It is possible to be rather ambivalent about the study of theology 1; this ambivalence leads to constant tinkering with this article, which is a very short introduction to thinking about the subject with a few references to books to read. In the old world (centuries ago) theology was regarded as the queen of the sciences, the discipline to which all others were submitted; it was the application of reason informed by the Bible to the world – the world could not be understood without primary reference to God. The reason one might become ambivalent towards the study of theology is that, while some of it can be profoundly helpful, it can also become constricted and there is plenty, no doubt, of wrong theology; which, no doubt, is what makes it all the more important to pursue correct theology!
There is a sense in which everyone is a theologian; everyone has a view about God, an opinion, even if it is that He doesn’t exist, and this is a form, albeit primitive, of theology. However this is hardly the common acceptation of the term; I think we would agree that it would be more normal to think of a theologian as a person who is devoted in a professional, scholarly way to the study of God. We might loosely say that we disagree with someone’s theology, but this does not mean that person is a theologian! This way of referring to theology is however taking a fairly narrow view of things ; it is not thinking of thinkers from a Christian background so much as professors in the theology department; it should be noted though that theology is also just reasoning about God, ‘thinking’, so where there is a serious thinker we can see this as theology in a broader sense. Thus, I would recommend a good book by Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book that made Your World; the style here is almost journalistic, not academic, with inaccuracies, but often challenging to one’s thinking. Similarly, Hugh Ross’ books on science and faith include a well-worked out theological approach. But formally speaking this is not theology.
In Matthew 23.34 Jesus said that he would ‘send prophets and wise men and scribes’; I take it that ‘scribes’ speaks of theologians. Somebody has to think things through. There is a general truth here, of which here is a nice statement from Richard Wurmbrand. “Deep biblical truth demands vigorous mental effort and much knowledge. Those who cannot discipline themselves to attain such knowledge are like the fox in Aesop’s fable. Unable to breach the fence guarding the vineyard, he said, ‘I would never eat such grapes anyway. They are sour.'” I suppose we would accept that mental discipline is important but the degree to which it directly involves theology in the way I have stated it, that is, formal academic theology, is open to question; nevertheless theology must be undertaken somewhere in the background to underpin the way we think and reason. I personally can live a strong Christian life without being a theologian, but if the intellectual life of the Church is not strong, we are liable collectively to lose touch with the times in which we live, to lose confidence in the power of the gospel to provide answers……to our great initially collective, but finally personal loss.
Classic examples of good theology from early church history would include the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity; and the defence of Biblical faith in the Arian controversy. With regard to the Trinity, this is not a doctrine expounded in the Bible as such but is drawn from it; the great thing is that the doctrine drawn from the Bible then provides a wonderful prism through which to think about God, a rich way to meditate on God; it actually feeds faith. With regard to the Arian controversy, Arius essentially proposed that Jesus was not God; this led to the need for careful and exact statement and formulation of the nature of Jesus; the result was the historic defeat of this heresy and an abiding tool to define truth. The whole subject of apologetics (Greek – ‘about the word’) is to do with the intellectual defence of faith and then its propagation, and no doubt can be an important area; much of it is a theological task. It should be noted that a ‘theological task’ can have very practical consequences: a great example of this is to be found in the life of Maximus the Confessor, who suffered severe persecution and eventually death for adherence to the orthodox conception of Jesus having two wills. This is a good read! See www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/01/life-of-st-maximus-confessor.
When I was at university I picked up the idea that philosophy precedes great change in society; that philosophy, what is going in the philosophy department, is the fountainhead of action. I don’t know how true this is but I can make a couple of observations. Early in the 17th century Descartes propounded new views, famously encapsulated in the phrase cogito ergo sum, ‘I think, therefore I am’. Although he considered himself a Christian, Descartes’ view effectively enthrones human reason in place of God’s revelation. There is an issue here, whether he did this merely as a reflection of the times in which he lived, when men were beginning to think this way, or if there was anything radically new about it. What is for sure is that he gave powerful expression to the view and this subsequently became mainstream and instrumental in changing the world. Then we can think about Marx; drawing upon other sources as well, Marx elaborated his theories; ‘give me 26 lead soldiers’, he said, ‘and I will conquer the world’. His vile ideas are still marching forwards despite the collapse of much of Communism. These were professional philosophers, so to speak, and we see the power here of apparently abstract thought.
