The Seven Deadly Spiritual Sins of Theologians

My wife and I are reading a book with our small group at church called Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. The author reminded me that John of the Cross suggests seven deadly spiritual sins in beginners that must be purified. After reading through these, and being reminded of John of the Cross’s never ending existential insight, I thought it might be prudent to direct these towards being theologians. Here is the list as presented in the book (sadly, I don’t have my copy of Dark Night of the Soul with me in Scotland to quote from it directly):

1. Pride: they have a tendency to condemn others and become impatient with their faults. They are very selective in who can teach them.
2. Avarice: they are discontent with the spirituality God gives them. They never have enough learning, are always reading many books rather than growing in poverty of spirit and their interior life.
3. Luxury: they take more pleasure in the spiritual blessings of God than God himself.
4. Wrath: they are easily irritated, lacking sweetness, and have little patience to wait on God.
5. Spiritual gluttony: they resist the cross and choose pleasures like children do.
6. Spiritual envy: they feel unhappy when other do well spiritually. They are always comparing.
7. Sloth: they run from that which is hard. Their aim is spiritual sweetness and good feelings.

To begin a new list then, lets think about the seven deadly spiritual sins for those who seek to serve the church as theologians.

Pride. This would probably be seen as the most obvious. There are, no doubt, many theologians who make their living condemning others. Since these sins are oriented towards “beginners” in John’s list, I suppose that they should be here as well. How many beginning theologians have tried to make a name for themselves by showing why everyone else in their spiritual and theological past is wrong (if not stupid – Ehrman’s book might come to mind)? If Calvin was right about the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self, then it would actually be impossible, in one sense, to be a good theologian and to be prideful. Knowledge of God, true knowledge, would necessarily imply true knowledge of self. If this were the case, who could be prideful? I suppose, it is relevant to ask whether or not we believe personal holiness has anything to do with good theology. Could a person be spiritually dead and yet theologically alive? On the other side of the issue, for John at least, pridefulness means that the person is impatient with the process of the spiritual life. This, again, seems relevant for those who are often too aware of their slow growth and development theologically. What could it mean to be patient with the process? Likewise, there are certain fundamentalists who embody the other critique John makes here, that they are selective on who can teach them. I have been criticized by some fundamentalists for quoting guys like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. They don’t criticize what I quote, but instead find something else they said and claim that I must also affirm that. The idea that we should only interact with those who we agree with on the “fundamentals” (unless it is to bash them), is one of the most arrogant mistakes of many fundamentalists.

Avarice. This sin is the hardest for most theologians to read about. This sin attacks the use of knowledge as a means for “achieving” in the spiritual life. In other words, the beginner struggling with avarice tries to learn their way into the kingdom rather than growing spiritually. Instead of praying more, they read more – a sort of self-obsessed attempt at sanctification. I wonder if the theological equivalent to this is particularly evident in the American style of theologizing? There is a style of theology that Americans tend to lean toward that seeks justification through quoting. The belief seems to be that if I just show that I have read everything there is to read, then I must know what I am talking about. This is the mosaic style of argument that I critiqued Roderrick Leupp on.

Avarice…attacks the use of knowledge as a means for “achieving” in the spiritual life. In other words, the beginner struggling with avarice tries to learn their way into the kingdom rather than growing spiritually. 

Luxury. In this sense, I think that the allure of creativity, status, originality and identity are true temptations for the theologian. There are temptations to craft an identity through one’s work, or to seek originality for its own sake, rather than out of a desire to fulfill one’s calling to the body of Christ. Therefore, there is a possibility to enjoy being a theologian more than being a Christian – and that is a dangerous reality for one who seeks to serve the church.

Wrath. This, like pride, often comes out through interaction with other views. What does it look like to truly believe that your conclusions are true, and yet to still stand in humility? With wrath, there seems to be something else at stake. I have read too many articles by young theologians who seek to attack and dismantle anyone’s view that disagrees with their dissertation work. I have even seen a book review where someone ignored the task of writing the book review and spent the majority of the word count positing their own conclusions on the thesis rather than interacting with the book itself. This is certainly pride related, but it also takes a good dose of wrath as well. Interestingly, John orients wrath towards waiting upon God. There is a sense of anger about God’s project and his work in John’s understanding of wrath. I have certainly read some works that come off as angry attempts to re-conceive God in a way which dulls the sharp edge of the prophetic word.

Gluttony. What would it mean to resist the cross as a theologian? The sin that John highlights here seems to be the acceptance of worldly satisfaction over spiritual. Gluttony for a theologian could very well be time. Time, in many ways, is the theologians food. Time is what keeps the theologian up at night, where can I find the time to write more, where can I find the time to read more, etc.? This is why we all (whether or not we admit it or not), are slightly seduced by the idea of a post-doc. We have grown fat on full-time research and now crave more. I guess the question to ask here would be: What is the calling of a theologian? The temptation with gluttony is a failure to see my work as the church’s. I suppose that this would also flow over into C.V. building in that building a C.V. can become a very secular task in something that should probably have a spiritual reality underneath it. In this sense, someone can turn theological growth into a way to grow in status.

