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. Continue reading

More Haste, Less Speed in Theology

The time allowed the church and its theology is a time in which the believer must find it intolerable that some men and women have no idea of the reasons for hope. It is not first and foremost a time for the blessedness of believing or for silent adoration. It is a time for speaking, with no right of holding back. Yet it is also a time in which the believer is authorized to search for the right words to say what must be said, a time in which the impatience of proclamation does not militate against patient application to the labours of thought and expression. This is of first importance [...]

Theological thought is born of wonder and occupies itself in thanksgiving. Yet these self-evident facts should not conceal the very specific interest in knowledge that drives theology forward in the time allowed it. Before it gives delight, it confronts us as a labor thrust upon us, a discourse that we take up not because we choose but because we are constrained. That it is a task, and a difficult one, is not surprising in itself; that is true of philosophy and mathematics, too. In this case, however, there is more: theological speech, before it ever came to be a specialist province, sprang from the elementary logic of theological life itself. The task of theology cannot really be understood apart from its roots in the prophetic dimension of universal Christian experience (p. 268).

Jean-Yves Lacoste, “More Haste, Less Speed in Theology”, Translated by Oliver O’Donovan. International Journal of Systematic Theology Vol. 9/No.3 (July 2007). Emphasis mine.

Is the spiritual formation movement in theological education wrongheaded?

This question is one of many raised by Edward Farley’s Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education (one I wish I would have read years ago!). Let me give you Farley’s assertion, then the FarleyEdwardargument that informs it:

[T]heological education has assumed that its unity and subject matter had no relation to the sapiential knowledge which accompanies faith’s concrete existence (piety). The flurry of activity going on these days about ‘formation’ and ‘spirituality’ is no doubt some sort of attempt at the restoration of piety [in theological education] … Because the aim has been to spiritualize the theological school’s life and ethos but not its course of studies, the formation movement perpetuates the inherited separation of piety and intellect. Presupposed here is that spirituality pertains to a realm other than the subject matter and end of studies … Furthermore, formation and spirituality seem to be viewed as to have little to do with faith’s sapiential knowledge (theologia). This may be why it has been so easy to talk about and urge a formation which lacks spirituality’s very essence, namely, discipline. This lack of a cognitive element and the discipline necessary to it may be the reason formation in the present-day sense exports intellect from piety (pp. 160-61).

How does this strike you?

Lying  behind Farley’s statement is a rather detailed historical tracking of theological education’s circuitous route from the patristic age to the present. The result: Continue reading

Sapiential Theology – Knowing & Loving the Truth

Sapiential truth [i.e. "engaged knowledge that emotionally connects the knower to the known" p. 4] is unintelligible to the modern secularized construal of truth. Modern epistemology not only fragmented truth itself, privileging correct information over beauty and goodness, it relocated truth in facts and ideas. The search for truth in the modern scientific sense is a cognitive enterprise that seeks correct information useful to the improvement of human comfort and efficacy rather than intellectual activity employed for spiritual growth. Knowing the truth no longer implied loving it, wanting it, and being transformed by it, because the truth no longer brings the knower to God but to use information to subdue nature. Knowing became limited to being informed about things, not as these are things of God but as they stand (or totter) on their own feet. The classical notion that truth leads us to God simply ceased to be intelligible and came to be viewed with suspicion.

Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine [Oxford, 1997], 236).

“Practical” Theology?

I have been talking with one of my new colleagues at Huntington about the nature and tasks of “Practical Theology” and its relationship with other theological subdisciplines (systematic, biblical, historical, etc.). Steeple_croppedShe teaches in the department of Ministry and Missions and wonders if the theological work she does there is best characterized as “practical theology”. In some sense it boils down to how you define practical theology, and that in turn has implications for how you understand the roles of other modes of theological reasoning.

For sake of clarifying the issue, consider the following definitions and weigh in: Which do you find more satisfactory? And, does either map the relationship between practical and “systematic” theology in a compelling way?