Theology can certainly be likened to philosophy. Observation suggests that the Holy Spirit frequently brings vigorous movements of life into the church – movements that bring healing, joy and help to many; and yet, in the western world the church seems to have substantially lost the battle for the ears of society at large; my experience in the most spiritually vigorous churches in terms of power gifts, suggests that for all this ‘power’, we are not ‘on message’ with the world; a sensible suspicion here is that in part this is because the theological enterprise, in terms of our use of reason properly informed by the Bible has failed. The anti-intellectualism of much western church life is alarming.
An interesting example of how theology may lead to failure would be the way the church has responded to science, for example to Darwinism. How is the man in the street supposed to understand things and give an answer? Inevitably, if he starts to get involved in argument, he is going to have to take his lead from someone, and as the questions become increasingly detailed, that someone is going to have to be a person of learning, a theologian – ‘what does the Bible actually say? and how does it relate to science’ . In this instance much of what has gone on has been misleading and damaging.(However, for good use of learning, see the article on Hugh Ross). The Bible does not say how to proceed; men of learning have to extrapolate good responses. We need to pray for such people. As we think about Darwinism we can reflect on the way ‘science’ and historical criticism assailed the church in the 19 th century and the enduring and weakening effect this had on the church’s witness. What are the intellectual underpinnings of faith – is faith indeed rational? The many failures to provide good answers have in fact affected the church very much, so to some extent it may be right to see theology as the fountainhead of faith, or at least of its practice.
Another, recent, example of good ‘theology’ is something in a book by Bob Ekblad qv. In endeavouring to help impoverished campesinos in Honduras, he found it necessary to develop an alternative ‘theology’ (a way of looking at things that includes God), alternative to the outlook the people have on nature, a mode of expression to accurately convey truth about God The people struggle constantly with nature, with natural disasters, plagues, as they strive to eke a living from a hostile environment. Where is God in this? They are taught by their old indian beliefs that God is part of the environment, so that their struggle is with God; the roman catholic construct adds in to this struggle the idea of guilt with regard to the destruction of nature which seems so necessary if they are to feed their children. They are stuck between guilt and despair on the spiritual side, and with inadequate agricultural practices on the practical side. They therefore need an alternative theology of nature, and this is presented to them through a reading of psalm 8 which shows God as separate from, outside nature and on their side, both spiritually and practically; this both liberates from guilt and into a search for better farming methods. I mentioned Mangalwadi earlier and he pursues something similar in India; a theology which frees people internally and so motivates them to seek a better life; he chronicles this both in the history of India under the British and then in his own present day efforts. This is the theological task conducted at a grassroots level.
Of a more exegetical sort of writing (ie explaining the Bible), for example, is a great book called Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E Bailey, a man who lived in the Middle east for 60 years; subtitled Cultural Studies in the Gospels, this book provides manifold alternative ways of reading parts of the gospel based on close understanding of the culture of Jesus’ time; many of them make very good sense. Prominent in my mind are his account of Jesus’ birthplace; much more reasonable than the traditional Christmas carol story; and his reading of the parable of the prodigal son turns certain aspects of it upside down and in fact greatly magnifies the love of the father; and seems to me a much more accurate record of the nature of conversion. This historical type of investigation brings the Bible much closer to home.
