Monday, May 01, 2006

Really? Theology is Irrelevant?

I'm a student of theology. My entire undergraduate education is focused in the area of theology and biblical studies. I live and breathe theology. The primary subject of the books I read is in some way related to theology. I love theology and no subject is of greater interest to me both in literature and in conversation (whether casual or particular). Yet sometimes I am presented with the question, "Why theology?" Does theology really matter?

I have had a number of persons tell me they don't believe theology is all that important. "Christians don't need to be acquainted with the theological minds of the Church Fathers. Christians don't need to read Oden's Sytematic Theology. The writings of Wesley are largely inconsequential. When it comes down to it, all we need to know is the basics." Or so the argument goes. Evidently, theology is for the academics and has relevance for the ivory tower but not for the local church. So what are we budding theologians to do? Are we a dying breed? Is our art insignificant?

This issue has truly been one that I have spent countless hours ruminating upon. If the average Christian doesn't care about theology, what am I doing? Why am I spending hours upon hours of my life studying and researching this subject? A rather radical insight came upon me as I read the Credo of Thomas Oden's first volume of Systematic Theology. In it he states: "Christians have a right and a responsibility to know the meaning of their baptism. This is the purpose of Christian theology and of this study: to clarify the ancient ecumenical faith into which Christians of all times and places are baptized. It is expected of all who are baptized that they will understand what it means to believe in God the Father Almighty, in God the Son, and in God the Spirit (Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catech., prologue, NPNF 2 VII, p. 474; Luther, Sermons on the Catech., ML, p. 208)."

Why do we study theology? It is the right and the responsibility of all Christians to understand the faith they adhere to. Understood this way, the teaching of Christian theology is not an option, it is necessary to the very definition of what it means to be a Christian. To be a Christian requires one to seek greater understanding about the entirety of their faith. It is not just a responsibility, but it should be celebrated as a beautiful right that we are able to even speak of these things concerning the Almighty God. We have been given a great gift in this right yet unfortunately many American Christians have forsaken this opportunity. Instead, they have chosen the route of "all I need to know is the basics." Here ought to be the shocker for the average American Christian: You don't know the basics. The basics are what is contained in a series such as Thomas Oden's "Systematic Theology." At least, that is what the basics has been for the majority of Church history. Catechumens were delivered fascinating lectures that followed the pattern of the Creed throughout the Lenten period leading up to Easter. Cyril's Catechetical Lectures are a fabulous expression of the depth and sincerety with which the Early Church undertook the task of theology. Augustine's lectures "On Faith and the Creed" are beyond the capacity of most laypersons.

What has created this vast chasm between the theological integrity of the Early Church and our current theologically bankrupt churches? Clearly there are great differences in the cultural influences. Modern society does seem, in a sense, "dumb downed" by the prevalence of television and video games (not that either are bad things but merely they have occupied our minds and intellectual stimulation has been pushed to the background). But it seems to me this regression has been occuring for much longer than simply the technological revolution. At some point, the Church forgot one of its primary responsibilities: to teach and preach theology in the context of the Church.

Perhaps you remain unconvinced. "So what. Just because the Early Church considered theology important doesn't mean we ought to." Considering the often myopic tendency of some evangelicals to completely reject any source of authority but the Bible, let me point you to a biblical example of this.

In the letter to the Hebrews, in chapter five the author begins one of his central arguments: Jesus is a priest of the order of Melchizedek. While he desires to discourse upon what this means and the ramifications for his audience, he first says the following. "We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." (Hebrews 5:11-14)

The author wishes to teach the audience things they ought to be able to apprehend by this point in their Christian maturity. However, they have failed to mature and require the "elementary truths" again. He then continues with the following. "Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so." (Hebrews 6:1-3)

May I be so rash as to propose the following: The majority of American Christians do not have a solid understanding of what the author of Hebrews considers to be "elementary truths." If this was something worthy of chastisement in the first century, it is even more worthy in our current age. We have literally had centuries upon centuries to mature in our theological understanding. Not only have many failed to do so, but many fail to care that we ought to be maturing!

