrect scriptural teachings. Once again, this is a tricky doctrine, because it would be easy to understand what I am saying as an attack on the sufficiency of the Bible. On the contrary, the Bible must be the foundation of all theology. However, history has repeatedly demonstrated that people are very capable of misusing scripture. Therefore, theology serves as a further guard against the misuse of scripture, by delineating a set of truths that that have been affirmed by scripture as well as tradition. Overall, the Church has always seen fit to utilize theology as a set of defenses against those who would misappropriate God’s word, and because this danger persists so too does the usefulness of academic theology.

In the end, theology is a flawed discipline, which must be used with caution. It is intended to be taken on with an attitude of humility and awe. Overall, the odd characteristic of theology is that it has an impossible goal. The goal is to understand God, his truths, and his self-revelation. This task will never be completed in our current state. Nevertheless, theology still has a great many uses. When practiced correctly, it is intended to continually draw us closer to God by increasing our awareness of his self-revelation, and amazement at his grace and attributes. As long as we live we are capable of knowing and loving God more, and the study of theology plays a crucial role in this process.


William said...

Brilliantly done... how can one argue with what's written here? Congratulations on this new endeavor, I look forward to the next post!

DUANE said...

Collie, thanks for the invite to your blog.

You said, “The first weakness in theology is that it is systematic. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way out of this predicament. As humans our mode of thinking demands a systematic approach. Of course, the God of the Bible defies our systems and our ways of thinking, for he is in no way systematic.” This reminds me of one of my favorite analogies about weaknesses in our theology.

We readily accept and intuitively understand that there are 56 different causes of the heights of our ocean tides, yet, when it comes to theology we often insist on strict linear thinking. We insist that the Bible reveals something as “all this way” or “all that way” when in fact both ways may be “trumped” by a multitude of other causes, at one time or another.

I think this idea of theology often being too linear is different than your idea of it being too systematic, but the ideas are related. I think both get at the issue of God being more complex than we understand.

Historically, theologians have fought about opposing, linear, systematic interpretations of scripture – when possibly, both linear interpretations are merely strong simultaneous pillars in a multi-faceted reality.

I think of two passages in scripture that support the idea of being open to the probability that reality (I believe reality, and God’s reality, are one and the same concepts. There is only one!) is more complex than our rational minds can see: In early proverbs (I think Prov 3) where it says “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding”. I see flavors of “beyond rational”, or “beyond linear”, or possibly even “beyond systematic” there. The other verse is in Romans (I think 8) where Paul says “we see in a mirror dimly”. I see flavors of “complexity beyond the capabilities of our rational minds”, or “complexity not revealed yet”, or “more to reality than we are yet seeing”.

But back to your comment that I quoted above…I don’t think you really mean that “he [God] is in no way systematic”. I suspect that you, as I, think that God is very systematic in an infinite number of ways, but that our minds are not big enough to comprehend all of them. I suspect that God can, and will, explain reality for us when we get to heaven. And I suspect that reality will be systematic…maybe even more systematic than is humanly rational. This idea is supported by nano science, where we observe properties in atoms that are systematic, but rationally impossible…at least given our current knowledge.

Collie said...

Wow, that's one serious post - and I really appreciate it.

Indeed, I feel you are right to say that God is systematic, but in ways too infinite for us to grasp.

My line of thought it that God is too great to be systematic in the ways that we create/understand. In that regard, I strongly feel that theology must carry itself with an attitude of humility, because the ways in which God is systematic are far more complex than we can grasp. You are right to point out that God is consistent and systematic, but in ways that our theologic efforts can approach, rather than comprehend.

Thanks! That is a great response.