Theology in the Church by Derek King

The tenuous relationship of the modern pastor and modern theologian is evidence enough: something has changed in the relationship between theology and the church. Even a brief historical survey of theologians past would demonstrate an abiding affiliation with the church,[1] but today the “Pastor-Theologian” is an endangered species.

In the past, theology and ministry resembled concentric circles: distinct shapes yet sharing a common center or core. Today, perhaps a better image is Stephen J. Gould’s “non-overlapping magesteria” (or NOMA): different areas of inquiry entirely with their own domains of authority.[2] The causes of this are legion, but surely one is theology’s shedding of its ecclesial shackles in favor of a new master: academia.

I had simply assumed a wall of separation between theology and ministry until I was weekly pulled into both worlds. As I worked in campus ministry and simultaneously towards a Master of Divinity degree, those non-overlapping circles began slowly pervading each other’s space. I came to see my work in the academy and in ministry as mutually relevant. Systematic theology came alive in sermon preparation. Late night conversations with students at Waffle House were sprinkled with the seemingly bottomless well of wisdom from past theologians. For me, this proved to be the decisive blasting of trumpets ‘round Jericho, crumbling this wall of separation for good.

In my view, the broader academic world could benefit from these trumpets as well. Below, I share some thoughts aimed at the restoration of the relationship between theology and the church. Specifically, I want to offer three ways that those of us in academic theology might pursue our vocation in and for the church. Adopting some strategies from the past might aid our future task of producing a theology more conducive to the pulpit and the pew.

1. Theology in conversation.

In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, the ghosts in ‘grey town’ – Lewis’ chilling picture of hell – are ever building their houses further away from the town to live in greater and greater isolation. They simply find neighbors irritable. This picture is not terribly far off from modern academia: greater specialization which in turn produces greater isolation in our respective disciplines.

An isolated theology is a theology abstracted from the concerns of the pew. In the lived life, theology, philosophy, ethics, and Biblical studies are not separate disciplines torn asunder, but a compilation of insights collectively pointing at truth and living well. If theology is going to be of any use to the pulpit or the pew, it must be aimed at saying true things about God which – if done well – is done in shared conversation.

To be sure, shared conversation is rarely easy. It requires humility and often difficult dialogue with those who do not look like us or think like us. It requires a holistic approach to theology, perhaps one at times that is historical, systematic, and Biblical. And it requires engaging with disciplines different than our own.

In the Logos Institute at the University of St Andrews, we are trying to create a shared conversation between three different disciplines: philosophy, Biblical studies, and theology. Invariably, the conversations ring with the clashing of differing methodologies, assumptions, and questions – but we are better for it. My theology is surely better for it.

This is not to suggest that specialization or being an expert in one’s field isn’t helpful – it most certainly is. Yet the primary goal of theology is to say true things about God and God’s relationship to the world, not to make a unique contribution to the field. These are surely not mutually exclusive, but our approach should be defined more by its quest for truth rather than by academy norms, and this is best done in a sometimes messy conversation with our sometimes irritable academic neighbors.

2. Theology embracing a methodology of prayer.

Come now, insignificant mortal…Just for a little while make room for God and rest a while in him…Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him, and seek him ‘behind closed doors.’ Speak now, my whole heart: say to God, ‘I seek your face; your face, Lord, do I seek.’

So begins the Proslogion of Anselm of Canterbury.[3] Anselm is not just posturing – he’s outlining his theological method and inviting his readers into it. His method is one born of prayer, worship, and the work of the Holy Spirit. It might also be more than this, but it is never less.

In the church, the popular dichotomy is well-known: pastors pray; theologians think. If the inverse is never true, the church is in trouble. A salient example of this is how we read and interpret our texts. Scripture – distinct from all other written material– has traditionally been read as possessing a unique capacity to communicate information about God not available to the un-prayed eye. Yet neither has it been used, homiletically or in personal devotion, apart from the life of the mind.

A methodology of prayer never means lowering our standards of truth or academic rigor. If anything, it should raise these standards as theologians approach – in humility – the God who created all things.

3. Theology done for the church and for the world.

One of the earliest theological controversies centered on Christology. Orthodoxy eventually settled on Jesus Christ as fully man and fully God. From where did this conclusion come – metaphysical or ontological investigation? the necessary truths of reason? specific divine revelation? No, no, and no.

“The un-assumed is the unhealed,” said Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory articulated this principle that would be essential, explicitly or implicitly, for the early champions of orthodox Christology. Jesus Christ had to be fully human or human beings couldn’t be fully saved. The conclusion itself is significant, but so is the principle. This theology was motivated by soteriological concerns. This means that focal point of Christology is not a puzzle that needs solving but a people that needs saving.

This is not to say that theology ought to devolve, as it is sometimes prone to, into a thoughtless projection of ourselves onto God. Instead, it is a reminder that any proper mediation of God is always related to flesh and blood humanity, and properly so since the subject of our meditation became flesh and dwelt among us. When theology speaks faithfully about who God is, it will also speak powerfully into the human situation.

Theology that does speak powerfully into the human situation is necessarily relevant to human suffering. This cannot be said of much modern academic theology, and in its wake the last 50 years has witnessed the rise of liberation theology, black theology, and feminist theology. Without a severance between theology and human suffering, would such theologies have ever arisen? Would they be necessary? Perhaps they would, but their very existence testifies to a gap in modern theological discourse that needs to be rectified.

Theology done for the church and for the world bridges this gap. Few theologians have so brilliantly done accomplished this as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who famously said: “’Speak out for those who cannot speak’ – who in the church today still remembers that this is the very least the Bible asks of us in such times as these?” Surely this is the least our theology asks of us as well, in such times as these.

 

Derek King is a Ph.D. student in the Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology at the University of St Andrews. Prior to this, Derek was a Masters student in Logos, and completed a Masters of Divinity degree at Asbury Theological Seminary and a BA in Political Science from the University of Kentucky. His dissertation topic is on Divine Hiddenness.

 

 

[1] See the appendix of The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision (Hiestand and Wilson) for such an example.

[2] Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Reprint edition. (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), 5.

[3] Anselm, Anselm: Basic Writings, trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 2007), 79.