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?

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).

I’ve got (someone else’s) mail

(c) University of St Andrews; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI’ve just finished reading a volume of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ letters collected by Iain Murray and have now taken up the letters of Samuel Rutherford in the Puritan Paperbacks series. Rutherford, if I may say so, didn’t come down on the right side when debate took place over whether (and in what sense) the substitutionary death of Christ was necessary for the forgiveness of our sins, but I feel some connection to him since his likeness looms large in a painting in College Hall at St Mary’s College, where doctoral seminars take place for St Andrews theology students. Indeed, I used to study in the Rutherford Room, and Rutherford’s gravestone (d. 1661) is still visible in the cemetery on the east end of town.

I’m not entirely sure why I am drawn to the genre of personal letters as a means of promoting my own spiritual growth, but, certainly with Rutherford’s letters, one of the benefits is seeing the grace of God at work in the midst of a saint’s trials. Rutherford was imprisoned for his ecclesiastical commitments and faced the prospect of exile in Aberdeen – how does this strike our Aberdeen friends? – and his endurance in hardship is a token of God’s faithfulness and mercy. Life was hard, and he was prepared to live it, trusting that God was and is good and that fellowship with the triune God is greater than all things.

This, for me, is one of the draws for reading the letters of spiritual giants: reassurance that God is good and faithful when his people suffer. Another benefit of reading letters or biographies, I would suggest, is that we are given a window into the humanity of great thinkers and leaders. To know that Lloyd-Jones loved a good joke, to know that Spurgeon (for a while!) loved a good smoke*, reminds us that our Christian forebears were human and that, when we in the Christian life cannot escape the natural, mundane, enjoyable details of everyday life, this doesn’t mean we’re unfaithful or unfruitful Christians.

 

* Theology Forum does not promote the use of tobacco products. Actually, it just doesn’t discuss tobacco products at all.

Steve passes his PhD viva!

ImageCongratulations to our very own Steve Duby for passing his PhD viva at St. Andrews (Dr. Duby)! We are all thrilled for you Steve. Enjoy the sweet relief of having the preparation and inevitable stress of the unknown behind you.

It is impossible to forget the moments immediately before my viva and those right after it – they are indelibly etched in my memory. There are no other experiences quite like it, nor is there any adequate way to explain or help someone prepare for it. Sure, you can brush up the argument your thesis puts forth, and all that, but no amount of pre-thinking or strategizing prepares you for the moment it actually begins. ImageAnd it is all compounded by the strange relationship you develop with your PhD thesis. For years you agonize over it, laboring on the argument, fussing over the formatting, laying in bed thinking about it when you wish it was the one thing you could stop thinking about. Then you have to send it off like a child leaving the house at 18 for your examiners to…well, you don’t entirely know what they will do with it. And suddenly its all over. You make a few corrections (Lord willing, only a few), then wonder what you are going to do next.

Here’s to you Steve, and whatever comes next!

Prayer for my students (and me) on the first week of classes

How are we already one month into the spring semester?  I prayed this prayer with my students at the conclusion of the first week of classes in a course on the doctrine of the Christian life.

Isaiah 8:21-9:1 – Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. 22 Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and Imagefearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness. Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress…The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

God of Grace, your coming to us always precedes our coming to you,

we come sometimes eagerly
other times stubbornly
but we always finding our true selves in coming.

Your “nevertheless” marks our way, for whatever way we find to you is one you charted already:

you made a way for there to be anything at all
you made a way for a barren couple to be your partners in blessing
you made a way for your blessed-to-be-a-blessing-people to exodus
you made a way, you made a way, you make a way

We have called these way-makings of yours

Creation
Covenant
Exodus
In short, faithfulness.

We gave different names to your way-making in flesh, calling it

Incarnation
Atonement
Reconciliation
Redemption
Sanctification
Restoration
Perfection
In short, grace.

As we give ourselves to considering the particular existence which arises from these actions – the Christian life – continue making your way to us and among us through it, and may there be for us no more gloom, only the light which dawned. Amen.