How Theology Should Be Done
By Edmund Chan
The Architecture of Theology
Theology is a vast and rigorous discipline. The historicity and complexity of Christian theology as a discipline is captured by J. I. Packer’s succinct statement:
For eighteen centuries Christian thinkers have pursued a discipline – variously called first principles (so Origen), wisdom (so Augustine), theology (so Thomas Aquinas), Christian philosophy and doctrine (so Calvin), dogmatics (so Reformational and Catholic teachers since the seventeenth century), and systematic theology (so American protestant teachers since the nineteenth century) – that seeks a full and integrated account of all Christian truth. Books developing this discipline have borne a variety of titles – enchiridion (handbook), ekdosis (exposition), sententiae (opinions), summa (full statements), commentarius (survey), loci communes (topics of shared concerns), institutio (basic instruction), medulla (marrow, as in bones), syntagma (arrangement), and synopsis (overview), among others – and have been put together in many different ways.1
To simplify such complexity, Alister McGrath pictures an “architecture of theology”, a basic taxonomy that gives a theological synopsis and structure to this demanding discipline. It encompasses a number of related fields, notably that of biblical theology, systematic theology, historical theology, pastoral theology and philosophical theology.2
Defining the Theological Task
The chief task of theology, Millard J. Erickson contends, is the exercise which “strives to give a coherent statement based on the doctrines of the Christian faith…based primarily upon the Scriptures, on the culture and rooted in the issues of life.”3 Important as this task is, we must bear in mind that it is not a restricted one. Everyone has a theology, whether they know it or not, and whether they can articulate it or not. We all have a particular view of God. In this broad sense, everyone is a theologian with a privileged responsibility of thinking deliberately about God.
Theology belongs to the people. It is therefore not to be confined to the distinguished halls of intellectual institutions, sprouting long incomprehensible theological jargons from dusty large books with incredibly small print. There is obviously a significant place for theological institutions in the life of the church but a wider engagement of theological reflection, outside the hallowed halls of academia, must be encouraged to take place.
At the heart of true theology is the essential and intimate knowledge of the Almighty God. “Theology” therefore is the devout contemplation of God, by the people of God, resulting in a growing understanding of God’s essential nature and will, through the revealed Word; so that lives are transformed through the practice and teaching of that which is learnt. Such theology, with a high view of God that is informed by the Scriptures, is not dry but dynamic!
In the light of this grand theological task for the people of God, I want to briefly examine how theology should be done. There are at least six fundamental necessities for doing theology well. This paper briefly examines these six basic building-blocks; namely, (1) the necessity of theological vision, (2) the necessity of theological foundation, (3) the necessity of theological contemplation, (4) the necessity of theological pedagogy, (5) the necessity of theological holism and (6) the necessity of theological humility.
The Necessity of Theological Vision
The church faces a serious theological crisis. The ideological virus of postmodern humanism has been so entrenched in our ‘Christian’ mindsets that our ability to think deeply about the things of God has been entirely compromised, often without our realizing it. Herein lays the severity of the problem. We are unaware of the compromised extent to which our thinking has been shaped by a secular mindset. We accept as a norm the profound lack of willingness, or ability, to think deeply and consistently about truth. We are lulled into a passive mode of thinking which militates against vital theological reflection. Instead of countering the fallacy of secular philosophy with rich biblical and theological truths, and a deep life congruent with those truths, we live in a generation where a sound theological foundation is ignored; or worse, even snubbed upon.
Unexamined assumptions thus shape the intellectual contours of a lazy generation, tainting the moral and spiritual landscape of the soul. As such, one of the distinct weaknesses of the modern church is that of having zeal without knowledge. We end up with a superficial faith without a deep theological foundation. Indeed, as it has been popularly said, thinking without roots will result in flower but no fruit. In the contemporary revolution of ideas, what engages the Christian mind is no longer “what’s true” but rather “what works”. Truth has often been sacrificed upon the altar of pragmatism. Of course, pragmatism has its value. But when “what works” supersedes “what’s true”, we engage life with a severe short-sightedness that will sabotage both a deep soul and a lasting spiritual legacy. For at the root of this critical problem is the emergent crisis of theological rootlessness in both our way of thinking and our basic orientation to life.
