Theology – an idealistic view

After noting in my last review that the author had a rather idealistic view of how physics works, I thought I might take a lesson from that and give a similar-styled view in relation to theology. I wouldn’t pretend that this is how theology works, rather a sketch of a manifesto for how it should work. The seed of the idea goes back to a conversation I had some months ago about whether it was possible for theology to be a purely academic subject.

Then, as now, I would love for there to be healthy circularity in the relationship between theology and church life. Because of this circularity, where one starts might be arbitrary. So let’s first have a think about community.

Being a christian does not just mean giving assent to a set of ideas or subscribing to a creed. Nor is it just about living as part of a community. Both are involved, but one without the other will be an anaemic form of christianity. The shorthand terms for these are orthodoxy (correct view) and orthopraxy (correct practice). My idea is that these two need to held in balance. To emphasise one over the other leads to a lop-sided faith. With all due cautions over the relative terms (see here), I have found that those who identify as liberal christians will tend to emphasise orthopraxy whilst those who are more conservative will place an emphasis on orthodoxy.

The theologically informed Church

Churches need to be theologically informed. Without sound teaching, the risk is not only that false teaching may creep in, but there is also a risk that there is a wrong emphasis in what is taught. As Kurt Willems has recently pointed out, churches which constantly emphasise teachings on single issues are those one should be cautious about. Though not a church, anyone who occasionally reads the fundamentalist e-zine, Charisma, will be familiar with the constant stream of homophobic and Zionist output. The misplaced emphasis (leaving aside how much I disagree with the content of those views!) means that the form of christianity that emerges is rather cross-eyed (no pun on cross intended). The gospel may be right in front of your nose but you look from one fringe to another and portray them as the most important thing, then the message of Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection gets sidelined.

“High” and “low” perspectives

So how about theology? The study of the bible inevitably has to start with a view about the bible. Whether one chooses a “high” view or a “low” view of scripture is a thorny issue which I shan’t attempt to explore in any great depth soon. For now, I think it best to pick a place on the spectrum and work through to see if it comes up with a coherent picture.

My own view is that I am at the “high” end of the spectrum but do not advocate the idea of inerrancy. Too often, discussions about how one views the bible focus on the question of authority. This is, in my view, unhelpful. If one accepts the idea of God (how might one get to this point?) then it would seem to follow, given centuries of christian teaching, that God is the ultimate authority. In the great commission, Jesus gave authority to his disciples. To some, this is the origin of the idea of apostolic succession, whereby a christian order of priesthood is established. For more on this, see here. To others, it is the origin of the idea of apostolic authorship, whereby the criteria for inclusion in the canon of the New Testament has to be that the author came from a list of apostles. While this may serve to understand the exclusion of the Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabas (both of which were included in the Codex Sinaiticus) it does give rise to some awkwardness over the inclusion of the books of Revelation and Hebrews, as well as the epistles labelled John and the pastoral epistles, whose authorship was disputed much later.

Instead, the question to which “the bible” is the answer is: “What is the earliest and most reliable source of information regarding christianity, its origins and aims that we have?”

Exegesis

Given this, where might one start with the more academic work of theology? Surely, it has to be with the task of exegesis: the task of bringing out of the texts what the author(s) meant to say to the audience they intended to read/hear it. To do so with integrity requires a study of the languages the texts were written in and an understanding of the cultures in which and to which they were written. This why theology is not really a solo discipline in and of itself, but in a similar way to geology being a hybrid of mostly chemistry, physics and geography, so theology is a hybrid subject, requiring mastery of the use of many tools.

One may question whether the task of exegesis is ever complete, though to remain stuck within this would prohibit progress, so we must at least come to tentative conclusions and move on, bearing in mind the need to possibly revisit the exegesis and alter it. So what is the next step? Well, there are many possibilities. This is why theology is such a rich subject, as, having put together the ingredients of the cake and properly baked it, we may slice it in any number of ways.

One could look at particular authors and try to understand their particular views, in relative isolation from other biblical authors. Or one could look at themes that emerge across a range of authors and develop a theology of these ideas, as seen from the perspective of many authors. However we set off, we need to not lose sight of the heart of the gospel nor the direction it heads towards. What should hopefully emerge from such a study is the idea of doctrine. To some, the idea of doctrine is foundational. Though it is important, I would argue that it is an emergent idea from the foundation of the writings themselves. After all, the development of systematic theology is a relatively modern phenomenon, not found in any of the writings of the bible. One might even go so far as to say that the notion of systematic theology is itself misguided; after all, Jesus was asked some very straightforward questions to which he gave rather unexpected and totally unsystematic answers. I think part of the reason is that what we are talking about is life. And life cannot be boiled down to an axiomatic approach without destroying the richness of variety that exists within and between cultures across centuries of civilization.

