In the first two posts of this series, I have tried to think about who can do theology and the importance, for a Christian theologian, of knowing God through the faith community. In this post, I argue that a Christian theologian is “called” to the task of doing theology.
In yesterday’s post, the first of this series, I suggested that anybody — whether holy or horrible — can say a theologically true statement. All theology done by humankind (or Balaam’s donkey) is “secondhand” because it is only ever responsive to the “firsthand” theology that is done by God. We do our “secondhand” theology thanks to God’s self-revelation.
This post begins to describe the Christian theologian as a specific kind of person. Yes, anyone can say a theologically true statement; but only a certain kind of person is a Christian theologian. What makes them different? Why should they be different? Read on and weigh in with your own opinions in the comments.
Summer tiiiime and the livins easy. We are on the other side of July now, but summer (in Nashville) is still alive and well: the Olympics are just starting up and iced coffee is just as refreshing as it was back on July 4th! I have had the gift of taking the summer off — save my “house hubby” duties — from work. A great deal of my time has been committed to reading, and applying for jobs. But, I haven’t eked out the quantity of writing that I would have liked. That being said, I have decided to revisit a paper I wrote for a class during my time at Duke. The paper attempts to describe “the Christian theologian.” It was a bit longer than the average blog post ought to be and, in any case, I am unsatisfied with some of my own conclusions. So, in an effort to continue thinking, I will be posting it, bit by bit, and revising it along the way. Please do feel welcome to disagree and help me to clarify my thoughts. I take myself to be a Christian theologian, so if I go astray here, then I am mistaken in who I think I ought to be!
In her book Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s character John writes these words. “It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over. Sometimes they really do struggle with it. I see that in church often enough. So I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you’re done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except laughter is much more easily spent.” She is correct at all points. Laughter does take over the body; laughter does expel something; crying and laughter are similar. The last point is probably the most obvious: laughter is more easily spent than crying. We could draw this point out in a slightly different direction. Laughter is more easily spent and it is also much easier to participate in — it is “an amazing thing to watch” and, as the old cliche goes, laughter is contagious. Crying, on the other hand, is difficult to watch and not something in which people will gladly join. Robinson’s observation, about both laughing and crying, illuminates the reality that these actions have a deep significance to them. Neither crying nor laughing are merely responsive, as if we only cry because something sad happened. Something more seems to be happening when we laugh and when we cry. Continue reading
I am not a systematic blogger. I blog about whatever is going on at the time. I’ve tried series, but they don’t suit me. So during the semester, I blog about classes and teaching. On breaks from teaching, I tend to write about whatever research sits before me. And since I’m collecting and editing selections for my anthology this summer…well, expect to see much on that over the next couple months.
This morning had me working on J.I. Packer. There are few more thoughtful and articulate examples of Protestant Evangelicalism in the twentieth century (nor many more fluent in the Christian tradition). Though it won’t appear in the anthology, his brief summary of theology’s subject matter is beautiful. For Packer, the subject of theology sets the terms for how the theologian carries out her work. But when wrongly conceived, a host of dangers lurk at the ready.
The proper subject-matter of systematic theology is God actively relating in and through all created things to human beings; God, about whom those biblically revealed truths teach us, and to whom they point us; God, who lives, loves, rules, speaks, and saves sinners; God, who calls us who study him to relate to him through penitence and faith and worship as we study, so that our thinking about him becomes an exercise of homage to him.
From this basis (if one accepts it) it follows that the proper state of mind for us as we come to synthesize the exegeted teaching of Scripture will be one not of detachment but of commitment, whereby we bring to our theologizing the attitude not of a critic but of a disciple; not of one who merely observes God, but of one who actively worships him.
Then we shall be in less danger of speculative extrapolations that go beyond Scripture, which it is almost impossible to keep out of theologies that the detached intellect…puts together. We shall be in less danger of forgetting the transcendent mystery of God’s being and action, and of putting him in a box constructed out of our own concepts which the detached intellect, longing to master that which it studies, is very prone to do. We shall be in less danger of the irreverence of treating God as if he were an impersonal object below us, frozen fast by us for the purposes of our study, and of failing to remember that he is the great personal Subject, far above us, apart from whose ongoing life we should not exist at all. And we shall be shielded from the further irreverence of allowing ourselves to grade God’s work in connection with the sovereign mysteries of predestination and evil, and to conclude that if we ourselves were God we could do a better job. ‘Your thoughts of God are too human,’ said Luther to Erasmus. He might have said, your theology has too little worship in it; whichever he had said, the point would have been the same.
In short, we are called to make our study of theology a devotional discipline, a verifying in experience of Aquinas’ beautiful remark that theology is taught by God, teaches God, and takes us to God. So may it be, for all of us (“An Introduction to Systematic Spirituality,” in Serving the People of God, p. 315. Breaks inserted).
Not long ago, Steve posted a nice review of a recently published biography of Packer. Read it here.
Guest post: Zen Hess
The freedom to read what I want as my semester at Duke winds down is a welcome relief! I have been mulling over Robert Jenson’s essay in The Art of Reading Scripture (2003). His argument explicitly raises questions about time, Christology and biblical interpretation. But it also had me asking questions about worship and Advent. Here is what I mean.
Jenson poses the question, “Is it not absurd to think of the Word as in any sense incarnate before the flesh existed, before Jesus was born?” The answer to this question has serious implications for how we interpret Scripture, specifically the Old Testament. One answer, supposed to be the right one by many interpreters in modernity, is that it is, in fact, absurd. Supposing we might “find Jesus in the Old Testament” is to superimpose a foreign element onto the historical text. We are, however, in good company if we think that such a statement is not entirely true.
Believing that the Word preexists the Incarnation means that we may rightly find Christ’s voice in the Pentateuchal, the Poetic, and the Prophetic writings that are the Old Testament. “If the Word of the Lord,” Jenson writes, “came to Second Isaiah and made him a prophet was Jesus Christ, then the vision of Christ that the Church has derived from this prophet, of a ‘man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,’ is not a mere allowable trope but is in fact a product of Christ’s own testimony to his own character, given by the prophet.”
Jenson’s proposal requires us to reimagine how we understand time. Continue reading
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 voices 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