Theology for Interpreting Reality (3)

The purposes of theology I am introducing in this series overlap significantly in many cases. The relation between this one and the previous, theology for liberating, illustrates the point. Often to move the Church toward liberation, theology paints a vision of reality such that injustice stands out for what it is. For instance, in Elizabeth Gerhardt’s new book The Cross and Gendercide she argues that the Church’s response to global, systemic violence against women must be rooted in a theology of the cross: “a theological foundation of the cross offers an orientation centered on an incarnational Christ as the pivotal point in the church’s care for the other…A theology of the cross is our lens for seeing more clearly the call God has for our lives and on our churches” (pp. 27, 32). Theology for interpreting reality paints a particular picture of the ways things are—it orients according to a particular narrative—so that the Church sees herself and the cosmos truly, that is according to what Christians believe is fundamental to the way things are at their most basic.

Such a particular picture directs action. Consider Bonhoeffer:

The kind of thinking that starts out from human problems and then looks for solutions from that vantage point, has to be overcome – it is unbiblical. The way of Jesus Christ, and thus the way of all Christian thought, is not the way from the world to God but from God to the world. This means that the essence of the gospel does not consist in solving worldly problems, and also that this cannot be the essential task of the church. However, it does not follow from this that the church would have no task in this regard. But we will not recognize its legitimate task unless we first find the correct starting point (Ethics, Works, Vol. 6, p. 336)

cosmosHere is my pocket edition:

We are presented with a cosmos full of things, beings, and events. We also know our inner world, our inner life – even if we only know it in part. How do we make sense of ourselves and the world in which we live: jobs, kids, nations, trees, rabbits, joy, self-doubt, violence, etc.? What does it all mean? Theology serves the interpretation of all things in terms of their relation to God. For example, a tree is not only a living organism but a creation of the triune God, part of his good world, tainted by sin, though destined for redemption in the Kingdom of God. That tree is not just a tree! And art is not just art, and culture is not just culture, and our bodies are not just collections  of physical material—we are not merely members of the species homo sapiens. We are the crown of God’s good making, image-bearers called to steward and tend the garden of God’s world and destined for participation in God’s fellowship. Christians have sometimes called this “viewing the world Coram Deo”, the world as it is before the face of God. Theology serves this.

Theology for Liberating (2)

The second purpose of theology (not in order of priority; and not necessarily conceptually) is theology for liberating – theology as prophetic witness:martin-luther-king

The world is not as it should be – we all know this, and theologians help the church remember how to say why this is so and what should be done. They name the dark, broken places within our own communities and outside them within our cultures, then they call the Church to follow the Spirit there. Theology for liberation is unflinching – it names the darkness in our midst and calls us into the wake of new creation that flows into those dark, incomplete, groaning places. “Liberation theology” may be a term from the twentieth century, but theology practiced for the purpose of liberation is not a twentieth century invention. Certainly when Martin Luther King preached he was practicing theology for liberation, no less Gutierrez or Cone. But they followed the lead of Moses, Isaiah, and Jesus. Moses, perhaps the first liberation theologian: “leave the corners of your field for the poor and the alien.” Isaiah: “Oh Israel, God will judge you for your injustice! You have forgotten the needy among you for the sake of your empty rituals!” And Jesus, who welcomed women, ate with the least, and called his followers to do likewise. When theology serves liberation it calls attention to the injustice and brokenness of our current situation, communities, and lifestyles. It doesn’t relent, it says the difficult words.

Theology for Worship & Preaching (1)

Two caveats. First, I am not making any effort to place the purposes of theology in order of importance. Yet, thinking about where to start, if theology is a practice of the Christian life – first and foremost – then its relation to the church’s worship and preaching would be pretty near the center. AlleluiaSecond, theologians are often not very good at being brief, so I am aiming for brevity. The guide should be something small that easily “slips into your pocket” (remember Augustine’s Enchiridion?).

Enough prelude. Purpose 1: Theology serves the Church’s preaching and worship.

Theology serves worship and preaching when it deepens and expands our comprehension of God’s majesty and the Gospel. Theology serves the cultivation of our amazement in the face of the triune God as he is approached in the Church’s singing, praying, celebration of the sacraments, and hearing of the Word of God in Scripture. Theology for this purpose is what Rowan Williams calls theology in the “celebratory” mode because its goal is “fullness of vision” (On Christian Theology). The temptation is present (especially among Protestants) to narrow “comprehension” to the intellect, but this must be rigorously avoided. “Explanation” or “definition” is not the main goal of theology related to the Church’s worship. We humans are multidimensional creatures, and thus comprehension entails the intellect as well as our affective, tactile, volitional, and relational dimensions. Related to worship and preaching, the comprehension that theology serves is intensely personal and embodied for its object is the God of grace who embodied himself in Jesus the Messiah.

