The constructive task of theology

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

Construction of Sydney Tower, 1981.

In previous posts I outlined the descriptive and critical tasks of theology; in this post (and the next), I want to look at theology’s constructive task. By this I mean theological work characterised not only by good biblical interpretation and academic scholarship but also integration, contextualisation, innovation and/or originality of thought.

In one of my jobs I was employed as an ethicist. I understood what the role involved, and so did my employer, but some of my friends, professional colleagues and even customs officials at airports either assumed that I was some sort of medical specialist, or had no sense of what an ethicist might do in their work life.

Theology and theologians may encounter the same problem. Or worse, someone may know what theology is and what theologians do, but regard theology as antiquated, irrelevant, or even harmful. There are many possible reasons for this.

For example, the person may be poorly educated, or their education may have been rigorously secular; theologians may have been poor communicators of their ideas; theologians may not have engaged well in constructive (integrative) thinking; or the extreme negative fallout from recent moral scandals in the church may have obscured the church’s theological achievements and promise.

Similarly appalling in terms of outcomes, in my opinion, is the self-destructive behaviour of some high-profile theologians and theological commentators. As David Clark observes in his book on theological method, theology “is the most humorous of all disciplines because it has worked so hard to disavow its distinctive task. No other discipline has devoted so much energy to doing away with its own subject matter.”[1]

But there is no shortage of subject matter for those who wish to facilitate positive change. Theologians (especially of the systematic variety) tend to organise their subject matter according to several foundational beliefs or focus areas:

    • theology proper (the doctrine of who God is and what God does),
    • anthropology (humankind and the created universe);
    • Christology (Jesus Christ and the salvation he offers);
    • pneumatology (the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s work in the world and in the life of Christians);
    • ecclesiology (the church as a fellowship of followers of Jesus and participants in his ongoing mission); and
    • eschatology (the anticipated consummation of God’s plan for the world.

And then there are related fields of inquiry such as apologetics, ethics, and pastoral/practical theology.

I would like to think that constructive theology has much to contribute to all these subjects. But Christian theologians must as a first priority become mature Christians, in ways that the Bible prescribes, so that we share God’s vision and mission for the world and are not “blown around by every wind of teaching” (Eph 4:14).

We must also critically assess the fruits of descriptive and critical theology, affirming what accords with mature Christian teaching and jettisoning what does not. This process should strengthen, not shipwreck, our faith. As Grenz and Olson observe, as our core theological beliefs “ ‘pass muster,’ we will begin to hold them with even greater conviction. And other beliefs will be honed and clarified through theological study.”[2]

Within such boundaries, constructive theology offers scope for imagination and innovation. Grenz again, in his systematic theology, suggests that

As theologians, the goal of our engagement in intellectual reflection on the faith commitment of the believing community is the construction of a model of reality that can foster a truly godly spirituality that translates into ethical living in the social-historical context in which we are to be the people of God.[3]

And philosopher Richard Rorty expresses a similar thought, and a similar aim, which may be applied to theology and church life. He argues that “imagination, rather than reason, is the central human faculty,” and that “a talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change.”[4]

I will say more about how to do constructive 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]      David K. Clark, To Know and Love God: Method for Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 198.

[2]      Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 41. See also Matthew 22:37 and 2 Corinthians 10:5.

[3]      Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 13.

[4]      Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 7.

Image source: Visitsydneyaustralia

 

One Reply to “The constructive task of theology”

  1. Rod, I want to add a category: hermeneutics. Someone should be doing the philosophical/theological work of what the Scripture meant in the past and bridging the gap to what it means now. It’s not just a simple matter of I read I know.

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