Divine Teaching

In my quest for good introductory material, my attention turns to McIntoshMark McIntosh’s Divine Teaching: An Introduction to Christian Theology. For this post, I am particularly interested in his first chapter, “How God Makes Theologians.” To add some further fodder to his provocative title, McIntosh states:

Most of us contemporary theologians, soberly trained in the best scholarly methods, try our hardest to analyze the divine realities by dutifully herding them into the approved pens of dialectical arguments and critical studies. Yet when we open our mouths to discourse of deity, out come skirling parables, hopelessly impossible histories, and such reckless extravagances as the idea of a God who refuses to stay exclusively divine, and a savior who’s such a miserable failure he cannot even save himself” (3).

What immediately impresses me with this text is where he begins. Instead of jumping head first into distinctions concerning the various disciplines dubbed “divinity,” he moves right into the reality of studying a subject who is wholly free, other and beyond. His starting point, in other words, is something like a spirituality of theology. Second, and almost more curious for an introduction to theology (as sad as this statement may seem), McIntosh immediately moves into brief commentary on several passages in Romans. After doing so, he moves into an account of belief in relation to the study of theology, stating,

One needs, in other words, to entertain the idea (which Christians believe) that Christian theology is an expression of an ongoing transformation of the world in encounter with God; otherwise one will not be studying Christian theology at all but only a boringly lifeless taxidermy of it in which nothing unexpected, gloriously unnecessary, or unbelievable can ever happen or be considered. And it is, Christians believe, precisely these sorts of wonder and astonishment that characterize the authentic impact of God on the world, and so on theology” (13).

In the following chapter McIntosh develops the calling of the theologian. Pulling together the strange bedfollows of Augustine and Simone Weil he states, “Theology takes place when the theologian, lured by ungraspable truth, ceases to devour everything and is herself or himself ‘devoured,’ transformed by a reality too real to be, in Augustine’s terms, dragged back into the mind’s manipulations” (17). Commandeering McCabe, McIntosh develops the anological use of language through imagery of piracy. In McCabe’s words, “The theologian uses a word by stretching it to breaking point, and it is precisely as it breaks that the communication, if any, is achieved.” Further on in his section on the calling of a theologian, McIntosh suggests,

theologians themselves have to share in the mystical life, the life in which the hidden presence of God – as the voice speaking all things into existence – can be sensed and acknowledged in all things…theology wants to consider all these things, indeed everything, precisely in terms of each thing’s mystical identity as a character in the play of the universe, or, to use standard theological language, as a creature that is ceaselessly spoken by the Creator” (24-25).

What do we think about starting an intro book this way?  If you remember, McIntosh is one of the theologians I looked at in our spirituality and theology series. What are your thoughts about his attempt to merge these so centrally together from the outset?

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11 thoughts on “Divine Teaching

  1. It might be stretching, and I am really more asking or bringing up a possibility, but would this not be a case of applying the “translatability” mentioned by McClendon in vol. 3 of his Systematic Theology (Witness), and even Lindbeck’s discussion of religious plurality in The Nature Of Doctrine?

    It seems that this sort of development of theologians/theology (from communion with God, instead of alongside the concept of God) is coming “from its own grammar of faith,” that, while not really drawn out in devotional terms by Lindbeck, might be incomplete without the “spiritual” or “mystical” encounter that does stretch the theologians words to the limit, as the review mentions.

    So, really it is an internal translatability, that to speak maturely as a theologian seems to require an encounter with the Word as intensely astonishing and dynamic as the concepts are, when worked not only in a sphere of conceptualizing or commenting as if on the sidelines, but as a participant.

    Which that might be pulling too much on the above theologians ideas, and it might open up questions about what contribution those who do not share the communion, but who work truthfully and thoughtfully as theologians, have in the whole picture, which surely is there, but how to receive it?

    All in all-looks like a great book, and I will be excited to dig into myself!

    • Dustin, McIntosh is open to contributions from those who do not have “communion with God” (however that is parsed), but only insofar as they recongize that theology is not merely mental gymnastics but actually is built upon communion with God. In other words, to be able to explicate Christian theology is to affirm the idea that communion with God is possible and/or Christians actually believe it to be true.

      I think this is an interesting way to go. It does not make one’s spiritual maturity necessary for robust theological reflection, but pushes on the truthfulness and availability of God and his witnesses as a necessary affirmation for robust theological work.

  2. After that intro, I can’t wait to get my hands on this book.

    His refusal to separate knowledge and spirituality is one of the things I love most about McIntosh. And, to answer your question, I think it’s an incredible way to begin an intro to theology. An affirmation of the inseparable link between knowledge of God and participation in God might be the best way to assure an embodied theology.

    Lastly, that opening quote is incredible.

  3. I have to say that it is (so far) the best intro I’ve read. Earl, my thoughts about McIntosh exactly. Ever since I’ve read his Mystical Theology I’ve followed his work.