Some dialogue would be great. Any thoughts?

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?

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. Continue reading

Interview with IVP Academic

My editor at IVP Academic recently interviewed me and my coauthor, David Buschart, about our book coming out later this spring, Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church. For just about any author, “What are you writing about?” is a standard, polite question. But it’s a difficult one to answer. How do you capture the essence of your book without overstaying your welcome? I know the glazed look which signals the end of my polite questioner’s interest!

Cover Image 2Hopefully no eye-glazing here. The interview is brief while still providing a textured glimpse of the book. Enjoy:

Reid: How did the idea for this book arise?

Buschart: We share a mutual interest in and commitment to doing theology with and for the church. Individually and then in collaboration, we were struck by the contemporary flourishing of retrieval in both the academy and the church. We found ourselves powerfully drawn into this combination, this convergence. Having observed the trend, we were surprised a book-length study had not been done and eager to explore it together.

Reid: You have selected six areas look at: theological interpretation of Scripture, Trinitarian theology, worship, spirituality, mission and cosmos. Why these?

Buschart: These are not the only areas currently being informed by retrieval. For example, we also observed retrieval with respect to soteriology, race and anthropology. We decided to focus on the six in the book because they appear to be the ones in which the most substantive and robust retrievals are currently taking place. They are also areas that readily manifest connections between theological retrieval and the church.

Reid: I found the chapter on Radical Orthodoxy (RO) very interesting. How did you decide on including it?

Eilers: Radical Orthodoxy is clearly a retrieval project but not one easily pinned down—it is highly diverse and its literature is voluminous. Nonetheless, including it created two unique opportunities for us. Continue reading

On Scholarly Charity

I just received C. Clifton Black’s enticing new book, Reading Scripture with the Saints, and something from the Foreword grabbed my attention—to that in a moment.

Black’s newest is another addition in the now established and ever-expanding body of literature known as theological interpretation of Scripture. Much of these works put contemporary readers back in conversation with their sometimes scorned but Portrait-gallery_1944oftentimes just forgotten ancestors.  As he says it, to “reacqauint, or introduce, a new generation of biblical exegetes and their brilliant grandparents.” The book is a “small museum” and on its pages hang portraits of Christianity’s “masters of the sacred page”: Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, Benedict of Nursia, Maximus Confessor, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and Charles Wesley, not to mention a few surprises like Shakespeare, Washington, and Lincoln.

Black patiently leads the reader through the gallery one portrait at a time, pausing long enough to look closely but not so long that the rest of the museum goes unnoticed. In such an exciting museum you mustn’t linger too long at any one portrait; there is too much to see, too much to be learned. Not every portrait will be to our liking, but each has something to offer the reader of Scripture: discernment, craft, imagination, moves to avoid in some cases, certainly.

All very interesting to be sure, but it was Stephen Fowl’s opening words about scholarly charity in the Foreword that caught my attention and prompted me to post about the book. They are worth quoting at length:

One of the very first tasks I took up as a newly minted PhD was a review of Clifton Black’s The Disciples According to Mark: Markan Redaction in Current Debate. I do not recall why I was asked to review the book or why I even agreed to do it, since I am not a specialist in Mark. The book was an absolute delight to read. Even though the material was quite technical, Black had a graceful writing style that made the material accessible without oversimplifying and distorting it. The book is a gentle but devastating criticism of the attempts at redaction criticism of Mark’s Gospel. My only complaint was that the book might have been too gentle. As a much younger scholar I longed to read a concluding chapter where Black would complete his domination of his scholarly foes, send them packing, and stand alone victorious  on his patch of scholarly terrain. What Clifton Black already knew, and I had yet to learn, was that not only are Christians  called to practice interpretive charity as part of their discipleship; it is also good scholarship, too. Even when there may be flaws, sometimes significant flaws, in the works of others, there are still things to learn. If you seek to annihilate your scholarly opponents, you will not only do them a disservice; you will rob yourself of the opportunity to learn what they have to teach” (xi).