Another very insightful book reviewed elsewhere is The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard, an excellent investigation of Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount; he suggests that this central statement of Jesus’ teaching is seriously misunderstood – how amazing, if indeed the church fails to appreciate something so basic! Another great book, with an alternative outlook (theology) is Eternity in their Hearts by Don Richardson, a discussion of the redemptive sign posts left in cultures all over the world. Books like this, that of Bailey, Willard, those of Ekblad….probably don’t belong on the ‘Theology’ shelf; they don’t spring from ‘the academy’, but they certainly have great theology.
Broadly speaking (and this is not a thought out position!), I suppose there are two roles for theology in its narrower sense, the creative and the corrective; I am thinking about theology in its role as exegetical – that is understanding the Bible, and that this mainly means linguistic and historical research. My first helpful encounter was with the corrective side. On this site there is a review of the book God’s Strategy in Human History by Roger Forster and Paul Marston; they have a particular, generous, theological line; briefly, the effect of the book for me is to roundly condemn Augustine as the instigator of great harm to the Church; it warned me off certain doctrines and undergirds a lot of my thinking. Theology therefore has a lot to do with examining and re-examining particular historical lines of thought. Similarly, NT Wright completely changes for me the context for reading Romans, which I had previously found a confusing book; he shows that prevailing (and confusing) ways of thinking about Paul are drawn from often redundant 16th and 17th century problems which at times are only ‘tangentially’ connected to Paul’s thought and may obscure it. I am very grateful to have read these things, though I must say, certainly in the case of Wright, that it is quite enough for me to get the general idea without having to wade through the details. Another piece of nice scholarship, which one supposes is therefore ‘theology’, is I suffer not the woman by Kroeger and Kroeger, a wonderful corrective to some negative ideas about the validity of women teaching. (I should add that I have subsequently read material seriously questioning this book.) It would be fair to say that the church is wonderfully rich in terms of the exegetical task, as evidenced by the shelves and shelves of commentaries.
The creative tends, I think, to stem from the corrective. A theologian friend who is also pastorally very practical and from whom I benefit greatly, recently brought forward something very helpful about eschatology. Eschatology, as I have seen it practiced, is not helpful, not bringing any focus on Jesus that leads to greater devotion and excellence of practice. My friend’s views are firstly corrective, then, potentially, transformative and finally, if the seed germinates and grows, creative; it is fitting in with something else I have encountered about ‘marketplace ministry’, which again requires a proper theological foundation if it is to gain any traction, at least with me. So theology can be thoroughly creative.
With regard to eschatology, there is another good example here of the great value of good theology. The commonly accepted version, in broadly charismatic churches at least, of eschatology might be seen as represented by the ‘Left Behind’ series of popular novels; it is far from stimulating to faith, and not particularly rooted in a New Testament outlook in certain respects. A lot of this is because of the thinking, that is the poorly worked out eschatology, for a long time current in the western church. I recently read a very valuable and eye opening corrective, The eclipse of Christ in eschatology by Adrio Konig. This is certainly theology of an academic nature, replete with references and discussion of different theologians’ work, but actually life-changing, pointing to a thorough going reappraisal of much of our way of understanding the New Testament and of the way we see and experience Jesus. Again in this area is a commentary on Revelation by GK Beale; this is a very godly book, recently made available in a less technical, abridged version. Beale demonstrates the universal applicability of Revelation, not just to future ‘end time’ events; the end times begin with the resurrection of Jesus; one great aspect of scholarship is demonstrated here by the way Beale ties Revelation into the OT by showing how it is constantly quoting from it.
One way of looking at the objective of Christian faith is that it is union with God, or more moderately expressed, experience of God, which might be termed ‘mystical’ experience. Theology is supposed to help this!
