Theology is a Risky Business

What does it mean to be a theologian? Martin Luther has an answer:

gustav-dorejacob-wrestling-with-the-angel18652.jpg“By living – no, much more still by dying and being damned to hell – doth a man become a theologian, not by knowing, reading or speculation” (Vivendo, immo moriendo et damnando fit theologus, non intelligendo, legendo aut speculando). Second lecture on Psalm 15-19. [WA 5, 163]

Luther is not saying that the mental tasks and energies involved with doing theology are irrelevant, but simply, that there is something more to the life of a theologian than the cerebral, something which so often goes overlooked, probably because we get caught up in thinking that theology is a discipline much like any other.

According to Jurgen Moltmann’s reading of Luther, a theologian is afflicted both by internal and external enemies: ‘These are not personal enemies; they are enemies of the consoling Word of God’. Just as Luther chose to live as an outlaw following the imperial ban pronounced upon him at Worms, Moltmann implores us to stand with Luther against political and ecclesiastical tyrants that oppose the gospel. For Moltmann, ‘The person who doesn’t contradict is never contradicted; the person who doesn’t resist won’t be persecuted’.  Of course, we have to strike the right kind of balance here and not fall prey to the sort of acts that contradict and resist the gospel rather than contradicting and resisting that which opposes the gospel.  Such examples are legion and it might serve us well, at some point, to indicate what sort of acts we are not talking about.

Consequences and Responsibilities

If, however, one chooses to stand against the adversaries of the gospel by assumming acts of contradiction and resistance, then sooner rather than later, certain consequences will press in on the life of the theologian.  As Moltmann explains, ‘ When faith is subject to persecutions of this kind in the outside world, inward spiritual temptations result too: fear and doubt, resignation, and a sell-out of the self, and ultimately a falling-in with the stronger power at the expense of the conscience’. 

To be a theologian requires a good deal of mettle in the face of opposition, but this is not a call for more ‘testosterone theology’ – heaven forbid!  What is required is also not a mustering up of more strength for the battle – as if this were even possible, no, what is required is more love for one’s neighbour; Calvin says, ‘Unless you give up all thought of self and, so to speak, get out of yourself, you will accomplish nothing here’ [Inst. III. vii. 5].  If there is an antidote to these ‘inward spiritual temptations’ then perhaps these acts of contradiction and resistance are best put to use when we avoid turning within ourselves for resources and instead we deny ourselves (indeed ‘dying’ as Luther remarked) and go about the task of lending our voice to those around us.

Whatever our course of action, Luther reminds us of one sure eventuality: ‘For as soon as the Word of God dawns in you, the devil will come and afflict you’.  As we have seen, this might mean the devil without or the devil within.

If Luther and Moltmann are worth listening to, then this whole theology and being a theologian caper is anything but that, rather it is a risky business in earnest.

Some questions to be asked should include: ‘what might some of these adversaries look like?’ and, on our end, ‘what shape should our acts of resistance and contradiction take?’  We also need to take note of those acts that can seduce us into thinking we are contradicting and resisting opponents of the gospel but in reality we are contradicting and resisting the gospel; I’m sure discussion on this point could be very fruitful, for instance, are there examples we can point to and say ‘they got it right?’ Finally, and this is just as important, ‘Am I ready to get involved in this business?’
Are there others questions we need to ask?


6 thoughts on “Theology is a Risky Business

  1. Mark, good post. I would need more context to be sure, but I hardly think one can take a ‘confirmation by persecution’ theology from Luther’s quote above. Also, as much as I am a theophile I don’t think we can move from discussion of Luther’s theology to actual reality without consultation of the Scriptures on the issue. That aside, I think you ask some excellent questions.

