Doing theology

Here is something I wrote about 8 years ago about theology for the ordinary Christian. I think I still agree with most of it. It’s very long, but I decided not to break it up into pieces just for the sake of doing so. Feel free to read it a little at a time :-)

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Doing Theology in the Local Church

Doing Theology vs Using Theology

I love doing math. My favorite part of being in grad school getting a computer science degree was the chance to do research in mathematics. Most people that I talk to, though, don’t really understand what “doing math” means. Not realizing that there is a distinction between “doing math” and “using math”, they vaguely imagine me sitting at a desk doing rows and rows of arithmetic problems (or maybe calculus problems). Instead they should be imagining me inventing calculus (I wish!): studying the structures and patterns in numbers, exploring the logical implications of various mathematical hypotheses, or investigating the relationship between various mathematical definitions, both to create approaches that other people can use for problem-solving and simply for the sake of understanding itself.

Similarly, there is a difference between learning or using theology, and doing theology. Many pastors and writers are concerned about the first. They note that most Christians in America are sloppy about or ignorant of theological issues. They simply don’t know very much about their faith, and are distressingly willing to compromise on principles that previous generations of Christians fought long and hard to establish. My concern in this article is with the second: I believe we need to create a space in the culture of our local churches in which gifted individuals can do theology, i.e., can create their theological positions on modern questions in addition to responding to the traditional theological systems developed by past generations.

Critical Reflection on the Church’s Teaching and Practice

There are many possible definitions of theology, but one that I have found helpful is that theology is critical reflection on the church’s teaching and practice. It is in this sense that I believe we need to provide room for local church members to do theology.

Let’s dismantle this definition. First, note that theology is reflection, and reflection takes time. Some churches and church programs are constantly reinventing themselves and their aims in order to stay on the cutting edge. Leaders plunge into the fray of ministry without taking much time for analysis. They get a few details wrong, but most things right, which is enough to bring spiritual success. Afterwards there doesn’t seem to be much point in working out what should have been said or done differently, because it’s too late to do anything about it; the church has moved on to a different battle.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with this kind of fast-paced, rapidly changing ministry in and of itself. I believe God can use it greatly. However, I also believe that God places within each local congregation those whom He calls to do theology – and those men and women will need time to ponder what the church is doing and saying. Once they work out a careful and constructive critique, they can usually clarify what was good and bad in the church’s approach. Wise leaders will sit down at some point and listen carefully to this critique, even though it no longer seems relevant to the current programs and direction. The value of such post-program evaluations may seem small, but over time the positive effects of repeated evaluations will accumulate. Leaders will find themselves making more Biblical decisions without even consciously thinking about it.

Second, note that theology is critical reflection. That doesn’t mean that theology should tear down churches or their leadership.  There should be no negativity or complaining in theology – in fact, a balanced theology will take particular care to ponder what a church is doing and saying that is especially good, so that future generations will not take it for granted but continue to emphasize it. However, it does mean the theologians must have the freedom to question the church’s systems, traditions, values and culture. It is frighteningly easy for us as the people of God to become blind to our own greatest areas of sin, but through a courageous humility we can expose ourselves to God’s searching gaze, acknowledge our sins, repent, and begin to “grow up into all aspects into Him who is the head”.  The theologians in our midst can lead the way in this process, if we will listen carefully to their concerns without being offended by their questions or becoming defensive. In turn, it is the responsibility of theologians to avoid becoming rabble-rousers, to refuse to exaggerate their concerns or make major concerns out of minor ones.

Third, note that theology responds rather than initiates. It reflects on what the church is already doing and teaching, rather than initiating programs of its own. That means that theology, which always has the right to slow down and ponder what has occurred, never has the right to blackmail the rest of the church into slowing down with it. The church must be allowed to plunge ahead in mission and ministry as needs arise, and let the ponderers work it all out later. It also provides a practical safeguard for theology from its own self-destructive tendencies. First, by keeping things relevant: because of its self-searching nature and its predilection for fine-tuning systems of thought to make them better, theology is always in danger of losing its bearings in the real world. It is easy for theological thinkers to get more and more involved in complex but irrelevant systems of doctrine that are no longer related to the mission or ministry of the church. Second, it safeguards theology from elitism: having to respond to the practical initiatives of the church in mission keeps theologians humble. It reminds us what the central purposes of the church are – that living the truth is far more important than verbally formulating it. Third, whenever theory neglects empirical evidence, it degenerates into consistent logical systems which are fundamentally untrue. This is because the desire for elegance exerts a pressure on the theory which is unchecked by the messiness of reality. Having to reflect on what the church is really doing and saying forces theologians to rework their systems to account for the way things actually are.