So if we have doctrine can we draw a straight line from that to application? I would argue not. The reason for this is that we live in a very different time from the communities out of which the writings of the bible came. So if we combine an understanding of those cultures with a correct understanding of the doctrine, then, and only then, can we make sense of the practical applications.

An example

To give a particular example, if we look at 1 Timothy 2 and take it as face value, then the bible is very clear that women are not allowed to teach. This would mean no pastors, no vicars, no “priests”, no bishops, no housegroup leaders are allowed to be women. But to take a passage in isolation from the positive affirmation of the role of women in the early church then the simplistic maxim becomes less black-and-white and more something to be worked through. If one then adds into the mix the cultural background in which Timothy lived, that of Ephesus, with its cult of Diana led by a female priesthood, then one can understand that there might be a time-and-location-specific reason for the way Paul wrote. The counter-argument includes Paul’s characteristic appeal to the Torah, specifically to the order of creation. At the risk of getting unnecessarily sidetracked, I shall leave further exploration of that particular issue for another time. I intend only as an example of the kind of ways of thinking that I believe are healthy.

The great cocktail

To return to the main point, then. Imagine a set of tubes. We have two input tubes and one output. The two items feeding in are doctrine (having been properly prepared) and community of the local church. When these two are mixed, what we should end up with is a realistic, Christ-centred practicality. That mixing is the job not so much of the academic theologians, but of our church leaders, whether one refers to them as pastors, priests or vicars, they are the great cocktail mixers who have the tough job of holding these two inputs in balance whilst remaining relevant to their own church community and indeed, the wider, unchurched community around them.

Coming full circle

So having made the point that churches need to be theologically informed, and how that might look in practice, how about the other way around? In short, it’s about theology being informed by the life of the Church. Without it, what we risk is turning the study of theology into a purely academic field, devoid of life.

So when it comes to the issues that affect the life of the Church and its members, which are in essence the issues that face humanity, then ivory tower thinking will not do. All the time, there are pressing questions which are asked both within christian communities and asked of them by the rest of the world. How might we respond?

This is where get to glimpse that theology is not a static subject, restricted only to the study of ancient texts. Within the bible, we see how doctrine interacted with the needs of the community, both Jewish and christian, and we have examples of how it has worked, but mostly how it hasn’t. I would hope that we’re good at learning from the past, if only just to make brand new mistakes. But my hope would be that good theology, informed by the Church it seeks to serve, helps to restrict the range of mistakes we might make.

To go back to my example above, for centuries it might well have been unthought of that women might have leadership roles within churches, just as one might take it for granted that slavery is a fact of life. Yet changing societies put pressure on churches to re-examine what we think, and such re-examination is no bad thing. Differing hermeneutics have given rise to people defending the use of slavery, though again we need to be conscious of differences in cultures, in that the kind of slavery against which the abolitionist protested was quite different from that present in the Roman Empire in the 1st century. Likewise, the feminist movement gave credence to the thought that there is no good reason why a woman shouldn’t hold to the same roles as a man. Today, I can’t think of any churches that advocate slavery, though the issue of women in leadership continues to be an issue for some.

In so doing, though, there needs to be care taken not to simply jump on a bandwagon. What sometimes worries me with churches that have more liberal social values is that sometimes they seem to skip the good theology part and jump straight to conclusions. In other words, the idea that “Jesus was a liberal” is taken as axiomatic, rather than the product of exegesis. It for such a reason that I cannot agree with Vicky Beeching’s anachronistic example of this, “Jesus was a feminist“.

Conclusion

So what we need is a Church that is theologically informed. A Church that is familiar with the texts which are the best source of information about the origins, ideas and communities of our belief, both as a matter of history, but also as a matter of everyday practicality, living as an example of a renewed humanity between pentecost and parousia. At the same time, theology as a study has to be informed by the Church and the many church communities that comprise it. There needs to be something of an urgent hotline whereby the very real issues christians face throughout the world can be addressed by those who have the gift of understanding, in order that the Church may be soundly led and guided.

Of course, this is all idealistic and doesn’t necessarily reflect the real world. I would hope that some of this is faintly familiar, though I guess many of you have other insights borne out of your own experience of church life and theology.

So, what do you think? Does all this sound reasonable, pie in the sky or just setting off on the wrong track?

