Being a theologian for the church

Posted on January 25, 2012

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(Phil. 3:12: ‘not that I have already achieved all this…’)

Over the past week, in a variety of ways, a number of connected strands of conversation, each of which I regularly find myself overhearing or involved with, have all come to notice or prominence. All relate to the question of the connection of ‘theologians’ to the life of the church. Often there is an expressed sadness or concern that the various churches – particularly, in my hearing, the Evangelical and Baptist churches that I have the privilege to serve – are not willing, or at least not willing enough, to hear or to use the insights of theologians. As I drove back from giving a lecture in a church conference, in could see in my head a somewhat angry deconstruction of at least several of these strands, which began with the reflection that my own experience is so far from a general unwilllingness to be heard or used that I find that claim almost incomprehensible. Instead of being angry, however, I want here to attempt a constructive account of how ‘theologians’ should, ideally, be related to the life of the churches.

‘Theologians’ has been in quotation marks so far to indicate the need for a definition. Let me suggest as a first approximation, ‘those whose Christian vocation includes sustained attention to the doctrines of the faith’. considered as a Christian vocation, there are at least two appropriate strands to this: disseminating doctrine; and purifying doctrine.

Dissemination is about helping the churches to access the deposit of faith, both in order to know it better, and in order to correct misapprehensions concerning it. These misapprehensions might be omissions (‘we don’t talk about this anything as much as we should, if we were being faithful to our heritage…’) or errors (‘So-and-so is wrong to claim that Baptists have always believed that…’). The proper task of the theologian here is to be a witness, as unbiased as possible, to the tradition; if I am to be the lens through which a church sees the tradition, then I have a duty (we are talking about theology as Christian vocation here, remember) to be as clear and undistorting lens as possible.

Purification, by contrast, is about challenging the theological tradition: the theologian may come to the view that, in certain ways, some doctrinal positions are in fact wrong, although settled, and so stand in need of reformulation. She may campaign in various ways for such reformulation, publishing, lecturing, and arguing for a few months or for an entire career. The proper task of the theologian here is to be a passionate – and biased – advocate.

This is not a ‘descriptive’ vs ‘evaluative’ distinction, as giving an account of the tradition itself demands the making of evaluative judgements. The judgements here are more nearly historical than doctrinal, but they are judgements, nonetheless. The question of the doctrinal tradition is always going to be a somewhat complex and messy one, perhaps particularly for churches which trace their heritage to the Reformation. They have their birth in a process of doctrinal correction and reformulation, and they profess to remain institutionally committed to further reform, should it appear necessary. In recent decades, the academic theology that relates to them has often suggested that some drastic reformulations are in fact needed, and some of these can seem to have attained a measure of general acceptance in academic discourse. To give an account of what is now standard theology thus requires judgements to be made about the success and importance of various proposed reformulations.

To take an example, consider the question, ‘what is the gospel?’ (a query I’ve seen in several contexts recently), I have a very complex historical narrative in my head which is not easily reducible to a simple answer: differing Lutheran, Calvinist, Roman (& Anabaptist) accounts of the nature of justification; Eastern Orthodox accounts of deification, and the measure of academic interest they have attracted recently; diverse Evangelical traditions, exploring sometimes the link between social justice and salvation, whilst sometimes seeking to protect a very narrow soteriological narrative as being ‘the gospel’; recent developments in academic study of Paul, and the revisionist proposals arising from there; my own estimations of the importance or success of each of these positions; and some awareness, at least, of how my estimations on this last point might differ from the estimations of others. I also have some personal beliefs and commitments which would shape my own constructive attempts to narrate the good news adequately.

I can answer the question – or any such theological question – then, in a number of ways. First, is the questioner interested in an account of the range and limits of possible answers, or a more definite and singular account of one right answer? In either case, I can offer her (at least) my view of what should be said; or my view of what most contemporary theologians (within a particular tradition, possibly) think should be said; or my view of what most people in history have said; or my view of what most contemporary historians think most people in history have said. Each answer has genuine value, but they are different answers.

A theologian who want to be a resource for the churches should be constantly alive to these distinctions, aware of what is being looked for, and clear about what is being offered. It seems to me that too often we are not; in particular, asked for some account of what the church’s teaching has been, we offer instead our own idiosyncratic view of what it should be, omitting any mention of the fact that few others think like this. The exasperation that results, and the sense that theologians are not helpful contributors to the discussion, should not be a surprise.

The theologian who can help the churches will be constantly locating her comments: ‘Well, I think X, but most others think Y’; ‘There are various live options here – A, B, C – even D – I’m committed for various reasons to B, but you need to know about the others’; ‘I think the history of our denomination lends support to this proposal, but you should be aware that others would disagree…’ Equally, she will be ready to be definite when that is required: ‘in my view, X’. Her task, however, will more often involve helping others to appreciate both the range of possible positions, and the definite limits that the tradition has placed on that range; and helping them also to understand some of the significance of the arguments – ‘these are the texts appealed to’; ‘the difference that this argument makes is …’

The theologian who is willing to relate like this does not seek to promote her own good ideas, but instead to help the churches to think better about the questions that concern them, and indeed to think better about which questions should concern them. This is a worthwhile Christian vocation; being seen to be clever – isn’t.

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