“If the mystical experience is a personal working out of the content of the common faith, theology is an expression, for the profit of all, of that which can be experienced by everyone. Outside the truth kept by the Church, personal experience would be deprived of all certainty, all objectivity…..There is therefore no Christian mysticism without theology; but, above all, there is no theology without mysticism…… [Note – eg forgiveness is not just a theological term, it is an experience; we have no understanding without the experience] …Christian theology is always in the last resort a means: a unity of knowledge subserving an end which transcends all knowledge…union with God…..” (From The Mystical Theology of the Easter Church by Vladimir Lossky). 2
I think that says it very well. My purpose in reading tends to be devotional, that is, the application of theology to life, and there is plenty of theological writing that is not going to feed that, though I have, for example, been reading with some benefit TF Torrance and PT Forsyth; both have a direct devotional impact. Speaking of different theories of the atonement, Richard Wurmbrand says they are all true, which is a sensible outlook I think – they all have something to offer. (On this issue of atonement I can strongly recommend A more Christlike God by Brad Jerszak, an easily read book that references ‘the academy’.) Torrance in particular is very solid and inclusive in the same way; there is just no point in playing theories off against each other. Personally, I quickly founder when a book has little to say devotionally, but I am getting better at reading on a more intellectual level; Torrance is fairly heavy, but strongly devotional, However this sort of material requires a lot of background and previous intellectual discipline. It is hoped to add an article on Torrance; at this stage I am reading a collection of his writings on Incarnation. The following, I think, helpfully suggests the purpose of theology and something of Torrance’s thought –
..when we listen to the witness of holy scriptures…we know we are faced with something we can never fully understand, but it is something we must seek to understand as far as we can. (p.62)
When Torrance says this he is thinking about, in context, specifically understanding the Incarnation; this to me is a typical example of what I mean by formal theology as opposed to Christian thought.
Not everyone will be interested in this final observation, but it can be helpful – it is important to me. Things that are apparently completely contradictory and mutually exclusive can, in the modern world of thought, legitimately both be true; this is why there seems no point playing them off against each other. The area where this is known to be the case is to do with quantum physics. This is beautifully explained in The Quantum Brain by Jeffery Satinover; he describes the famous double-slit experiment with its apparently incredible result; what happens is a fact which cannot be explained and must simply be accepted. Some of the issues which theologians hammer away at and leave you with a headache belong to the area of mystery, beyond explanation and simply to be accepted, apparently mutually exclusive ideas, where in fact both are true. Torrance has a very good appreciation of this, and although I have not read him on this, is said to contribute importantly to rapprochement between theology and science. The use of the word paradox sometimes to be found about doctrines is not really very satisfactory. In the case of the double-slit experiment we are talking about utterly irreconcilable facts which are nevertheless indisputably true, which is a bit more than a paradox; I am trying to say that the same is true in our ideas about God. We are dealing here with the area of ‘mystery’, not paradox; again Torrance, for example, is very good here.
Where people (theologians) get bogged down in arguments on either side of apparently mutually exclusive viewpoints they are missing their true calling which is to aid the mission of God’s church. On the other hand, as soon as some one idea or theory is given an air of exclusive claim to truth, no doubt it does need to be challenged.
- A strong statement on these lines is by Richard Wurmbrand :- “Theology is a setting aside of Theos – of God Himself, who is not interested in doctrines but only wants our love – in order to dissect the logos, some hundreds of millions of words which have been written about the one Word of the living God: ‘Unite with me in love, forget about words in the reality of my embrace.’ Theos, God, makes you love. Theology has produced strife, hatred, and even murder.” Of course, this is not the whole of his thinking, but it is an important sentiment ↩
- Here is very interesting quote from Richard Rohr in Eager to Love. “Pentecostals and charismatics are a significant modern-era exception to this avoidance of (mystical) experience, and, as I believe, their ‘baptism in the Spirit’ is a true and valid example of initial mystical encounter. The only things they lack, which often keep them from mature mysticism, are solid theology, some developmental psychology, and some social concerns to keep their feet in this incarnate world. Without these, their authentic but ego-inflating experience has often led to superficial and conservative theology and even right-wing politics. But the core value and truth of experience is still there, right beneath the surface. ↩