What do you do anyway? Being an unemployed theologian

What do you do anyway? You can usually see the question forming behind the blank stare you receive when you talk about being a theologian. Often, these days, I say I’m an author, because that gives them something concrete to think about. Being an unemployed theologian leaves people with a picture of you in your pajamas watching daytime tv. Being an author at least gives a picture of work. So here are some musings on being an unemployed theologian.

As most of you will know, there is a huge difference between being a theologian who doesn’t work and being a theologian without a job. I am of the latter variety. I work a lot. I am currently writing three books (two of which are contracted), editing three books (all of which are contracted) and in the proposal phases of two more (one written and one edited), not to mention articles and papers. But I’m not just an author. I am a theologian. My vocation is not tied to a paying gig. Therefore, when I’m not writing, I find myself presented with fascinating oppotunities to actually be a theologian. I lead a disability theology study group for my church. There are several of us that get together to talk about disability and theology so that we can focus our attention as a church on God’s calling for us. This is particularly important for our church since we are helping to plant a church aimed at people with disability with a pastor who has a disability. I co-lead our adult Bible study at my church. Last semester we studied Gospel stories alongside a painting of the same story. We asked: How was this painter interpreting this passage? as we meditated on the passage itself. If you scroll through this blog you will see several of the paintings we used. Currently, we are working through Hebrews chapter by chapter.

Along with preaching on occasion, I find myself in situations to try and speak meaningfully about theology to pastors. I have led a denomination’s pastors retreat and plan on leading another one for them in October. I meet with pastors to talk about ministry and the nature of the church and her call. I lecture from time to time at seminaries in either theology or spiritual formation. In fact, now that I think about it, I can’t imagine having a job! As I’ve tried to see this time of life as a blessing, rather than a frustrating situation, it becomes clear to me how unique it is to have a calling that is not tied to a job. This is true for everyone, of course, but I have found that the opportunities for a theologian are endless. Anyone else having similar experiences?

Because Nothing Says ‘Happy New Year’ Like Particular Redemption

In John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ the English Puritan unfurls a dizzying number of arguments against universal redemption (the Arminian teaching that Christ died for the sins of all persons and every person without exception, not to be confused with ‘universalism’ in current parlance) and for particular redemption.  One of the arguments he includes is one that perhaps most theology students encounter fairly early in the study of Christian doctrine: Christ is said in Scripture to die specifically for his own people (e.g., Eph. 5:25; Titus 2:14).  This argument can then be easily brushed aside when one observes that these texts do not explicitly say that Christ died for his own people only.  However, Owen fills out the argument in such a way that makes things a bit more complicated for the Arminian respondent.  He notes that throughout Scripture believers in Christ, the company of the saved, and unbelievers, alienated from God and from salvation in Christ, are clearly distinguished from one another.  An obvious example is supplied by the parable of the sheep and the goats:

Before [the Son of Man] will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.  Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world….Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:32-34, 41).

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What is a theology exam for, anyway?

In the midst of semester-end examinations I look for inspiration wherever possible (perhaps you find yourself in the same academic malaise). Here Barth gives a lovely account of the value and purpose of theological exams. I close my two semester, undergraduate theology cycle with oral exams for reasons similar to this:

When properly understood, an examination is a friendly conversation of older students of theology with younger ones, concerning certain themes in which they share a common interest. The purpose of this conversation is to give younger participants an opportunity to exhibit whether and to what extent they appear to give promise of doing so in the future. The real value of a doctorate, even when earned with the greatest distinction, is totally dependent on the degree to which its recipient has conducted and maintained himself as a learner. Its worth depends, as well, entirely on the extent to which he further conducts and maintains himself as such. Only by his qualification as a learner can he show himself qualified to become a teacher. Whoever studies theology does so because to study it is (quite apart from any personal aims of the student) necessary, good, and beautiful in relationship to the service to which he has been called. Theology must possess him so completely that he can be concerned with it only in the manner of a studiosus (Evangelical Theology, 172).

Questioning Theological Education

To start this post, let me begin with several qualifications: First, I think that theological education has some serious meditation to do concerning its task. Second, I think the overall model / approach upon which we’ve built is flawed. Third, I am excited about virtually anything that seeks to think creatively about this. In comes Mike Breen. Mike Breen, who I know little about but have heard good things, posted this back in November. It is a wholesale engagement with the kinds of worries I have. In light of that, let me again state some qualifications: First, I know nothing about this other than this post. Second, if I saw this right when I graduated seminary I probably would have called him up and said, “Sign me up and tell me what to do.” Third, I have some doubts about some of the statistics in the video, but for the purpose of this discussion lets assume they are true.