Envy. I imagine I am not alone when I read a great dissertation and leave feeling frustrated. Or, on the other hand, when I come up with something “new” only to find that someone had published on that years ago and find myself angry at the person for doing so. Or, again, when I meet someone whose journey in life has brought them down a different path than my own, and, being that the grass is always greener, I find myself envious that their parents forced them to be fluent in Latin (or whatever the case may be).

Sloth. You might think that sloth wouldn’t have much of a place in the theological world, but I think there is one (if not several more) glaring exceptions. Sloth seems to set in for many academic theological types when the laity are concerned. In this sense, theology is fun only in the abstract, and isn’t so much when people are asking honest questions about God, the gospel and the church. This temptation tends to lead towards the same as gluttony – to disappear in an ivory tower of one’s own to appear only when one feels like it. Sloth, in this sense, is to be a theologian on your own terms, and in your own way; if people can’t understand, that is their own fault.

There are plenty of scenarios, of course, where these things aren’t true (and you might disagree with them altogether). There is nothing wrong with post-docs, high-level academic work, or intensive research (at least I hope not!). But this list should, I hope, raise some important questions about the theological task and how we should be judging our own development. In other words, are these issues for the theologian at all, or should a theologian be judged, not by their inner-life but by their theological output, like we would judge a scientist or a mathmatician?

So, what do you think? Am I way off on some of these? Have I missed anything glaringly obvious? What about John of the Cross’s original list?

9 thoughts on “The Seven Deadly Spiritual Sins of Theologians

  1. James, I think that could be a mixture of avarice, gluttony and sloth. Avarice because there is a desire to just gain knowledge of information (which is able to be controlled, measured and assessed), rather than deal with the reality of mystery which is not nearly as qualifiable. Gluttony, for the reasons you note, that it is simply childish – or, in other words, the inclination to fulfill base desires, which, in this case, would be an ability to master, control and achieve. I also think sloth, for the same reasons. There is a degree of laziness here. It is just easier to boil theology down to axioms, write a one volume systematic, and then act as if the task is finished.

  2. Kyle, great post. I have a couple thoughts. First, there is an element of your point about holiness that I certainly agree with, but I worry about the possible implications of equating the theologian’s holiness (or lack of) with the capacity of their work to serve the ministry of the church. This may not be what you are saying, but I worry that if not qualified carefully, then it could very quickly lead to this. To do so would leave little or no room for God to use the most rubish theology (and theologians) toward his own ends. Personally, if I cannot trust that God will use this broken vessel theologian for his purposes of strengthening and enabling the church, then I need to find another vocation. Any chance you could comment on this aspect of the theologian’s ‘holiness’?

    Also, related to sloth, could we also say that lack in diligence regarding the referencing of other sources in our work is an example of this sin? It is all too easy to take someone else’s thoughts as our own – even not in a way that would appear as blatant plagerism. Or failing to track down leads that might contradict our assertions?

    This certainly isn’t restricted to writing theologians alone; the preaching theologian (pastor) who pulls someone else’s sermon off the internet and preaches it as their own rather than doing the preparitory work themeselves has, in some sense, steered dangerously close to the sin of sloth hasn’t he or she?

  3. Kent, thanks for your thoughts. First, I think you are right about the question of sloth. There is something inherent in the exercise of theology that is both hard as well as slow. This includes, as you’ve pointed out, a diligence to reference sources. I’ve never seen so much blatant plagerism than the last couple of years in popular level books and preaching.

    To your main point, that is the very question I am seeking to ask. Does the spiritual depth of a theologian affect his ability to theologize? Although, I would want to navigate your question carefully. In your example (a “rubbish” theology that God can use), the theology done is admittedly rubbish. It isn’t good. But the quality of the theology is judged instrumentally, because of God’s ability to use it. I would want to push away from judging theology along these lines. I trust that God can even use the stuff I do (!) but I don’t want to judge the quality of the theology based on its ability to output certain “fruit” (of course, this could easily be questioned with: “You will know them by their love” but lets leave that aside for now). I guess a good question would be: could a theology be considered rubbish at all (or how could it be), if God uses it? If it could be, then how do we discern that it is in fact rubbish?

    If your inclinations are right, and they might very well be, maybe a good example would be the prophet. A prophet was considered to be a “good” prophet (or true), if his prophecy came true (or, in other words, was true to God’s Word). So, Balaam’s donkey (Num. 22) would just just as good of a prophet as Isaiah. But is this true of theology or the theologian? I’m not sure. I’m going to offer some more posts in the near future asking that question.

  4. Thanks Kyle. It will be good to keep this conversation going as you continue wrestling with these issues. Let me clarify my concern: I’m worried about linking a theologian’s spiritual depth or personal piety (these two are dangerously close in some cases) to the capacity of one’s theology to be useful to the church and her ministry. This seems to me a directly related issue to your core question: Does the spiritual depth of a theologian affect his ability to theologize?