What the church needs today is theological vision. We must once again return to the cultivation of a right and high view of God. It is the ability to intelligently and meaningfully examine the condition of life and its presuppositions of thought in the light of who God is as revealed in the Scriptures. In Lints’ definition,
To frame a theological vision is simply to attempt to capture in a careful and deliberate manner this ‘way of thinking’ about God, the world, and ourselves. A theological vision seeks to capture the entire counsel of God as revealed in the Scriptures and to communicate it in a conceptuality that is native to the theologian’s own age.4
The church needs to think aright about God. This necessity is a critical one. A. W. Tozer, on reflecting on the attributes of God, most rightly concluded:
What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us . . . The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.5
Life without God is surely a contradiction of terms. Indeed, we need to think aright about God. As the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, life without God is spiritually barren, philosophically sterile, existentially meaningless and thus ultimately futile. Right theology is certainly positive and life-giving. It affirms humanity’s destiny, addressing at its most fundamental level the theological agenda of who we are, and how we ought to live, in the light of who God is. The church needs such a theocentricity that is largely missing in our contemporary culture.
The Necessity of Theological Foundation
The very idea of the thinkability of God is both a grand and profound one. How can one possibly conceive God? How can that which is finitely finite understand the One who is infinitely infinite? The divine God is totally and eternally beyond human comprehension. To comprehend God would be exceedingly more confounding than for a toddler to understand a post-graduate philosophical discussion of Nietzsche’s impact upon the critical theories of deconstructionism and post-structuralism. It is like trying to describe three-dimensional realities to someone else if both were to have lived all their lives in a two-dimensional world.
Divine revelation is therefore the key to theology. It is centered upon the very idea of the self-disclosure of God. Thus, neither reason nor tradition nor experience is an adequate foundation for thinking aright about God; for unless God reveals himself, our human faculties fail us most miserably. The canonical Scriptures, the agent of divine revelation, are the true and God-appointed foundation for faith and theological reflection. Indeed, the most important world we live in is the unseen world, and the most precious commodity in the unseen world is truth; and this truth is founded upon the Word of God.
Yet, although sola scriptura was one of the great resounding battle-cries of the Reformation, some theologians today have misguidedly questioned the high place assigned to revelation.6 It is thus fundamental to affirm that revelation is “the primary source of theology, and is also a basic category in theological thinking.”7 The importance of biblical authority lies in the evangelical premise that “the doctrine of the Bible controls all other doctrines of the Christian faith.”8 It is most important that we get our theology right and that our theology be informed by the Scriptures, the Word of God.
Submission to the Scriptures is foundational to doing theology well. In reflecting on the epistemological issues which underlie biblical hermeneutics, Pratt reviews both subjectivism, expressed in much liberation and feminist hermeneutics (“bringing the text to our level”), and objectivism, expressed in much of most evangelical hermeneutics (“raising our understanding to the level of the Scriptures itself”); and calls for an authority-dialogue model which “keeps the Bible supreme and the reader a servant of the text.”9 Because theology is essentially centered upon God’s self-disclosure, it is obvious that the basis for doing theology should be the Scriptures.
Even so, important as the Scriptures are to doing theology well, it is not given by God to be an end in itself but for the basic purpose of revealing Jesus Christ (John 5:39; cf. Psa 40:7). One of the most remarkable tenets of Christianity is the fact that we can meaningfully think about God, not just because he has revealed his truth to us, but because he has revealed Himself to us in Christ. As far as God is concerned, ultimate truth is not merely Proposition-bound but Person-bound. Christ is the absolute anchor to doing theology well.
Hence, a strong theological foundation, both in the written Word (the Bible) and the living Word (Jesus Christ, the logos of God in John’s Prologue) must fundamentally inform and inspire our theologizing.
The Necessity of Theological Contemplation
Our generation of Christians however is largely tutored in theological content, if they are tutored at all, rather than in the art of theological contemplation. The aim of theological contemplation is not merely to help us think more deeply about God, or to think more intelligently about God, or to think more clearly about God. Rather, the aim of theological contemplation is to help us think more godly about God. That which informs the mind must also inspire the heart.