    “We also need to take note of those acts that can seduce us into thinking we are contradicting and resisting opponents of the gospel but in reality we are contradicting and resisting the gospel”

    Few Christians engaged in theological study will classify themselves as ‘opponents to the Gospel’. Everyone thinks of them self on the side of ‘good’. But in addressing your question directly, I’d have to classify John MacArthur and Rudolph Bultmann as examples of theologians who have resisted the Gospel in their attempts to resist its opponents. To be clear I have no desire to demonize either Bultmann or MacArthur but simply see their attempts to interact with the Gospel as creating more division than unity. More strife than peace. And, ironically enough, I also believe that Bultmann’s theology, or at least the school of thought he belonged to, greatly formed MacArthur’s theological views as a radical response to ‘liberalism’.

    Being brutally honest, in the process of my ’emergence’ I have fallen into the same trap of disgracing the Gospel by trying to redeem it from what the fundamentalist faith has made it.

    I even think that part of the legacy of the Reformation Era is an individualistic faith rooted in humanism and independence. I think as theologians, we all will wander from the Gospel in pursuit of it at some point. Perhaps, the question of ‘How can we assure we don’t wander too far?’ might be another question to add.


  2. This makes me think of my favorite Barth quote:

    “That the zeal for God’s honor is also a dangerous passion, that the Christian must bring with him the courage to swim against the tide instead of with it… accept a good deal of loneliness, will perhaps be nowhere so clear and palpable as in the church, where he would so much like things to be different. Yet he cannot and he will not refuse to take this risk and pay this price… he belongs where the reformation of the church is underway or will again be underway.” – Karl Barth

  3. I am responding out of both conviction and curiosity. I am indeed challenged by the portion of your post regarding being an adversary to the gospel without realizing it. Also, I am curious to find out if this is the Mark McDowell from North Hills. If that is you Mark, please e-mail Kam or myself.

  4. Thanks for the comments. Earl, I think your point about consulting scripture before making theological judgements is dead on – our theology has to be exegetically funded. With that said, I believe Luther is essentially echoing Paul and others when they speak of having to die to self – I won’t bore you with a catalogue of prooftexts. Your last question about avoiding the problem is a perennial one, for sure; my only advice, is that those who are constantly dealing with Scripture are the ones who are in most danger of becoming its perpetrators – we fall into the sin of familiarity far too easily and constantly need to submit to the Spirit in joyful obedience.

    Kyle, great quote!

    Drew – it is the same Mark – will be in contact!


  5. So as an extremely stupid guy who has taken far too long to discover he’s too small in the brain to realize true thought, I am intrigued by this blog and particularly this post.

    I have found myself in certain arenas and eras of my life becoming extremely arrogant in my understanding of just how much I didn’t understand. Think about that… can we actually hold pride for a lack of understanding?

    In essence, I feel that our mantra should be proclaiming the Gospel more than we protect it. Imaging God’s glory to the world through the Glory of His Grace! He doesn’t need our chivalry nor our expertise as even the subtle arrogance of posting to a blog might convey, God doesn’t need it. : )

    “I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” Acts 26:17-18

    In other words, saving faith is based on nothing more than SEEING GODS’S GLORY in Christ. As we see Christ, we see God and in all we see God’s Glory which is the Gospel.

    God is the Gospel, Christ is the Gospel. Adversaries come in many forms including good theology that ‘blinds’ us from seeing God’s Glory but rather our system and intellect as we strive to become a shaper pencil in the pack of dull lead.

    I find myself stupified in the Glory of God with nowhere to go and nothing to say except to hold back the grin of adoration for my Father and King. Amazingly God uses the weak and the dumb and the simplest of things in creation to show His Glory… maybe once He might use me; so I continue to grin in adoration.

    “Those things which before they only heard of by the hearing of the ear, they now are brought to a sight of: of sight of God, and a sight of Christ, and a sight of sin and holiness, a sight of the way of salvation, asight o the spiritual and invisible world, a sight of the happiness of the enjoyment of God and his favor, and a sight of the dreadfulness of his anger… they are convinced because they see them to be.” J Edwards.

    I love to dialog and am going to enjoy the posts on this site. May the authors of this blog be richly blessed in their knowledge of the Gospel who is Christ. Blessings to you and please in Grace ignore my ignorance.

    Staying Stupid,

    James Tippins

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