Theological Educator As…(Ruminations of a Novice, Pt. 2)

One of the roles of a theological educator is to model “theological discernment”: how one goes about theological reasoning with faith, hope, love, and not a little bit of joy.

Ellen Charry describes theology as above all “a discipline of discernment.” Whether one begins by examining the Biblical text,

the doctrinal tradition, a personal encounter with God, a sobering personal experience, or the culture in which one is located theology is thinking through and beyond these points of entry until deeper realization of God’s truth emerge (Inquiring After God, 53).

Charry’s observation that theology is “a discipline of discernment” strikes me as altogether right. Theology, not as a body of knowledge but as a task or craft, necessarily involves the practitioner in a weighing and sifting that is certainly as much art as science: whether they are an everyday Christian confronted by a perplexing cultural text, a pastor preaching on a difficult topic, or one of us strange beings who make our home in the University or seminary and for whom theology very often takes place in preparation for classes or in the presence of students.

Learning theological discernment is certainly more easily “caught” than taught, but some intentional pedagogical strategies can invite students actively into the process. For example, I have my students in systematic theology wrestle throughout the course with Rowan Williams’ thoughts on theological method from the prologue to On Christian Theology.

On Williams’ account theology is a threefold cyclical movement that begins in the “celebratory” mode, moves to the “communicative”, then into the “critical” before coming full circle.  Theology’s critical impulse should

move towards a rediscovery of the celebratory by hinting at the gratuitous mysteriousness of what theology deals with, the sense of the language trying unsuccessfully to keep up with a datum that is in excess of any foresight, any imagined comprehensive structure. And the cycle begins again (xv).

For my students this culminates in a final oram exam when they apply this three-fold cycle to a given doctrine such as the Incarnation or the Atonement.

So, a couple questions: first, from whom did you learn (or are learning) “theological discernment”? Second, how does Williams’ model strike you? I like it because it is simple, memorable, and grounds theology’s impulse firmly in one’s encounter with grace. But that’s just me.

    (See “Ruminations” part one here)

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    3 thoughts on “Theological Educator As…(Ruminations of a Novice, Pt. 2)

    1. What you are describing, Kent, is very much along the lines that T.F. Torrance used to argue when he talked about “theological instinct”. This, he contended, is learning a way of thinking that was is shaped by the nature of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. It is NOT merely the acquisition, packaging, and transfer of theological data, which so often masquerades as doing theology. Torrance also repeatedly warned against the danger of overassociating our theology with God Himself, such that we lose the ability to have our theology corrected or grown. This approach, reflecting Michael Polanyi’s epistemological emphases, depends on the priority of the object of our knowledge over the means and structures of our knowledge, thus creating an “artistic” approach to theology. So, your reflections have already put you in esteemed company!

    2. Pingback: Theology as Apprenticeship « Theology Forum

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