The descriptive task of theology

Welcome to The Theology Whisperer,  a series of short blog posts on theology and theological education.

 

If theology is about faith seeking understanding, what do we mean by “understanding”? What kind of understanding, and to what ends?  To answer those questions, we need to recognise that good theology serves several distinct purposes or tasks.

When defining the purpose of theology, some scholars identify two basic purposes: critical and constructive. I think it is helpful to consider five interrelated and overlapping tasks or purposes: descriptive, critical, constructive, apologetic, and moral. This post is about the most basic: the descriptive task.

What is descriptive theology? When Moses the liberator and law-giver called on his newly free people to “listen to the laws and rules I am about to teach you” (Deut 4:1), he was preparing them for descriptive theology. When Ezra the priest, hundreds of years later, “set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10), he anticipated a vocation of descriptive theology.

When Paul the Apostle, in the early Christian era, declared to the Christians at Ephesus that he had committed himself to declaring to them “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), he was referring to descriptive theology. Priscilla too, in case you thought this only applies to men, was arguably such a theologian (Acts 18:24-26).

All of these people, and many others in similar situations, probably also engaged in critical, constructive, apologetic and moral theology; but they certainly began with the descriptive task.

What is that task? Descriptive theology seeks to clarify the content and practical implications of the Christian faith: what Christians believe, and how they should live in view of those beliefs. This often, though not necessarily, takes a systematic shape, as Richard J. Plantinga et al note:

The systematic theologian assembles the data of scripture, tradition, and human inquiry in order to construct a body of knowledge or statement of Christian belief concerning God, creation, and their relation, most broadly, or any possible theological topic or ethical issue that resides therein – for example, a theology of work or vocation, or a theology of human sexuality.[1]

I’ll have more to say on the divisions of theology (biblical, systematic, philosophical, and such like) in later posts. The great danger for descriptive theology, apart from intentionally or otherwise creating heresies, is that it may tend to reduce the content of theology to neat, timeless, intellectual nuggets of truth – detached from everyday reality.

Nor is there safety in the opposite extreme: profound reliance on personal experience as the final arbiter of what is true, right and good. A balance is required. Theologians Stan Grenz and Roger Olsen put it well:

Theological convictions lead us to look at life the way we do and allow us to experience the world as we do. Our life experiences, in turn, bring our theological convictions into the picture and cause us to reexamine, reevaluate and even revise our convictions about God, ourselves and our world.[2]

The best descriptive theology, in my opinion, tries to make sense of relevant ideas and experience, and to tell it as it is – clarifying the content and practical implications of the Christian faith. The theologian sifts ideas, and reflects on experiences, seeking integration and balance, and avoiding their reverse. For Moses, Ezra, Paul and Priscilla, and for all who engage in descriptive theology, the task must be pursued with integrity, humility, objectivity, and diligence.

More on descriptive theology in my next post.

This post was written by Rod Benson. Leave a comment in the box below, or email theologywhisperer@gmail.com 


References

[1] Richard J. Plantinga, Thomas R. Thompson, & Matthew D. Lundberg, An Introduction to Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 18.

[2] Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 124f.

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