We can neither overlook nor dismiss the fact that in our milieu the theological pedagogy continues in much the same old fashion. We are still tutored by the lectio, the quaestio, and the disputatio in dogmatic theology. The doctrine of the historic Christian faith is first set forth, then defended on the basis of Scripture and the tradition of Christian thought, and then we move into theological speculations and inquiries.10
Theological content aims at imparting information about God, telling us what we should believe about him. Important as theological information might be, it is grossly inadequate to establish a vital spirituality. For at the heart of theology is thinking godly about God. To many, God is regarded as irrelevant except for emergencies only. People approach God as a “quick fix” to their problems. Many in the church have drifted from sound theological moorings, searching frantically for a quick fix to their problems. The contemporary malaise of irreverence towards God stems from the worldview that God is irrelevant to practical living. Theology thus becomes the Cinderella of the church, unwooed and unsought. At the heart of such shallowness in theological thinking is the fallacy of the truncated Gospel and the domestication of God in postmodern culture. We must return to strong theological roots for practical Christian discipleship. We have a God who is immensely relevant to every facet of life. Let us engage life theologically.
There are at least three fundamental questions to guide us in such contemplation: (1) what is the essential nature of God and his kingdom? (2) what is the fundamental purpose of God in the light of his essential nature? And (3) what are the unchanging principles by which God deals with humankind, in view of his essential Being and his essential purpose? Such theological contemplation probes the emerging realities of life in view of the sovereignty of God, which must be once again declared over human affairs and destinies.
The Necessity of Theological Pedagogy
Theology must be pedagogical. There is a vital element of teaching the truth, not just of acquiring it. To do so, we must rise above theological ambiguities. Granted that every discipline has its distinctively technical terms, there are ways of communicating the same ideas that would either unfold its meaning or confound it. I have read theological writings that are lucid and compelling (even though technical theological jargon is employed). However, I have also read some that are utterly confounding, not because the ideas are difficult to understand but precisely because the pedagogy of theology is ignored; and the author is in fact a rather poor communicator, untutored in pedagogical principles, who has confused the incoherent profusion of words for the intellectual profundity of ideas. In the twenty-first century, even homiletics has progressed to help preachers move from archaic expressions of words to connect with the contemporary audience. Why would not more theologians pay attention to the application and communication of truth rather than merely the acquisition of it (cf. Ezra 7:10)?
A worthy consideration in contemporary theological pedagogy is the narrative as a fresh conduit of truth. The story, along with the principles gleaned from the plot, becomes the central motif for theological reflection. In discussing narrative as a forum and motif of doing theology, Lints reminds us that the Bible is not “given at one time, nor in the form of a theological dictionary. . .It is a book full of dramatic interest and comes complete with major and minor plots.” (1993:274). Indeed, the Scriptures weave a narrative of God’s unfailing faithfulness and tutor our faith in him.
Consider the narrative as an essential part of theological pedagogy. The way the Jewish culture teaches about God, as opposed to the Western propositional approach, is instructive. Within the conservative Jewish culture, at least two things deserve our immediate attention. First, God was not just taught in theological schools but more significantly, in the homes. Fathers are to be the theological educators in the family! When Christian fathers abdicate this God-given responsibility, we find a generation that is biblically illiterate and theologically impoverished. The church (and theological institutions) ought to complement the home (and equip the fathers!) but the foundation of theological education rests in the home (Deut 4:9-10; cf. 32:7).
The second thing that calls for immediate attention is that within the home, theology was not taught in the Jewish family by way of propositional truth. The father did not say, “Son, let me tell you, God is good. And son, remember, God is great…” No, he tells a story! The father would narrate the accounts of Noah and the ark, Abraham and his exploits of faith, Moses and the mighty deliverance from Egypt etc. Through these great biblical narratives, their concept of God is shaped. And the wise, godly father would speak with such holy awe that it wasn’t merely the narrative plot that gripped the imagination of the child, it was the sense of the father’s reverence for God that is communicated to his children as a profound theological legacy.
