Reading Theology: A Student’s Guide (Intro)

As I said in my last post, this guide is meant for undergraduate students just beginning their exposure to diverse theological readings. In addition to those majoring in theological and religious studies, I often teach students who are not, which is wonderful because they come with a host of questions I sometimes forget about. I have both in mind with this Guide. A brief introduction:Transfiguration-icon

Theology is possession and process, content and craft. Theology as “content” is found in Ecumenical statements like the Nicene Creed, or in confessions and catechisms like the Westminster Confession and the Catechism of the Eastern Orthodox Church. If you listen well you can also discern it underneath your view of things and your decisions (your “implicit” or “embedded” theology).

As “craft” theology is the process of critical reflection on God and everything else in relation to God. Theology is what Christians do when they apply themselves – heart and mind – to seeking God. The medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury called it “faith seeking understanding”. More recently Michael Jinkins beautifully put it this way:

“Theology is the church’s work of critical reflection performed in the afterglow of a new and unique encounter with God, an encounter that forces us to redefine what we mean by knowledge and reality… Theology is an attempt to account for this relationship with Jesus Christ that turns life and death upside down and never stops turning us upside down until we draw our last breath. Theology is what we try and do to make sense of who Jesus, this other person (this wholly Other person) is who has met us and who continues to meet us, and who has established with us a new matrix of particular relationships that call into question all our relationships with others” (Invitation to Theology, 39, 44).

Between the expansiveness of Jinkins and the brevity of Anselm we might say this: theology is the Spirit-enabled study of the living God undertaken in communion with Jesus Christ and the Church. But what is theology for? What purposes does it serve? Spend any time reading theology – contemporary, recent past, or ancient―or pay attention to the way your pastor preaches, and you immediately realize something: theology is put to work for various reasons. It serves various ends. It has different goals.

The object of theology may remain constant, but its purpose and function varies from one text to another. This guide outlines nine such purposes. It would be an easy mistake to isolate them, but they are in fact tightly interrelated. That said, the focus of a theological text is often one or several. Ask yourself as you engage a reading: What is theology being used for? What is it meant to accomplish? What are its purposes?

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