Thinking About Theology

It’s always helpful to have working definitions of theology interacting with each other, rather than one, flat, bland and bloodless offering; a few definitions are floating around this blog somewhere or other!  Michael Jenson has got a great little book out called ‘How To Write a Theology Essay‘ designed to help new theological students write good essays.

essay

His chapter titles suggest a keen focus on practicalities, such as ‘How not to lose heart before you start’, ‘What is a theology essay’ and ‘Types of argument for your essay’, among many other great short chapters.

I like his question:  ‘What is Theology in any case?’ and his response:

“‘Theology’ is the name we give to the activity of the mind which seeks to give a coherent and intelligible articulation of the truth about God and his relation to the world, drawn from the scriptures and addressed to our contemporaries.

Notice, first, that it is a species of reason, subject to the Word of God (‘coherent and intelligible…drawn from the scriptures’).  That is, theology attempts to be coherent and intelligible – to make sense.  It is a work of the mind, understanding that the mind is God-given and that every thought ought to be taken captive.  But it is a special form of reason, which acknowledges the moral limitations of the human mind corrupted as it is by sin.  As such, it follows the peculiar, distinctive and sometimes surprising shape of the Word of God; and so it is properly, understood as ‘exegetical reason’, as Professor John Webster of Aberdeen puts it.

Secondly, Christian theology is a form of speech (‘…articulation of the truth’).  It is a verbal form, reliant on words, the stuff of communication.  Its instruments are words.  While theology itself teaches us to be wary of the slipperiness of words, it also gives us heart:  words are indeed capable of becoming the vehicle of God’s self-communication, and the means by which we can communicate about God.

Thirdly, Christian theology has a particular subject matter:  it is about God and his deeds (‘the truth about God and his relation to the world’).  That is, it is evangelical.  The content of theology is ‘merely’ a reiteration – an expanded reiteration – of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Theological thinking may provide us with a point of view on any number of subjects, but it will not be true to itself if it does not relate it to the promises of God declared to mankind and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

If it is evangelical, then, fourthly, it is also evangelistic (‘about God and his relation to the world… addressed to our contemporaries’).  That is to say, the purpose of Christian theology is to speak these words in the hearing of the world, inviting people near and far to submit to the Lordship of Christ Jesus.  Christian theology that is true to its task does not fold in on itself and relate itself to irresolvable speculations.  Neither is it merely antiquarian:  theology relates itself to today, to here and to now.  Truly Christian theology serves as a call to repent and believe to which a contemporary person may respond.  This has to be the case, because as Christian theology – words about the God of Christian scripture – it must share his concern for the lost and have in view his eternal purposes.

Theology – is – life (a reference to what his chemistry teacher would often say: ‘Chemistry-is-Life’).

In sum:

Theology is a species of reason, subject to the Word of God

Theology is a form of speech

Theology is evangelical:  It [is] about God and his deeds

Theology is evangelistic:  it is an invitation to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ”

How to Write a Theology Essay, Chapter 2 (Kindle Edition)

This is very helpful.  Yet despite the evangelical tendency to speak of ‘The Word of God’ as a slogan, theology can often amount to proof-texting, and proof-texting for argumentative point-scoring is infantile; that is why the phrase quoted by Prof John Webster is so important as Jenson qualifies his first point about reason, that theological thinking is ‘exegetical reason’.

Indeed, all theology from scripture must be exegeted; every word, verse, sentence, line, paragraph, chapter, book and canon must be interpreted – and I say this because if there was something lacking in this good definition, it was a responsibility to hermeneut the text itself – because evangelicals too often prefer to simply quote ‘the text’ parrot fashion, often without any prior knowledge that the version they read is also a result of particular theological forces and persuasions – resulting in compromises and emphasise that they are simply unaware of.

The second and final observation, is that we are not subject to the ‘Word of God’ that is the written word (logos), but the ‘Word of God’ that was made flesh:  we are subject first and primarily as a matter of supreme significance to the Risen and Reigning Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  (UK) Baptist ecclesiology is very clear on this point, and it has had to be in an evangelical melting pot of Western Christendom, that has held up and deified scripture as though it is in itself a deity (this is called ‘bibliolatry’).  I have no doubt Jenson does not mean this at all, and if anything, by definition, all definitions lack something (I may be being too picky here).  I really do like what he has written, but a clear distinction must be made afresh among evangelicals between the Word-made-ink and the Word-made-flesh.  The church follow Jesus Christ, and the scriptures testify to Him, they are not Him. 

calvin-phone-call

Inasmuch as we must interpret scripture, it is the Speech-Act by which God speaks to us, and this is much more than a soft-focus evangelical quiet time of marshmallows and hot chocolate; it is by a manner of relating to the Triune God in and through scripture, such that as we learn how to interpret the text, we discover in time that this same text interprets us – thus the vehicle by which God speaks is not constrained or contained or controlled by us but by the Spirit of God working in and through the text of the word of God pointing us to and showing us:  The Word of God – Jesus himself!

When we do constrain, contain and control the text through our selective, time poor and floppy-hermeneutical-framework, we con-con-con ourselves, and can be assured that what we are relating to is probably not God but rather, a god we want.

Anyway, I’ve veered of the path of my original intentions.  It is worth noting the refreshing emphasis on the outwardness of theology – it is evangelical in that it is a proclamation of something to the world.  Theology is, as P. T. Forsyth says of preaching, the gospel “extending and prolonging itself into a congregation”, reaching beyond its own communal borders in order to expand those borders and draw in a lost world to the love of God.

And finally, God is made known in the reading of scripture.  The scriptures are wonderful and amazing but they must be exegeted and hermeneuted.  They do, as Jesus says, testify to him, but often in quite surprising and liberating ways, no ifs, not buts, no cons anywhere, just a good definition of theology that should set up any Christian who wants to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, whether student or not.  Oh that more Christians would read theology as their devotional aid, rather than the patronising gutless stuff that often does the rounds!

I commend Jenson’s book, even though it has the word “write” in the title, with a picture of someone typing – ‘How to type a theological essay’?  ‘How to produce a theological essay’?  How to construct a theological essay’?  How to….stop being pedantic Richard and go and make a coffee……..

 

 

peanuts-theology-cartoon

 

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