Now, qualifications aside, I was left frustrated by this post. But why? Why would I be frustrated by someone who is, for all practical purposes, hitting all of my sweet-spots? I actually found myself asking this exact question at times. Let me try and point to some issues I think are inherent to this project (keeping in mind how limited my knowledge of it is). Continue reading

Orderly Theology as Imitatio Dei

When someone has reservations about the value and legitimacy of systematic theology, it’s not uncommon to hear them say that it seems to entail ‘putting God in a box’ or imposing too stringent a framework on the faith and thought of God’s people.  At this point, it can frankly be tempting to wonder whether these sentiments might betray intellectual sloth, myopic disinterest in the church’s theological heritage, or a misunderstanding of the nature and responsibilities of systematic theology.

Although he wrote before the more developed fourfold theological curriculum emerged to prominence with its clearer distinction between biblical and systematic theology, Peter van Mastricht makes a helpful point about the importance of gathering up biblical teaching under the various heads of dogmatic reflection and providing an organized account of it.  He insists that those who undertake this task are not succumbing to unnecessary rigidity; instead

[s]e filios Dei probant, quippe ejus imitatores, qui ordinis est Deus, non confusionis (Theoretico-Practica Theologia, I, 8)(“They prove themselves sons of God, indeed imitators of him, who is a God of order, not of confusion.”)

Certainly, growth in the spiritual life and in theological understanding occurs often along a winding and convoluted road.  At the same time, Mastricht’s point is an important one and full of significance for, among other things, catechesis, which requires an orderly presentation of theology for the sake of apprehension and memory.

Any thoughts here?

Theology as Easter Speech

I gave a paper this morning at the Midwest Regional Meeting of the Conference on Christianity and Literature. My presentation focused on the category of mystery in the theology of Rowan Williams. Specifically, I explored how his reading of the resurrection narratives generates a doctrinal rationale for the mysterious in Christian theology. Here is an excerpt.

Christian theology is Easter speech; it stands on the brink of its own impossibility because of the unsettling character of Christ’s resurrection, then and now. It stands on this side of that brink because with the risen Christ from the tomb comes God’s work of re-creation. The world, and consequently language, is simply not the same; so those who do in fact say anything at all stand “paralyzed as if in dreams, waiting for his spring” (“Resurrection,” in Headwaters).

What does all this have to do with the category of “mystery?” For Williams, as I hope is becoming clear, the resurrection of Christ establishes an orientation and cadence for Christian theology that mirrors the encounters of those who met the risen Christ. In that pattern, Williams argues, “Christian speech is for ever entering into and re-emerging from inarticularity. There is not one moment of dumbness or loss followed by fluency, but an unending back and forth between speech and silence” (Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospels, 66). […]

Theology’s Easter-orientation means that “mystery” —that which supersedes our understanding—is fundamental to its starting point and to its ongoing viability. At any point that theology attempts a “final word”, a total explanation or formula, then it transgresses the pattern of silence and speech which characterizes the Easter encounter.

Recasting Nicea

I have had some interest in the theologian Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), particularly his trinitarian thought. I have just finished reading a great book on this aspect of Clarke’s thought, Thomas C. Pfizenmaier’s The Trinitarian Theology of Dr. Samuel Clarke (1675-1729): Context, Sources, and Controversy. Clarke was considered one of the brightest young lights in the church of England. In 1704-5 he gave the Boyle Lectures, and, particularly from that point, was seen as a key defender of orthodoxy. Then, in 1712, in the midst of anti-trinitarian thoughts, Socinian gibberish and the rise of deism, Clarke published his Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity. This is a fascinating book, which starts with 55 propositions on the Trinity that is followed by an incredible listing of biblical support and Patristic backing.

Pfizenmaier provides a brief overview of the work. “In Part One, Clarke collected from the entire New Testament every text relating to the doctrine of the trinity with ‘such references and observations, as may (’tis hoped) be of considerable use towards the understanding of true meaning.'” (4) In part one Clarke collected some 1,251 texts from the New Testament. In part two, Clarke builds on his biblical exposition by developing propositions, from the “text up” as it were, and rounding those out with a barrage of quotes from Patristic sources. The third section is devoted to the “present liturgy of the Church of England,” where he addresses how the liturgy itself backs his view.

Clarke’s work caused something of a mass hysteria in the church and academy. In the midst of the powder-keg he hoped to quell, Clarke lit the match that set the whole church in an uproar. Since that time, even to today, Clarke has been labelled an Arian. Continue reading