Such “narrative” theology must nonetheless be applied to life and not remain merely a good story irrelevant to life. Goldberg highlights that there are three critical issues that any narrative theology must face: (1) the question of Truth – the relationship between story and experience; (2) the question of Meaning – the hermeneutic involved for understanding stories aright; and (3) the question of Rationality – the charge of moral relativism.11 Might I add a fourth: the question of Application; for it is in the application of the narrative that the greatest hermeneutical challenge lies. It is in the application that the elements of truth, meaning and rationality are caused to bear upon the circumstance or condition of life.
The Necessity of Theological Holism
Theological holism is integrating truth with life. Adapting the thought from Cole’s article on holistic spirituality in the Reformed Theological Review,12 it may be proposed that there are four basic building blocks to holistic theological integration: (1) Orthodoxy. There is a need for right doctrines of truth; (2) Orthopraxy. There is a need for right practice as a responsibility towards truth; (3) Orthokardia There is a need for right response of the heart in truth; and (4) Orthokoinonia There is a need for the right community for truth.
Obviously, theology is more than just orthodoxy, it also involves right practice (orthopraxis). In the Scriptures, right practice is both the desired outcome as well as the imperative for right doctrine (e.g. Romans 1-11 doctrine, 12-16 practice; or Ephesians 1-3 doctrine, 4-6 practice). Moreover, the aim of orthopraxis is more than just applying the truth; rather it is applying for a redemptive and transformational purpose. As Lamb puts it, orthopraxis
. . . aims at transforming human history, redeeming it through a knowledge born of subject empowering, life-giving love, which heals the biases needlessly victimizing millions of our brothers and sisters. Vox victimarum vox Dei. The cries of the victims are the voice of God. To the extent that those cries are not heard above the din of our political, cultural, economic, social, and ecclesial celebrations or bickerings, we have already begun a descent into hell. (1982:22f.)
In doing theology, the importance of community must not be overlooked. A right community (orthokoinonia) is needed for a dynamic transformational orthopraxis. For truth, and the application of it, is best done in the context of interpersonal relationships. In any theological discussion of truth, for example, due consideration might be given to earlier reflections, such as the Pennabergian, Barthian and Hegelian worldview pertinent to the rhetoric of truth, and of Niebuhr’s postulation of truth and culture. Nonetheless, I would like to contribute to this discussion a most simple observation: Truth is best communicated in the realm of interpersonal relationships.
It comes as no surprise therefore that “some of the most effective learning in systematic theology courses in colleges and seminaries often occurs outside the classroom in informal conversations among students who are attempting to understand Bible doctrines for themselves.”13 A faith community of collaborative theological learners is formed. In such a community, there is a vital non-formal aspect to theological education. There is thus a need to engage theology not just by way of individual contemplations of truth but more importantly, in a faith community of collaborative theological learning. This is how theology is best done!
The Necessity of Theological Humility
Knowledge puffs up (1 Cor 8:1) but theology that is done well humbles. For at the heart of theological education is not to exchange an empty mind for a full one, but rather to exchange an empty mind for an open yet discerning mind. And a mind that is discerningly open and openly discerning understands and appreciates the richness and depth of theological contemplation, such that it is genuinely humbled by the finiteness of the human mind to grasp and comprehend an infinite God.
