Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Exploring the Christian Way of Life: Introduction Part 2


In my last post I covered what I view as framing problems. These are structural problems within the institutions that produce theology that hold the discipline back, limiting its utility to the church. I proposed a new location for the production of theology: the part-time, lay theologian. Their location in the real world as well as their freedom from the methodological requirements of the academic world can make them an asset to the church and the pastor. Contemporary theology is suffering from more problems than just framing problems. In this post we will deal with two major issues with the way theology is approached.

The priorities of theology, at times, have been misguided, both classically and in the modern period. In the modern period, there has been an overemphasis on providing firm footing from which theology can proceed and an effort to put theology on the same level as the hard sciences. This has resulted in the dominance of prolegomena.[1] Prolegomena is necessary, but it does not deserve the pride of place it has received. Theology isn’t objective and that doesn’t invalidate it. In Bayesian statistics there’s a notion of priors. The researcher has prior knowledge and experience that provides context for the data. It’s perfectly appropriate to have a hypothesis that determines the starting point for research and also to make key methodological and interpretive decisions based on your knowledge and experience. It does not invalidate the research. This is a key concept for me. While I will say something about prolegomena and hermeneutics, I don’t plan on spending a lot of time on it. As a Christian I have the most important priors: knowledge of Jesus Christ and the filling of the Holy Spirit.

This dovetails with my second critique of the focus of theology, and this is something that we have inherited from the pre-modern period. Theology is too segmented. We have a number of discrete topics, doctrine of Scripture, theology proper, eschatology, ecclesiology, and so on. While it is helpful to have categories in which we can lump certain discussions, I don’t love the divisions we have and it leads to these topics being treated too independently. This leads, for example to glaring contradictions in the explanation of salvation in the work of Luther and Calvin (more on this later).[2] Theological topics need to be integrated better and ethics need to be central to our theology rather than an appendix. This approach also results in a real difference between the way theology is talked about and the way the Christian life is experienced. As I mentioned before, there is subjectivity to theology and that stems from the fact that conversion is a subjective experience. Salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit to bring us into a relational and experiential knowledge of Jesus. The Christian life flows intellectually and morally out of this knowledge. Thus our theology should be centered on and driven by this knowledge and experience. It should be centered on Jesus.

The other barrier that we need to overcome is how muddled, confused, dogmatic, and in some cased wrong our understanding of certain theological words and concepts have become. What does it mean to say that ‘God is just?’ or ’what is faith?’ for starters. A long history is both beneficial and detrimental to the Christian way of life. There have been many, many brilliant minds through the millennia that we must learn from. Unfortunately, though, some terms in theology have become so central and so full of a particular meaning (faith in particular) that I don’t find it helpful to continue to use the word heavily. It would inhibit people from actually understanding what I’m saying. In other words, often we’re beyond redefinition. I would love to talk about ‘the Christian faith,’ but to almost everyone who hears that, they would assume I’m talking about a system of belief. In fact I’d be talking about something much fuller than that. Luther and Calvin both had contradictory explanations of salvation. In each was present the view that salvation has a basis in our subjective belief. However, within their work, you can also find salvation presented as solely the work of Christ and based on his faith(fullness).  I believe the Protestant tradition ran with the wrong explanation and it has wreaked theological and ethical havoc. Thus, when I talk about Christianity, I will opt for words like ‘fidelity’ over ‘faith’ and will revert to an older terminology and call it the Christian way of life. For that is what it is – a way of life that encompasses beliefs and especially actions.

So where do we go from here? Sometime in April we will start working our way slowly through the gospel of John. I can’t think of a better starting point because it’s focused on Jesus, especially on his meaning and significance to the earliest communities of the way. As I have mentioned before, I view these book studies as providing exegetical basis and warrant for further reflection. In the meantime, while I am preparing for that, I will write a couple of posts on prolegomena and hermeneutics, again because we do need to briefly cover it before we actually dive in (and I do enjoy thoroughly hermeneutics). There also will be a research paper appearing on this blog before June is up, I would imagine, but I still am not sure what I will cover in it. I hope these posts have resonated with you and that you are interested in joining me in the journey to explore Jesus and our relationship with him.

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[1] For example, one quarter of Michael Horton’s dogmatics are covering prolegomena. For Barth it’s about a sixth. Vanhoozer went about twenty years before producing his first actual work of theology as opposed to prolegomena.