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3 responses to “Theology – an idealistic view

  1. I certainly don’t think that you’re suggestion that church leaders should be the ones who bring doctrine and practice together is far fetched, even if it’s not always the case. It seems like their role is the crucial one for making something like what you’re advocating possible for the wider Church. That said, and given that I would assume that the vast majority of pastors/priests/vicars have some degree of theological training, it does seem surprising that there is not a greater emphasis on the synthesis of theology and practice within churches. In my experience, it has seemed that ministers, whilst often happy to look into Scripture to a certain level, often stop short of real theology (perhaps fearing that the congregation won’t be able to take on board everything if they go too deep?). Whether or not this sort of synthesis is actually happening more than I’m aware of already, I can’t see any reason why it should not be aimed for as an ideal. Sure, not every church is going to get it spot on (especially with the added issue of what the correct theology actually is), but I can’t see any reason why leaders cannot help their church reach for a more complete combination of theology and practice.

  2. “One might even go so far as to say that the notion of systematic theology is itself misguided; after all, Jesus was asked some very straightforward questions to which he gave rather unexpected and totally unsystematic answers. I think part of the reason is that what we are talking about is life. And life cannot be boiled down to an axiomatic approach without destroying the richness of variety that exists within and between cultures across centuries of civilization.”

    Yes. I remember that when I learned the idea behind systematic theology (though I’m definitely a novice in terms of theology, just someone with an amateur interest) it did strike me as strange, and I think you’ve summarized it really well there in your first sentence above. As well as too small, I think we can try and make God, Jesus, the Bible a bit too neat. I’m becoming more convinced that God is keen on richness and diversity; I was never explicitly led to believe that as a youngster and ended up getting quite the opposite idea. There are probably all sorts of cultural reasons we could go into about why systematic (i.e. topical) theology has arisen, and I’m sure some people have, but basically it too is a product of certain cultural circumstances, different from that of 1st Century Middle East, and as such has its biases and assumptions and blindspots and such. So yeah.

    Also, good point about orthodoxy and orthopraxy ideally going hand in hand. I feel like many people perpetuate not quite a false dichotomy, but definitely the idea that it’s either-or in terms of that (‘we act out love/do good things [and that’s all that matters/what matters most]’/’we believe the right thing [and that’s all that matters/what matters most]’) and act like their ‘side’ has got the emphasis right, when the best is probably somewhere in the middle. It reminds me of what Jon Kuhrt at Resistance & Renewal on WordPress has written about in terms of the idea that people have of ‘conservative evangelicals vs liberal evangelicals’, (i.e. that people and churches and such can be neatly divided and in a sense that’s how it should be, rather than seeing that the truth is things are more nuanced and shaded than that, and rightly so) and I have a tentative theory that often the best thing/wisest is a balance between two extremes or truths (very crudely put; I need to clarify what I mean but can’t think of an example now) rather than such a binary idea.

    Aaaaand that’s all I’ve got time and brain power to comment on for now. Hope it made sense outside of my head.

  3. I have a couple of brief thoughts 🙂

    N.A. Dahl said: “For more than a generation, the majority of New Testament scholars have not only eliminated direct references to God from their works but have also neglected detailed and comprehensive investigation of statements about God.”

    I would say one thing missing from your presentation is the place of God in all this – theology is theocentric, i.e. it’s derived from God, is focussed on him, and exists in order to relate us to him.

    There is a genuine danger of doing theology without reference to God and how he has revealed himself.

    Secondly, you are quite down on systematic theology:

    After all, the development of systematic theology is a relatively modern phenomenon, not found in any of the writings of the bible. One might even go so far as to say that the notion of systematic theology is itself misguided; after all, Jesus was asked some very straightforward questions to which he gave rather unexpected and totally unsystematic answers.

    Systematic theology is not a new thing. Origen (c. 184-253) was probably the first systematic theologian in the modern sense. Although he came to the wrong conclusions on some issues, he did pave the way for what followed. And what are the historic creeds if not systematic theology?

    Also, I would say second-temple Judaism did have its systematic theologians (the Rabbinic tradition). Arguably Jesus critiqued the Pharisees and Sadducees for having the wrong systematic theology on occasion (e.g. Matt 22:23-32). Jesus was absolutely concerned with doctrine, as well as right living – for him the two were not separate issues (and, indeed, I think throughout the Bible the issues cannot be separated. In the Pastoral Epistles, for example, there are many statements connecting the two, e.g. 1 Tim 4:16 “Watch your life and doctrine closely”.) Right belief, orthodoxy, should lead to right action, orthopraxy.

    Anyway, I’m sure that’s quite enough from me for now! 🙂