Divine Teaching: Part Two

McIntosh continues on by addressing Christian belief. He states, “By now it should be abundantly clear, Mark_McIntosh_PhDas I tried to warn you at the beginning of this book, how weak and hapless a thing theology really is in and of itself – apart, that is, from its divine source. And here will come the first critical test for a would-be theologian. For the pressure of wanting to have something under our control, something that we can really say for ourselves – and feel as though we know what we’re talking about – this pressure is going to entice would-be theologians into taking matters into their own hands” (33).

This is something we’ve mused on a lot here at Theology Forum, and I personally find it really refreshing in an intro textbook. McIntosh warns that this impulse or temptation can become a way of holding God at bay, of controlling this wholly free being by our use of language and concepts. Wisdom seems to be McIntosh’s preferred register to navigate these theological temptations. McIntosh notes, “In saying that theology is a kind of wisdom, I am saying that it is possible for God to befriend the human mind well enough for human thinking, so to speak, to lean on the divine mind” (35).

McIntosh, continuing to impress, pushes ahead by putting Origin, Aquinas and Barth in parallel (with large brush strokes), helping the reader to grasp the dogmatic flow (and content) of their respective approaches to theology. Again, what is proving to be “vintage” McIntosh, he jumps into a section entitled: “How Not to Believe: The Dangers of Fantasy and Fanaticism,” offering two points about theology. First, doctrines are not ends in and of themselves; and second, doctrines only function properly if the apprentice is open to hearing from the Master. He states,

If this second point is not the case, then the doctrine is liable to become the toy of the apprentice and get used in all manner of unfortunate ways, usually issuing in a painful sense of disillusionment with religious beliefs in general or a lethal metamorphosing of beliefs into narrow dogmatism…In other words, the realities of faith that theology is trying to understand are not enclosed within the words of the faith; the words are the necessary yet never sufficient conditions for being moved towards the infinite truth of God” (46).

Here, McIntosh pushes off into territory we’ve wrestled with a lot here on Theology Forum, namely, are there spiritually oriented authenticity claims on theology? McIntosh seems to answer yes. “What I’m suggesting, then, is a test for theological legitimacy and integrity that does not predetermine the forms of thought in which theologians venture out, but rather examines the kind of persons their theological journeys make of them” (50). This line of reasoning seems to stem from his orientation of theology towards the beatific vision, focusing the nature of theology towards communion with God, and therefore, presumably, a lived theological existence. Using Newman, McIntosh states, “‘Faith leads the mind to communion with the invisible God.’ By contrast, those whose beliefs seem trapped within their own anxieties, self-gratifying fantasies, or a hardened insistence on being right, will tend to manifest signs of superstition or bigotry” (52).

What do we think about this analysis? Thus far, I think this is the best intro text I’ve seen. He is dealing with issues unfortunately absent from most intro texts, and is doing so in a readable and engaging way. For those of you who have used this in class, how have the students received this first part? Also, what do we think about his test for theological legitimacy?

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3 thoughts on “Divine Teaching: Part Two

  1. When he says:

    “What I’m suggesting, then, is a test for theological legitimacy and integrity that does not predetermine the forms of thought in which theologians venture out, but rather examines the kind of persons their theological journeys make of them” (50).

    Sounds like he has scholastic negative theology in his cross-hairs, and rightly so! It also sounds like a clear indictment of “Evangelical” theology (in general).

    I like what McIntosh has to say.

  2. If the test of good theology, is the kind of person it makes us into, that is more Biblical than one might have thought: “by their fruits you shall know them.”

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