    As to the ‘instrumentalist’ question you raised, Augustine had a pretty instrumentalist criteria for evaluating the interpretation of scripture so I would imagine the same would apply for theology as well: theology that leads one to greater love of God and love of neighbor is worthy of the church. This would need some fleshing out and expansion, but it seems a good place to start.

    Let’s see where this leads as the conversation continues.

  5. Kent, I agree with your concern. As with Balaam’s donkey, God is free to use what he deems necessary for his will and ends. My worry, on the other hand, is that any instrumental means be used to judge theology as such. I guess we could invoke Paul’s admonition that he planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth, but I still think we need to be able to talk about the quality of one’s theology in a way that doesn’t link it to its effects.

    In terms of the Augustine example, he wanted to use (if I recall correctly) love of God and love of neighbor as something of a hermeneutical lens through which to read scripture. Therefore, there still is such a thing as a bad interpretation, but if it leads to love of God love of neighbor it “worked,” however accidentally. So Augustine will say that if you end up at the right place, great, but note as well that you need to stop taking bad routes.

    So, maybe the question itself is too ambiguous? In Augustine’s framework, maybe the question would be, does a theologian’s holiness have anything to do with his ability to find the right route, and not merely the right ends? Or, in other words, if theology stands under the Word, does knowing the Word spiritually make any inroads into one’s theology?

    I guess my worry has more to do with the opposite, rather than the question as I have posed it. In other words, can someone who is morally and spiritually “deranged,” “dead,” “fill-in-the-blank” do good theology for the church? I guess I am slightly allergic to saying yes. Does that make sense?

  6. Pingback: The Seven Deadly Sins - Theology Style « scientia et sapientia

  7. Kyle, we might need to agree to disagree at this point and see where the dialogue takes us in your upcoming posts on the subject.

    I certainly believe that your question (‘can someone who is morally and spiritually “deranged,” “dead,” “fill-in-the-blank” do good theology for the church?’) is entirely worth asking. I don’t want to say that the theologian’s spiritual health is inconsequential. Rather, perhaps we don’t apply the measure of it (my own or others) to the question of whether or not we deem someone’s theological output as capable of serving the church or of what quality we might deem it to be (i.e. is it ‘good’ or not). His or her spirituality does matter, but maybe I am trying to say it matters differently. I remain concerned that this line of thinking could lead to a kind of legalism and fingerpointing of the Pharisaical sort. For example, ‘See what theologian ‘X’ does (or does not do), his work clearly can’t be ‘good’ or ‘If I look at my own heart and its decietfulness, surely my work can’t be ‘good’ or useful to the church’. To be even more specific (at my own peril), a fundamentalist might say, ”X’ smokes and doesn’t abstain from alcohol, surely we shouldn’t consider his work’ or someone else might say, ”Y’ is far too pietistic, surely his work is infantile and naive’.

    I have a hunch that the heart of our disagreement is really just about how a theologian’s spirituality matters, not if it matters.

  8. Kent, at this point, I have no idea what I think about it!

    I am less interested in the epistemic question. In other words, I don’t want to go from a person’s holiness to their theology – either “they are holy therefore their theology is good” or, which would certainly be worse, “I don’t think they are holy therefore their theology is bad.” In other words, I think the issue of judging theology is another question. My thoughts are solely on an abstract level – from God’s perspective – as it would be. So, I guess the question could be (as odd as this might sound), does God ever look at someone and say to himself: “That guy is a fool (doesn’t discern true wisdom from 1 Cor), but his theology is right on.” Or, possibly, to flip the question on its head, could we ask if it is possible for someone who does not know God in the slightest (for an extreme example), to be able to talk about God knowingly?

    Once again, this isn’t a question of God using those things, I think your point is right on about that. God is gracious enough to continue to use feeble efforts and sin tainted persons. Likewise, I agree as well with trying to somehow use holiness as a way to judge theology, good or bad.

    My worry I suppose, if pushed on it, is that theology just becomes another science. Therefore I can advance in knowledge of God without actually being affected by God, in the same way I could advance in knowledge of math without being affected by math. I guess my worry is on a methodological level. I just don’t know what it means to say that one can, if I can put it this way, stand under the judgment of God, all the while seeking to explicate the mystery of this good news Jesus proclaimed without having one’s relationship to that God affect the task (positively or negatively).

    That being said, you and I both know how easy it can be to just accumulate proof-texts, triangulate positions, add some rhetorical savvy and realize that your stance before God had little to nothing to do with actually going about the task. Although I wonder if this says more about the nature of the task in our day, than the task itself. I honestly have no idea. It will be interesting to hear from some others on this through my next couple of posts.

    Thanks for your thoughts brother! I look forward to hearing what you think of some of the other posts.

  9. I am not a theologian, but I study my faith and I found this article to be extremely helpful. If this were part of a small book or pamphlet I would keep it handy, it’s that good. Many blessings to you and yours.

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