Fourth, note that theology reflects on the church’s teaching and practice. Theology as I am defining it is not merely reflection on God Himself, nor on one individual’s personal relationship with God, nor on the world. God is infinitely more important than we are; and theology must necessarily ponder His character and nature, but having done so it must always go on to consider what our response should be to Him. Since the church is people rather than programs or official organizations, the spiritual health of the church is determined by the individual spiritual state of each of its members, as they stand alone before God in their hearts; nonetheless, doing theology is essentially performing a ministry to the rest of the body of Christ, and I must always pass from what is important to me in my spiritual walk to what can edify the whole body. The world with its ever-shifting culture is the source of most of the challenges theology must face, but in trying to answer those challenges theologians must look to the church, which is God’s appointed vehicle for communicating Himself to the world in this age.

Finally, note that theology reflects on both the practice and the teaching of the church. If we focus on the teaching of the church only, we will be critiquing only what the church says it believes, not what it really believes – which shows up in how the church makes decisions, uses its money, responds to crises, and so on. Sometimes the most important messages a congregation communicates are things they don’t even know they are saying. On the other hand, words do matter. If the church is to be a pillar and support of the truth, it must learn to articulate that truth accurately and clearly. For that reason, theologians must pay attention not only to what a church means, but to how it says what it means. The church, then, needs people who will evaluate and critique both what it says and what it really means.

Based on Scripture

One thing missing in the definition of theology given above is that Scripture must be at the center of the reflection theologians do. To do theology, we don’t just ponder the work and purpose of God in the world by the light of our own insight – rather we seek to compare every human activity and attitude to the truth of Scripture and discover where the differences are.

In many theological questions it is easy to discern two camps among Christians. One camp tends to blend Scriptural ideas with current philosophies and perspectives to make gospel truths more relevant. The other camp stands guard against worldly ideas and rejects all those that are not from Scripture. Both are being theologically sloppy, in my opinion. The point isn’t to accept a given position wholesale or reject it wholesale; it is to sift it carefully, separating out those things which agree with Scripture from those that do not.

Sifting a given perspective is not easy. Sometimes an idea arises from anti-Christian presuppositions but rediscovers Biblical truth despite itself. In other cases unbiblical ideas become a part of the church’s world view and are couched in Biblical language, with verses given to support them. In addition, theologians need to discover not only whether a given idea contradicts Scripture but also how it contradicts it. We need to bring the Scriptures up against the idea in question and compare the two all along the line, exploring the precise nature of the relationship between Biblical truth and the idea we are analyzing.

Usually a given “worldly perspective” is really a variety of related but distinct perspectives, some of which are farther from the truth than others. We must be especially careful not to set up straw men. We must listen carefully to the real objections people have to Christian thinking, not just find the easiest version to refute. I even believe it is important to look for ways to make our opponents’ logic sounder and their criticisms truer, so that we don’t miss important critiques which God meant for us to hear through their confused challenges. Ideally our understanding will grow until we are able to answer fully and satisfactorily the sincere questions of any honest skeptic.

Giftedness

The Bible never speaks of the gift of “theology”, but some of the other gifts it mentions – teaching, knowledge, perhaps wisdom or discernment – are well-suited for doing what I have described. In this sense, it is appropriate to speak of certain individuals as being gifted to do theology.