This has put the developing Christian leaders in a precarious position. We see the need and the value of theological integrity but we are concerned that our congregations will refuse to press forward. It has also greatly weaked the impact of Christianity in America. I will boldly proclaim that the claims of hypocrisy leveled against the American Church, the lack of "authentic" Christians, and the negation of Christianity's efficacy are rooted in the devaluing of theology. We are not changed by what we proclaim because we don't truly apprehend what we proclaim. We preach false gospels of wealth, prosperity, and material blessings because we do not grasp the Kingdom ethics. We do not understand the depth of salvation because we are content with believing that all that happens when a person converts is that they are forgiven of their sins.

I used to think that what has consumed my life for the past three years may be irrelevant. I don't believe that anymore.

So what do you think?
Do you value theology?
Does your church value theology?

Let's hear what you have to say.

(Take a look at this newly posted related blog by Kevin Wright.)


Aaron said...

I may go more in depth later, ut my first thoughts are this.

1) Everyone has an oppinion in theology whether they want to admit it or not "I AM A THEOLOGIAN"

2) There are certain areas of theology that I do not think need to be adressed consistantly from the pulpit. The lady in my church who's husband left her for a younger woman while she raises their child, I don't think she cares about deep theology.

3) I have found that many people (perhaps even bloggers) have taken theolgoy to mean "my oppinion on this social issue." how do we avoid that?

Ben Robinson said...


Let me briefly address the three points and hope you do indeed go into more depth (it is always enjoyable to hear your thoughts).

1) I suppose I'm going to have to ask what exactly you were getting at with this. Yes, everyone has theological opinions. What exactly was the connection you were thinking?

2) Sure. There are certain areas that do not need to be consistently addressed and there are some of the finer and more particular areas that are better left for the theologians, who then ought to communicate them in understandable language. But that was not really my point. My point is that the unfortunate generality for many American churches is that there is no preaching of integritous theology. The theology that is preached is not only diluted but sometimes harmful.

The lady in your congregation does in fact care about deep theology. That is, of course, if she is looking to your church to aid her and to come along side her in her pain. For the Church exists because of the salvific work of Christ, and the salvific work of Christ is efficacious because of the Incarnation, and the Incarnation is a vast mystery but one with incredible theological implications. If it were not for the richness and magnitude of what we call theology, what comfort could you offer her? What comfort could you give to her if Christ did not come? What comfort if he was only divine, or only human? Where does her aid come from but not the Triune God? If she cares for Christ she by default already cares about deep theology. Because the very essence of Christ is deep beyond measure.

There is one reason you can provide her any aid: your theological convictions. If Christ was not raised from the dead, what have you to offer her? If God is not Triune, in what sense can we speak of him as being love? And if God is not love, why ought you to show this woman love? I could continue, but I think my point is clear. If we deny the pervasiveness of theology in the lives of ourselves and our congregations we are deceived. Our theology impacts all we do. If that woman has been taught that everything small detail that happens in life is part of God's will, then she will be led to believe that ultimately it is God who caused her husband to leave her. Perverse theology wreaks havoc.

I am not calling all laypersons to become the next Athanasius, or Augustine, or Gregory of Nyssa; but I am asking us to re-engage with what they were impassioned. They taught theology for the Church, and the Church was changed by it. They taught theology because they understood that if we do not, we put people at the risk of perverse beliefs which steal the transforming power of Christ. Theology is the beautiful language of the Church; and we have forgotten how to speak it.

The state of the American Church, to me, is evidence of this forgetfullness.

3) We avoid this by teaching theology. What are we preachers called to preach? The Word. What is more theologically loaded than the Word? But the conversation ought not to stop with the Bible only. It begins, but the conversation does not end there.

Nonetheless, some aspects of theology do move into social issues. A primary theological issue is that of Christological pacifism. Inevitably this impacts a person's opinion on social issues but is grounded in theological convictions. Our theology informs our positions on social issues.

Wow, sorry for the long-windedness. Thanks for the comment. Let me know what you think.

Sniper said...

