In the first two posts of this series, I have tried to think about who can do theology and the importance, for a Christian theologian, of knowing God through the faith community. In this post, I argue that a Christian theologian is “called” to the task of doing theology.
In yesterday’s post, the first of this series, I suggested that anybody — whether holy or horrible — can say a theologically true statement. All theology done by humankind (or Balaam’s donkey) is “secondhand” because it is only ever responsive to the “firsthand” theology that is done by God. We do our “secondhand” theology thanks to God’s self-revelation.
This post begins to describe the Christian theologian as a specific kind of person. Yes, anyone can say a theologically true statement; but only a certain kind of person is a Christian theologian. What makes them different? Why should they be different? Read on and weigh in with your own opinions in the comments.
Summer tiiiime and the livins easy. We are on the other side of July now, but summer (in Nashville) is still alive and well: the Olympics are just starting up and iced coffee is just as refreshing as it was back on July 4th! I have had the gift of taking the summer off — save my “house hubby” duties — from work. A great deal of my time has been committed to reading, and applying for jobs. But, I haven’t eked out the quantity of writing that I would have liked. That being said, I have decided to revisit a paper I wrote for a class during my time at Duke. The paper attempts to describe “the Christian theologian.” It was a bit longer than the average blog post ought to be and, in any case, I am unsatisfied with some of my own conclusions. So, in an effort to continue thinking, I will be posting it, bit by bit, and revising it along the way. Please do feel welcome to disagree and help me to clarify my thoughts. I take myself to be a Christian theologian, so if I go astray here, then I am mistaken in who I think I ought to be!
The chaos of violence continues to swell, like a wave, thrashing upon our collective attention. Violence is nothing new, but it never loses its edge. I want to let those who have lost loved ones, and their sense of stability, to senseless violence know that I weep with you. For those in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas, Orlando, Iraq, Turkey, and the world over, your tears and your weeping are heard and shared. Before diving into the review, it seems right to begin by praying a prayer from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you, God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and in our moments of sorrow, until the day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn. Amen.
Let us now turn our attention to Francis Watson’s new book, The Fourfold Gospel: A Theological Reading of the New Testament Portraits of Jesus. Watson is one of the world’s leading New Testament theologians. I was introduced to his work by a Duke professor who said, “If you want to read New Testament theology, then read Watson, read it again and again.” I took my professor’s advice seriously and, when Baker Academic agreed to send me a review copy, I was stoked.
Watson’s goal in this book is to offer an approach to answering the question, “What good is there in having four different Gospels?” Continue reading
In her book Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s character John writes these words. “It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over. Sometimes they really do struggle with it. I see that in church often enough. So I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you’re done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except laughter is much more easily spent.” She is correct at all points. Laughter does take over the body; laughter does expel something; crying and laughter are similar. The last point is probably the most obvious: laughter is more easily spent than crying. We could draw this point out in a slightly different direction. Laughter is more easily spent and it is also much easier to participate in — it is “an amazing thing to watch” and, as the old cliche goes, laughter is contagious. Crying, on the other hand, is difficult to watch and not something in which people will gladly join. Robinson’s observation, about both laughing and crying, illuminates the reality that these actions have a deep significance to them. Neither crying nor laughing are merely responsive, as if we only cry because something sad happened. Something more seems to be happening when we laugh and when we cry. Continue reading
Ah, the summer heat. Recently, Jessie and I made the move from Durham, NC to Nashville, TN. If you get on Interstate 40 in Durham heading west, then eight hours later you will find yourself in Nashville. They’re nearly equidistant from the equator, which means the heat in Nashville bears striking resemblance to the heat in Durham — but we wait all winter for this, right? I won’t complain! Between planting some veggies in buckets and working with my buddy Jon, I took respite from the heat and read Robert Jenson’s recently published A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? (kindly forwarded to me for review by Oxford University Press).
Throughout my theological education, I had the opportunity to read a few essays by Jenson. His essay in The Art of Reading Scripture is still one of the most important pieces of writing I have ever read. But relative to the amount of writing he has done and his stature as one of America’s most significant Christian theologians, those few essays seemed inadequate. I wanted to learn more from him. The sheer volume of his work, however, made it difficult to find a good point of entry into his thinking. A Theology in Outline made the dive much easier. Continue reading
I am not a systematic blogger. I blog about whatever is going on at the time. I’ve tried series, but they don’t suit me. So during the semester, I blog about classes and teaching. On breaks from teaching, I tend to write about whatever research sits before me. And since I’m collecting and editing selections for my anthology this summer…well, expect to see much on that over the next couple months.
This morning had me working on J.I. Packer. There are few more thoughtful and articulate examples of Protestant Evangelicalism in the twentieth century (nor many more fluent in the Christian tradition). Though it won’t appear in the anthology, his brief summary of theology’s subject matter is beautiful. For Packer, the subject of theology sets the terms for how the theologian carries out her work. But when wrongly conceived, a host of dangers lurk at the ready.
The proper subject-matter of systematic theology is God actively relating in and through all created things to human beings; God, about whom those biblically revealed truths teach us, and to whom they point us; God, who lives, loves, rules, speaks, and saves sinners; God, who calls us who study him to relate to him through penitence and faith and worship as we study, so that our thinking about him becomes an exercise of homage to him.
From this basis (if one accepts it) it follows that the proper state of mind for us as we come to synthesize the exegeted teaching of Scripture will be one not of detachment but of commitment, whereby we bring to our theologizing the attitude not of a critic but of a disciple; not of one who merely observes God, but of one who actively worships him.
Then we shall be in less danger of speculative extrapolations that go beyond Scripture, which it is almost impossible to keep out of theologies that the detached intellect…puts together. We shall be in less danger of forgetting the transcendent mystery of God’s being and action, and of putting him in a box constructed out of our own concepts which the detached intellect, longing to master that which it studies, is very prone to do. We shall be in less danger of the irreverence of treating God as if he were an impersonal object below us, frozen fast by us for the purposes of our study, and of failing to remember that he is the great personal Subject, far above us, apart from whose ongoing life we should not exist at all. And we shall be shielded from the further irreverence of allowing ourselves to grade God’s work in connection with the sovereign mysteries of predestination and evil, and to conclude that if we ourselves were God we could do a better job. ‘Your thoughts of God are too human,’ said Luther to Erasmus. He might have said, your theology has too little worship in it; whichever he had said, the point would have been the same.
In short, we are called to make our study of theology a devotional discipline, a verifying in experience of Aquinas’ beautiful remark that theology is taught by God, teaches God, and takes us to God. So may it be, for all of us (“An Introduction to Systematic Spirituality,” in Serving the People of God, p. 315. Breaks inserted).
Not long ago, Steve posted a nice review of a recently published biography of Packer. Read it here.