Because theological ability can spring from giftedness, those who are gifted for it must keep in mind some important balances. If I believe I am gifted for doing theology, first I must recognize that this will not be true for most of the church. I must not be frustrated if Christians around me seem sloppy in their thinking or indifferent to theological accuracy or resistant to reflection on the church’s doctrine and programs. Second, I must be willing to set a high standard for myself in theological responsibility. It is not enough for me to compare myself to Christians around me and decide “well, I’m doing better than most Christians are”. Rather I need to push myself to excel far beyond the norm. God has given me the gifts to do so, and I will be judged by what I was given, not by what others were given. Third, I should be careful not to push these standards onto others whom God has called differently. I must let God lead others to the priorities He has for them, refusing to believe that my calling is somehow special compared to theirs. Fourth, I can anticipate that as I faithfully fulfill my own calling, in fact the rest of the congregation will begin to raise the level of their own theology, because of my example. Though they will never emphasize it to the extent I do, nor should they, nonetheless the pace I set will help stir the whole church to do better. Finally, I must recognize that they have callings and gifts of their own. I must be willing to recognize the importance of the things God has called them to, to admit my own failing in the same areas, to let them set the pace for me, and steadfastly refuse to consider myself more spiritual than they on the basis of my calling being somehow more central than theirs.

Local

Global Christianity already has an institution which is well-suited for theologians: seminaries, which provide on a national and international scale exactly what I have been talking about. In seminaries, professors can work out the results of their thinking at their own pace. Afterwards they have a platform through their writings and the classes they teach to speak to the church at large about what they have seen. What I am advocating is a way for people in local churches to do theology.

Local theological work has several advantages. First, it allows more people to do it. Many people who are gifted theologians in God’s eyes may not have the academic bent that is required for success in a seminary. Most will not have the time or money to attend a seminary, let alone teach in one. Others may not be called to do theology exclusively but will be fruitful doing it part-time, in between their other ministries and responsibilities. Second, local theologians can focus on local issues and questions in a way that seminary professors don’t have the time to do. Third, when theologians form isolated enclaves of their own, as can happen in seminaries and thinktanks, apart from the pressure of daily ministry with real people, and away from the frustration of having to deal with Christians whose gifts differ from theirs, their thinking gradually becomes more ingrown, drifting away from its original purposes. Fourth, local theological work will actually increase the audience for the good things coming out of the seminaries, so that local and national theology can mutually reinforce each other.

Authority

Many people assume that the theologians in a church should be the pastors. I am arguing for a different point of view. First, I think that those who are pastors need to have a certain level of theological savvy, but I do not think they need to be doing theology very much themselves. Second, I think that those who are not pastors but are gifted for theological reflection need a way to contribute their gifts to the church.

If this is true, however, it implies something significant. When pastors do theology, it is relatively easy for them to implement their conclusions immediately. They can simply change the direction of the church accordingly. (I realize it’s not really quite that simple in practice!) When non-pastors do theology, the most they can do is suggest to the leadership what they have seen. They must be willing to leave the reins of church government where God Himself has placed them. That means we must keep doing theology separate from church authority.

Encouraging people not in leadership positions to reflect critically on a local church’s practices without undermining the respect and authority due to its pastors may be tricky at times.

Let me make several suggestions. First, theologians should see themselves as advisors, not decision-makers. They are accountable to God to alert the leadership to possible dangers; they are not responsible for the leaders’ response. Theologians don’t have enough facts to make the best decisions: it is the pastors who are most aware of the needs of the members and can judge best which of several competing needs should have the first priority at a given time. Theologians will also not be specifically gifted to make the decisions, whereas the pastors are those to whom God will give the specific grace and wisdom to lead the church.

Theologians also need to realize that other people have the right to disagree with them without explaining why. Often a spiritual leader may be correct in disagreeing with a theologian’s conclusion, but be unable to articulate the reasons for his position. My being able to out-debate my opponent says more about my forensic ability than about which of us is really right. If pastors find themselves being argued into a position intellectually which they sense in their hearts is wrong, they need to stick to their guns and not back down.

On their part, pastors must work hard to give a legitimate voice to the theologians in the church’s midst. They must encourage theologically-minded church members to feel the freedom, in appropriate settings, to challenge the most treasured church traditions and even to question orthodoxy (occasionally and temporarily).

Within every congregation there are doctrinal controversies. Theologians can be of immense help in such situations, not by settling the controversies but by clarifying them. Since theology thrives on the freedom to explore alternatives, both pastors and groups of local theologians should resist the temptation to legislate uniformity in such issues. The invaluable role of the theologians is instead in replacing heat with light by helping each side understand what the other is saying and by working out acceptable compromises.

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