Two ways to address the problem of "why many Christians do not find theology relevant:"

(1) You think theology distinctly with ethics, which is what I think we are in the danger of doing at the present moment in time. Ethics, I believe, is a part of theology, but not the whole. But, people seem to really get heated and respond a lot more to ethical discussions. So we teach on pacifism, giving to the poor, social reconciliation, and the like--and we feel better because people are "using" theology in their daily lives. But...we are missing a large part.

(2) We redefine theology. We stop linking theology with the ancients. We try to place it outside academia, outside Oden, and outside the creeds. Rather, we place it in a context where people can see that theology needs to intersect their worship. We explain how the ancients perceived Scripture and other theological ideas...we dialogue with one another within the context of life issues (such as infidelity and the like)...we worship alongside one another as the Church. AND THE WHOLE OF THAT IS THEOLOGY. We "do" theology, rather than talk about it all the time. I think that is precisely our problem. I have been told me numerous people that I need to "stop studying theology and do ministry..." as if the two are separate. We need to link the two together and SHOW people why it matters, not just write about it.

THEOLOGY--the art of living as the Church, discussing the nature of and teachings of the past, present, and future, and feeling our way through life as to how we should live.

Sniper said...

sorry, it should say "You link..." and not "you think" for point number one. And the "you" is the greater whole of the church in this discussion, not you as in Ben.

Ben Robinson said...


1) I suppose I have not experienced this linking of theology distinctly (and exclusively) with ethics. Yes, theology is not only ethics. But as you mentioned, and I too in my previous comment, our ethics are related to our theology. Our ethical convictions proceed from our theological convictions. I do not have a problem with teaching about Christological pacifism, giving to the poor, or social reconciliation, as long as it is done with balance. In other words, because our theology ought to invade all aspects of our lives inevitably we will be engaged in certain ethical issues result from our theology.

But, if I understand correctly, you are simply stating that there is a problem when we exclusively speak of theology as being ethics.

"We stop linking theology with the ancients. We try to place it outside academia, outside Oden, and outside the creeds. Rather, we place it in a context where people can see that theology needs to intersect their worship."

2) But theology is intricately linked with the ancients. It is intricately linked with Oden and the creeds. It is these sources which place theology in the context of worship. We should always seek to refine and mature in our theological understanding but I do not know if redefining our theology is the best way to do that. Rather, we need to seek ways to communicate that theology to this generation and the next and the next, etc. The communication of theology is fluid and needs to be, but to speak of redefining theology to me conjures images of redefining such things as the decrees of the great ecumenical councils and so forth. Perhaps this is simply a semantical misunderstanding, but when I hear "redefine" I hear "change the particularities of theology." While theology is fluid in that we are learning more and we must seek meaningful ways to communiate it, I shy away from speaking of "redefinition."

As I said, the ancients and Oden do exactly what you are saying. They participate in the task of theology in the context of the Church for the Church. Only when theology is done outside of the context of the Church does it become irrelevant. But this dichotomy of "doing" vs. "studying" (as you pointed out) is false. When I study theology I am doing theology. I am doing theology when I study if I am doing it with the understanding that this impacts how I live and how the Church ought to act.

D.M. said...

Sniper is correct. If people do not see that; a. they are (whether they admit it or not- theologians) and b. that their theology (recognized or not) does affect their worship for either good or ill, then their particular worship experience will be unknowling tainted. Their theology is their presupposition for God and without studying why the believe what they believe and even how they believe they dilute the experience by being unaware.

Sniper said...

Ben, I think we are just bouncing semantics. I am not trying to redefine the essence of theology, but to redefine the task of theology in the minds of the local congregation who sees theology as a mere academic discipline for intellectual elitists. To do this, we have to join pragmatism with intellecutal stimulation.

How? I don't know. I'm not a pastor, I just blog and read books for now.

Ben Robinson said...


Yes, shortly into my last comment I said to myself, "I think you're agreeing with one another..." Nonetheless, I continued.

I suppose really that is the heart of the question at which I am striving. How do we "bridge the gap?" How can we facilitate the grounding of congregations in theological integrity? You may not currently be a pastor, but I'd still like to hear your ruminations. :)