As a theological discipline [Practical Theology's] primary purpose is to ensure that the church’s public proclamations and praxis in the world faithfully reflect the nature and purpose of God’s continuing mission to the world and in so doing authentically address the contemporary context into which the church seeks to minister … [Practice theology] extends systematic theology into the life and praxis of the the Christian community (Ray Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology, pp. 22-3).

[Practical theology] begins and ends with inquiries focused on practices. The ground for this focus is an understanding of faith as a lived entity. Our task is to think through faith and “belief” in terms of their embodiment in life. Thus the primary reference of our theologizing is the lived life in all its contemporary forms. This contrasts with biblical studies’ focus on texts, systematics focus on doctrines, church history’s focus on the history of the community of faith, but relies on these forms of inquiry in understanding what it means for faith to be lived (Brock and Swinton, The Aberdeen School of Practical Theology).

Another part of my interest in defining practical theology is my concern that systematic theology not be understood as a practice sequestered from the lived existence of the church Continue reading

Christian Wisdom: Part 2

We pick back up with Ford’s discussion of wisdom by looking at the book of Job. Ford states, “The wisdom pedagogy of the book of Job is as far as possible away from ‘packaged’ answers. It is about the most fundamental questioning and searching, including radical and controversial interrogation of wisdom and its traditions; but even that is not primary: it is above all about being questioned and searched” (93). The reader therefore, following Job, is invited to undergo this same process. What follows is again a low-flying biblical-exegetical analysis of the text of Job, peppered with commentary and interaction along the way. Along these lines, Ford states,

In being offered the possibility of blessing God for God’s sake, Job is given a relationship within which he can search and be searched as he wrestles with the worst” 104).

Ford turns a corner to focus on the implicit but nonetheless relevant issue of the creation and creature’s standing before God. Creation itself, has its own dignity and beauty, and should be celebrated for its own sake. The logic in Job, he claims, is that if creation deserves to be valued for its own sake, how much more the Creator? Continue reading

Christian Wisdom

In the next couple of posts I am going to look at David Ford’s Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Christian WisdomFord offers a low-flying biblical/exegetical/theological account of wisdom as the overriding concept of Christian theology. The first thing that struck me about this book is Ford’s clear concern to work closely with the biblical text. At several points he quotes larges portions of scripture to exposit, and the book, in many ways, is an explication of these central biblical texts. In one such instance, commenting on Luke 24:13-53 (Road to Emmaus), Ford states:

So the person who at the beginning of the Gospel is filled with wisdom and amazes the teachers in the Temple, and in the middle has exulted in knowing the Father, and in death has cried out in words from a Psalm, here interprets ‘all the Scriptures’. Yet, even as he does this and their hearts burn within them, the vital recognition of who he is does not occur through this conversation: it happens only through the breaking of bread” (37).

In an important methodological comment, Ford notes, “One of theology’s main temptations is to formulate doctrines or other theological conclusions with reference to scripture and then forget that reference, Continue reading

Theological Temptations: Grandiosity

Of the many theological temptations that can plague the theologian, grandiosity may be one of the most subtle. Grandiosity is that aspect of fleshliness that allows one to find their identity in what they do – and it is used as a means to create a self that is greater, stronger and solidified in a way their true self is not. It tends to trade knowledge of theology for knowledge of God and self, being convinced that one’s labors are always kingdom labors, and that one’s effort is of the highest order.

In this sense, it inclines the theologian towards existential bi-polar angst. In other words, there is no middle ground. Everything they do jumps from perfection to pointlessness. Their craft as a theologian lacks purity because it is done to seek approval from others and is grounded in their self-identity and meaning. Praise for their work fuels the endeavor while critique sheds light on their deepest fears that they really don’t know what they are talking about. Other theologians who are brighter, more well-read and advanced in their theological reasoning are either seen as necessary compatriots who they need to be aligned with, or they must be in some way undermined, either in character, in viewpoints or in background.