[2] Campbell outlines this clearly and carefully in The Deliverance of God pp.247-77.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Exploring the Christian Way of Life: Introduction Part 1


As I’ve briefly mentioned in a couple of previous posts, I am not satisfied with the theology of the late twentieth and early twenty first century. I want to spend two posts outlining the problems and charting the course that we will take on this blog over the next decade or two in developing a new theology. Yes, I said decade or two, and it probably will be two. Writing a full theology is the work of a lifetime, but I see little more worth devoting my one life to. In this post, I will outline what I see as three major framing problems. A subsequent post will deal with other problems as I map out my proposed approach.

Currently theology is split into two major disciplines: biblical theology and systematic theology. The goal of biblical theology is to analyze individual texts using the historical critical method or literary ciriticism and then utilize those close readings to develop a conservative synthesis that spans a book, author, genre, or occasionally a testament or the whole Bible. By conservative I mean cautious. The conclusions reached rarely stray very far from what the scholar believes the texts explicitly say. When they do address implications of the text, their comments often feel shallow or hollow.[1] Systematic theology, on the other hand, is far more philosophical in its approach. It brings the concerns of philosophy and other academic disciplines into discussion with the Christian tradition.[2] That tradition includes Scripture, but Scripture is not the generative source for the questions nor central in providing the answers.[3]

Both of these disciplines are necessary, important, and good; but the church needs more. And the answer isn’t to merge the two, or make systematicians have more background in exegesis – though that would be a good thing. Even if it were desirable to try to merge the two, the current academic climate makes it impossible. It is impossible to be a true expert in both disciplines. No one has enough bandwidth to do that. Universities are never going to support a synthetic discipline, nor a new discipline that requires substantial familiarity with both biblical and systematic theology. What this means is that if all of our best and brightest go off into academia, we’re left with no one who can do the critical work that the church needs.

This brings us to the second problem: accessibility. Pastors are the primary theologians in the world today. While many (unfortunately not enough) have had formal theological training, the needs of their congregations weigh heavily on them and their academic skills are rusty. Much of the best work in both biblical and systematic theology is inaccessible to them because it is too technical. This work is not needlessly technical. I fully support rigor and depth. We need a better mechanism for trickling information down to the pastors, and pastors need to desire that.

My third and final problem is again, accessibility. This time it’s the accessibility of the pastors and professors. Both are removed from an important world that is necessary to inhabit for the type of theology we need today. Professors’ primary world is the world of scholarship. It has very particular demands and audiences. Many pastors acutely recognize the secular setting in which professional theology is written.[4] Even the rare exceptions still feel removed from the needs of real people.

Pastors don’t get off the hook here either. They are the primary theologians, but they too are in a bubble, a Christian bubble. Very few pastors have significant interaction with non-Christians. How can they provide effective theology for people who inhabit a very different world in their professional lives?[5] I also would argue that Christian theologians are in a similar boat, especially if they teach in Christian seminaries. The pressures of publication make it difficult to have significant relationships that are outside of the church or academic institution.

In conclusion, I believe that the problems listed above are very serious, and that the current academic and ecclesial landscape is not capable of correcting them. I don’t believe that the solution lies in reforming the role of pastor or scholar. We need a new category, the part-time theologian who is the academic generalist. The general qualities that they need to have are: the ability to integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines; the capacity for rigorous thought; a commitment to the church; the ability to support themselves and, if married, their families; a diversity of relationships; and a love of academic literature. If you’re young and this description fits, please, for the sake of the church, and honestly your own sake, consider this path. I believe it will be worthwhile.
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[1] There are exceptions to this. There’s a high level of sophistication in the work of Douglas Campbell. But he’s the exception that proves the rule. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a work as ambitious as the Deliverance of God, and even for its sophistication, it’s still a pretty close reading of the text and implications of the text aren’t fully explored. And that is not to his fault. Campbell’s impact on my thinking is hard to over-estimate.

[2] This may not be obvious at first glance, but I would argue that this is true even when not explicit. Greek philosophy had a lot to do with the way dogmatics have traditionally been presented. Modern science has been the catalyst for the current ridiculous overemphasis on prolegomena.

[3] I don’t really believe there are many exceptions to this, if any. The “Systematic Theology” of Wayne Grudem, for example, isn’t really systematic theology, it’s just sloppy biblical theology.

[4] Again, one only needs to look at the amount of time devoted to prolegomena to see this.

[5] As an aside, this is one of the reasons I think all churches should have a staff bi-vocational pastor.