  4. Hi Kent. Well, I only taught my first intro to dogmatics course last semester: so I’m very much a novice myself! And in fact, I modified the course outline pretty drastically as we went along: and I’m already planning to give it a great overhaul for next year, particularly in order to eliminate nearly all of the “general” and “methodological” topics, and just focus entirely on the content of Christian doctrine. (Teaching this for the first time, I was struck by the fact that prolegomena are really unnecessary: students learn more about “method” simply by practising theology.)

    For my lectures, I relied quite a lot on the Apostle’s Creed — next time, I’ll probably lean even more on the creed, and I’ll also get the students to read a selection of creeds and confessions, which I didn’t think to do last time.

    But as for texts, the students read lots of Migliore and McIntosh. McIntosh is a much better piece of theology (in my opinion), but I was surprised how much students appreciated Migliore: he’s very structured and informative. (I also found McIntosh’s Mysteries of Faith very helpful for lecture-preparation.)

    Some other individual texts that students seemed to respond to:

    Hall, Douglas J. 2005. “On Being A Christian Theologian.” In Bound and Free: A Theologian’s Journey. Minneapolis, Fortress, pp. 18-26. [On tradition and personal responsibility.]

    Jenson, Robert W. 1997. Systematic Theology. Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 14-22. [On the purpose of theology: this made such a big impression on students that I'm actually unsure whether to use it again in future, since I'd like to be able to lead the students towards something better than this "hermeneutical" understanding of theology. Once they'd read Jenson, it was just no use trying to convince them that theology is not a hermeneutical act of "translation"!]

    Barth, Karl. 1991. The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion. Volume 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 45-68. [Again, on the purpose of theology in relation to preaching. Students found this very difficult, but several of them said later that it was one of the high-points of the course. I'll definitely use this again, even though it was probably the most difficult text of the course.]

    Cavanaugh, William. 1998. Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 234-52. [On ecclesiology as ethics.]

    Ratzinger, Joseph. 1995. In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and Fall. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 42-58. [On human beings.]

    Williams, Rowan. 2007. Tokens of Trust. Louisville: WJKP, pp. 57-78. [On christology: I found christology to be the hardest part of the course; but students seemed to respond to this wonderfully concise and elegant metaphor of the musical performer.]

    And for the Trinity, Rublev’s icon was better than any written text.

    Anyway, hope that helps. But for me, one of the biggest shortcomings of my course last semester was the fact that it was so contemporary. In future, I want to find ways to get students engaging more directly with the tradition — partly through the use of creeds, but also perhaps through building one major “classic” text into the whole curriculum (e.g. Augustine’s Confessions, or Calvin’s Institutes). I’m not quite sure how to do that, but I’ll be attempting something like this when I teach the course again next year.

    (Sorry for the lengthy comment!)

    • Ben,

      I think your last paragraph (on your “biggest shortcomings”) is a very very laudable intention and goal; let me encourage you to figure out a way to do that!!!

      In my undergrad years (are you teaching undergrad or grad?), at my “Bible College,” we worked through all the “ologies” of theology (throughout my program); and unfortunately we hardly ever (accept in ecclesiology, a little) were exposed to “the tradition;” it wasn’t until seminary (and my historical theology seminars) that I “finally” was exposed to this rich heritage of ours. Since this exposure, the way that I study, think, and live theologically haven’t been the same (for the better)!!!

      Anyway, I just wanted to reinforce what you already know; I think your intentions here are totally on the right track!

      I think both you and Kent are blessed to have this profession, and to have such “problems;” I’m working that direction myself (PhD) but won’t probably be there for another few yrs or so . . . God bless both of you!

  5. What has theology got to do with Divine Teaching?

    Divine Teaching has only ever come to humankind via the writings, sayings and doings of Realized Saints, Yogis, Mystics and Sages.

    Remarkable beings who have REALIZED something remarkable about existence altogether—beyond and prior to the usual socially constructed consensus “reality” in which the great mass of human beings sleep-walk.

    With rare exception theologians are just sleep-walkers too.
    They may perhaps an intuition of something more than what things merely seem to be.

    And they might have very elaborately constructed seemingly sophisticated ideas (theology) of what its all about.

    But essentially their babblings are just that—babblings.

    All of which get ripped off the moment one begins to go through the death process.

    All of which entirely disappear each night when they enter the state of deep dreamless and formless sleep—and yet the entire cosmic process, and their bodies too, continues on regardless of their “waking” time babblings.

    What does the world or Reality altogether, look like when one is in the state of dreamless sleep?

  6. Paraphrasing: God is incomprehensibly complex, even absurd – and so we should be too? This is very Existential, even “Absurdist”; celebrating the “freedom we have in Christ,” to an extreme (but permissible?) degree.

    Would this book also reflect and expand on Kent’s Panneburg (SP?) thesis: that God embraces our “creatureliness?”

    It would certainly modify, say, Pope John Paul II’s existentialism.

    I agree that this book is interesting, in that it doesn’t mess around, but begins right off, in the space of radical freedom.

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