The closer one is to fundamentalism, in many cases, the more grandiose is one’s view. This stems, in part ( I believe) from the apologetic character of fundamentalist theology.  Continue reading

The “Promise” of Systematic Theology

‘Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father j20webster201_black20and20whitewho is in heaven’ (Matt. 16:17). Christian systematic theology takes place in the wake of that breathtaking dominical announcement. Yet it remains an earthly, flesh and blood enterprise, far indeed from the theology of the blessed, communicated to the perfected saints by the permanent intellectual light of the presence of God through the mediation of the Son. It is the rational work of the children of Adam who are only slowly learning what it is to be the children of God. This relativizes systematic theology in the  present condition of creaturely infirmity after the Fall; yet it is accompanied by a promise of divine wisdom, already given and to be given again, by which creatures can be conducted from ignorance and unhappiness to knowledge and bliss. If systematic theology is to survive in a culture which has been deprived of a sense that rational creatures have a celestial final cause and which cannot envisage contemplation as a mode of science, it will find itself turning with some urgency to the divine promise.

John Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology” in International Journal of Systematic Theology 11/1 (January 2009): 71.

The Ethos of Elitism

As of late, I have been contemplating some of the many temptations for the theologian. One of the more subtle, what I am calling elitism, is what I am concerned with here. My worry tends to focus on the teleology of the theologian, namely, “What are we becoming?” From my perspective, what often happens is that, somewhere along the way, our loves are reorganized and re-prioritized, and we find ourselves loving the ethos of theology more than the end of theology itself.

So what is the ethos of theology? The superficial answer is something like tweed, pipes, brown leather furniture and dark cherry bookshelves housing thousands of hard to find (and barely read) volumes. There is a side of this, of course, which is both natural and good (I do love all of these things by the way). When we deepen our understanding we come to appreciate, to use an Edwardsian idea, the complexity of harmony within objects of beauty. This soon oozes out of our academic context of book reading to things like food, where fish and chips are left behind for white wine reduction; music, where U2 is left behind for Mozart; and drinks, where Bud Light is left behind for Glenlivet’s fifteen-year french oak reserve. The problem with this is that it seems to be the telos of the academy rather than the church. Isn’t this true, for instance, of any philosophy program as well?

I’m not sure why these things have been on my mind lately, and I don’t really have anything terribly constructive to add, but I would love to hear any of your thoughts on this. Is there a teleology for the theologian which pushes against the academizing of our souls? belv4Is there something inherent in the task of theology which should undermine our love for these things? Is there any sort of sense that we should start looking more like John the Baptist and less like Mr. Belvedere (see the awesome photo on right).

I wonder if Philippians could be of service to this discussion as well, which, if Joseph Hellerman is right, is mainly a polemic against the Roman worldview. It makes sense therefore for Paul to hold his status (we could probably say C.V. as well) against Jesus’ in Philippians 2 where the overall movement of Jesus’ life (which is supposed to be our attitude) is from honor to shame, from having status to handing that status over. Is the academy modelling a worldview which mimics worldly ideals that needs to be mortified for the theologian to truly be a churchly theologian?

Evangelicals and the Formation of Christian Doctrine

A guest post by David Buschart

Evangelicals are, almost by definition, deeply concerned with matters of theology and doctrine.

Formation of Christian Doctrine

And, in recent years, there has been a flourishing of interest among North American evangelicals in matters of history. (The multiple manifestations of the latter include the rise of a cadre of outstanding evangelical historians [e.g., George Marsden, Mark Noll], increasing numbers of evangelicals undertaking doctoral studies in history, and the turn to historical resources that has accompanied evangelical interest in “spiritual formation.”) However, evangelicals have continued to virtually ignore the intersection of these two (i.e., theology and history)-theology and doctrine as historical phenomena.

