The critical task of theology

I suggested in a previous post that the relationship of Christian theology to Christ, church and Scripture is what distinguishes it from other kinds of theology. If theology is anchored in particular understandings of Christ, church and Scripture, then it should take seriously the challenge of defending and promoting reasoned thought and reflection on this content and associated methodology.

This is primarily worked out through two critical theological tasks:

    • examining beliefs and teachings about God, and God’s relation to people and to the world in the light of Scripture and other Christian sources, always with the aim of clarity, consistency and (to the extent that this is possible) objectivity;
    • determining the relative importance of such beliefs and teachings, since there is much disagreement about what are essential and non-essential beliefs, and the grounds on which such distinctions should be made.

Sound too academic and ivory-tower for common sense? You may be surprised to discover that a close reading of documents such as Acts and the Letters in the New Testament arguably demonstrates this critical task in operation, even in the church’s infancy. As Grenz and Olson note, “Theology does not invent beliefs; it finds beliefs already among Christians and critically examines them.”[1] In my opinion, if this task had been pursued more diligently throughout church history, many wrong turns, dead ends and precipices would have been avoided, and much printer’s ink saved from spillage.

Over the centuries, theologians have developed three categories of authentic Christian belief, and two of non-Christian belief. We might summarise thusly:

    • dogma – beliefs essential to the gospel, the denial of which constitutes a rejection of the message and mission of Christ;
    • doctrine – beliefs considered important in the church’s life but not essential, the denial of which is apostasy;
    • opinion – beliefs considered interesting but relatively unimportant to the church’s faith, and not contradicting accepted dogma or doctrine;
    • heresy – beliefs contradicting a dogma or doctrine;
    • apostasy – outright denial of an essential dogma.

Individual Christians, and Christian groups, disagree on which beliefs should be associated with which category. This is one of several reasons why theology can be daunting, and why there are so many Christian denominations. For more on this, see Grenz & Olson, pp. 73-77.

There are other reasons for regarding theology as an important academic discipline requiring critical analysis. For example, theology has relevance beyond the church, and has profoundly shaped individuals, institutions and cultures over millennia. Examining these influences can be rewarding, and not only for theologians and historians. And theology continues to do this shaping work today. So the increasing absence of theological studies from many academic institutions is a pyrrhic victory for secularism. Tara Barton correctly claims that

the absence of theology in our universities is an unfortunate example of blindness—willful or no—to the fact that engagement with the past requires more than mere objective or comparative analysis. It requires a willingness to look outside our own perspectives in order engage with the great questions—and questioners—of history on their own terms.[2]

Similarly, in a recent speech, University of Divinity Vice-Chancellor Peter Sherlock presciently observed that each of us, and all our communities, are located in time, place and imagination; and “theology gives us the questions, the tools, the methods, to explore this specific context … Good theology provides critical apparatus to examine values, beliefs and behaviours. This includes rigorous self-examination, and willingness to acknowledge error and failure.”[3]

I wholeheartedly agree. But let us never allow method, disputation, tribalism, hubris and other features of our theological culture obscure the wonderful reality that, as German theologian Helmut Thieliche put it, “a theological thought can breathe only in the atmosphere of dialogue with God.”[4]

A good Christian theologian will be one who masters the critical aspects of the task, while maintaining the freedom and ability to transition from talking meaningfully about God to talking meaningfully with God.[5]

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


References

[1] Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 70f.

[2] Tara Isabella Burton, “Study theology, even if you don’t believe in God,” The Atlantic, 30 Oct 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/study-theology-even-if-you-dont-believe-in-god/280999/

[3] Peter Sherlock, “Why Australia needs theology,” the 2017 Barry Marshall Lecture, 9 August 2017, Trinity College Theological School, University of Divinity, Melbourne, pp. 2, 7 of transcript.

[4] Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 34.

[5] I am grateful to Geoff Broughton for emphasising this point in his chapter, “Girding the loins: The being and doing of theological studies,” in Jeanette Mathews (ed.), God, By Degrees: A Practical Guide for New Theological Students (Canberra: Barton Books, 2014), 22.

Image source: Christianity Today