Reading Theology: A Student’s Guide (preview)

I am kicking off a series of posts on reading theology. Call it a “student’s guide” because I have my college students in mind. It’s a work in progress, and I happily invite your interaction!

One of the greatest joys of studying theology with college students is their surprise when encountering the diversity of Reading4voices and texts in the Christian tradition. A sermon by John Calvin. Arius’s letters. The Council of Trent. Pannenberg’s dogmatics. The liturgical poetry of Ephrem. Commentary by Cyril of Alexandria. James Cone’s liberation theology. African Christology. I could go on and on. I have commonly had students say, “I never knew the conversation was this diverse, much less this interesting!

Yet, there are challenges to face when the young theologian encounters diverse voices and different kinds of text. I have one specific challenge in mind with this “student’s guide”: the diversity among theological texts requires the reader to discern the purpose(s) of the particular text on hand. In other words, What work is theology being asked to do here? What goals does the author have in mind? To what ends is theology being put to use?

This might seem obvious enough, but I have found that it often eludes my students. It eludes them for at least two reasons. First, many have never considered that the craft of theology can serve more than one purpose. They suppose theology is for “X”. They might say for instance, “Theology is what you do when belief requires defense; theology is for apologetics.” “Well yes,” I would respond, “but not only for apologetics.”

That raises a second and closely related challenge. Young theologians often lack a sense for the range of what theology can and should do.  The student who supposes that theology only serves, for example, apologetics (or some other single purpose) is often not aware that it might instead be serving worship, preaching, ethics, or sanctification in whatever particular text at hand. It is simply an unconsidered possibility, perhaps because they never saw it modeled. Or maybe because it was never named for them. It’s not particularly surprising to them once they know it, but – here is the big payoff for the theological educator – once they know it they are able to approach theological texts of all sorts with greater discernment about what particular texts are doing.

A fuller “reading guide” would need to address other dimensions of reading as well. Such as, What dispositions and habits are required? Or, What are the relations between theology and the culture in which it is being practiced? Or maybe, How does one discern the theological imagination in which certain texts are found sensible – or nonsensical. And so on. This guide will focus narrowly on the purposes of theology.

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