There is a cluster of questions and topics which surround this intersection, most notably the nature and function of tradition and traditions, and the topic addressed in the book reviewed here, the development of doctrine. To my knowledge, the only two book-length treatments of this topic by evangelicals in recent decades are Peter Toon, The Development of Doctrine in the Church (Eerdmans, 1979) and Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine (Blackwell, 1990). Given the interest among evangelicals in both theology and history, it is surprising that this intersection has not been more thoroughly examined. And, given the nature and relevance of the questions entailed, the development of doctrine is a topic which warrants thoughtful engagement.

Perhaps Malcolm Yarnell’s book, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (B&H Academic, 2007), will serve as a prompt to this engagement. Continue reading

Should Theologians Be Spiritual: Part 4

In continuing our brief (and admittedly superficial) look at several theologians, we have been asking the question: Should theologians be spiritual? In doing so, we have been looking to answer another question: Is one’s spiritual depth directly related to one’s theological ability? In other words, if it were possible to objectively “read” another person’s spiritual depth, would that provide a “ceiling” on their theological climb?Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy

I now turn to Jonathan Edwards. As many of you know, I am writing my dissertation on Edwards, and have been asking many other questions of Edwards’ theological method, task and aim. For the purpose of this post, I am going to narrow down the literature quite a bit, and just look at the fourth sign in the “Distinguishing Signs” of The Religious Affections. Early on in this sign, Edwards states:

From what has been said, therefore, we come necessarily to this conclusion, concerning that wherein spiritual understanding consists; viz. that it consists in a sense of the heart, of the supreme beauty and sweetness of the holiness or moral perfection of divine things, together with all that discerning and knowledge of things of religion, that depends upon, and flows from such a sense.” (Y2:272)

Edwards concern, of course, is not our own. Continue reading

Should Theologians Be Spiritual? Part 3

For the third part of this discussion, I thought it would be interesting to turn to an Eastern Orthodox theologian. pantocratorsinaiThis will close out our look at more mystically minded theologians. In doing so I will look at Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (and because I wanted to remind Mark that he didn’t buy it for £3 when he had the chance!).

From the very beginning of the volume, Lossky claims that “all theology is mystical, inasmuch as it shows forth the divine mystery: the data of revelation” (7). He admits that there is a strand of mysticism that focuses solely on an “unutterable mystery” to be “lived rather than known.” On the contrary, Lossky suggests,

we must live the dogma expressing a revealed truth, which appears to us as an unfathomable mystery, in such a fashion that instead of assimilating the mystery to our mode of understanding, we should, on the contrary, look for a profound change, an inner transforming spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically. Far from being mutually opposed, theology and mysticism support and complete each other. One is impossible without the other. If the mystical experience is a personal working out of the content of the common faith, theology is an expression, for the profit of all, of that which can be experienced by everyone” (8-9).

Lossky states that, “Mysticism is accordingly treated in the present work as the perfecting and crown of all theology: as theology par excellence” (9). Continue reading

Should Theologians Be Spiritual? Part 2

After looking briefly at Hans Urs Von Balthasar, I thought it would be appropriate to look at a Balthasar commentator, Mark McIntosh. mystical-theologyI will mainly be referring to McIntosh’s prolegomna discussion in his book Mystical Theology. He starts by addressing some issues in defining spirituality, landing on an understanding which focuses on a discovery of the true self through an encounter with the divine and human other. This lays a platform for a discussion of spirituality and theology:

Perhaps one might think initially in terms of encounter with God as the common ground of spirituality and theology: spirituality being the impression that this encounter makes in the transforming life of people, and theology being the expression that this encounter calls forth as people attempt to understand and speak of the encounter” (6 – my emphasis).

McIntosh pushes away from seeing “experiential phenomena” as the defining features of the spiritual life, because when they are, “spirituality seems to lose its theological voice” (9). Continue reading