The aim of theology, as Wells alluded to, is not to “master” the subject of God by the formulation of theological knowledge but rather to come to both the realization and appreciation of its utter inexhaustibility. For God, unlike the periodical table, cannot be quantified and analyzed.14 Such true and inexhaustible theology humbles us. A discerning perception of theology is the understanding that it is always an unfinished task. As Barr points out, “Cross-cultural theological discussion exposes the limits of every theological view and reminds those engaged in such discussion that theology is never, at least in this life, finished.”15
Another aspect of the humbling is that we need each other. No man is an island in the construction of informed theological thought and convictions. D.A. Carson, commenting on the integratedness of theological paradigms, compared the systematic theologian with a juggler, keeping many intellectual balls up in the air:
Unlike balls whirling through the air by the juggler’s skill, the various ingredients that constitute systematic theology are not independent. Drop a ball and the other balls are unaffected; drop, say historical theology and not only does the entire discipline of systematic theology change its shape, but the other ingredients are adversely affected. Without historical theology for instance, exegesis is likely to degenerate into arcane, atomistic debates far too tightly tethered to the twentieth century.16
As such, there is a place for humility to learn from the past as we theologize in the present for the future. The one who misguidedly spurns a theological tradition, rather than taps from it, misses doing theology well. As Cole puts it, “Theological thinking is also historical thinking. The theologian has behind him or her the great stream of Christian thought. To ignore the past would be an immense folly.”17 This thought is likewise affirmed by Spykman who declared that “tradition is the very lifeblood of theology… No healthy theology ever arises de novo. By honoring sound tradition, theological continuity with the past is assured.”18 The link with our theological roots and the ability to hear one another is a mark of theological humility.
To become a Christian is not to engage in intellectual suicide. On the contrary, it calls for clear thinking that stems from loving God with all that we are, including a love that is sustained and nourished by right thinking. As Wolfhart Pannenberg has aptly commented: “Argumentation and the operation of the Holy Spirit are not in competition with each other. In trusting in the Holy Spirit Paul in no way spared himself thinking or arguing.”19 There is no place for anti-intellectualism in Christianity. The greatest need of this generation is the intentional development of biblically grounded, theologically sound and spiritually vital disciples of Christ.
As such, theological leadership is vital to the health of the contemporary church. We must do what we can to strengthen the cord. Our purpose and priorities must be clear. The pulpits of local churches must make a radical shift from exhortation or worse, mere entertainment, to sound exegesis and biblical exposition. The rise of biblical illiteracy must be addressed. Sound theological thinking must be returned to the people of God. And such theology should be done contritely, conscientiously and corporately. We are grateful that we have the God-given faculty to think about God meaningfully because the Almighty has chosen to reveal himself to us and to call us into a living relationship with him. Thus, we must go beyond a mere attempt to do theology as merely an intellectual exercise; but rather to integrate it into the whole of life and faith.
We increasingly realize our inadequacy in such a profound intellectual, spiritual and communal exercise. Yet the wonderful privilege and the critical responsibility of doing theology today invite us to such a glorious undertaking. For theology done well is both the act and foundation for the true worship of God, who alone is the adored and inexhaustible subject of all our finest but finite attempts at theologizing. And in the final analysis, this is how theology should essentially be done. For the true worship of the Almighty God, who has revealed himself through the Scriptures and in Christ, is the distinguishing mark of doing theology well.
1 Packer, J. I. Is Systematic Theology a Mirage? An Introductory Discussion, p. 17.
2 McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction, p. 119-123.
3 Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 1986, p.21.
4 Lints, Richard. 1993. The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology, p. 8-9.
5 Tozer, A. W. 1965. The Knowledge of the Holy, p. 9.
6 Cf. F. Gerald Downing’s Has Christianity a Revelation?
7 Macquarrie, John. Principles of Christian Theology, p.6
8 Henry, Carl F. H. 1964. Frontiers in Modern Theology, p.138.
9 Pratt, Richard J. He Gave Us Stories, p. 33.
10 Vidales, Raul. Methodical Issues in Liberation Theology, p.35.
11 Goldberg, Michael. 1982. Theology and Narrative. Nashville: Abingdon, p. 192.
12 Cole, Graham A. At the Heart of a Christian Spirituality, p. 49-61.
13 Grudem, Wayne. 1994. Systematic Theology, p. 35.
14 Wells, David. The Theologian’s Craft, p. 171.
15 Barr, William R. Re-forming Theology in the Global Conversation, p.8.
16 Carson, D. A. The Role of Exegesis in Systematic Theology, p. 39.
17 Cole, Graham A. Thinking Theologically, p.52.
18 Spykman, Gordon J., Reformational Theology: Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics, p.5.
19 Pannenberg, Wolfhart. 1971. Basic Questions in Theology, Vol. II, p. 35.
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