The constructive task of theology (cont.)

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

 

This post builds on my previous post on the scope of constructive theology. How should we go about the task of constructive theology? How can we build bridges, and avoid pitfalls and traps for young (or old) players?

In his book, To Know and Love God, theologian David K. Clark outlines how a constructive approach to theology might develop. We begin, he says, with a theological hypothesis, and evaluate it using different types of confirmation and testing. We investigate various academic fields

to see whether and how the evidence emerging from those fields clearly demonstrates, circumstantially confirms, or in some way falsifies the Christian worldview. If some tenet of our worldview does not fit what we find in the world, then the facts we find will tend to disconfirm this tenet. This lack of fit pushes us toward major or minor reformulation … We must willingly consider the value of insights and proposals coming from other disciplines, but we assess those proposals in light of that discipline’s methods and assumptions.[1]

The work of the descriptive and critical tasks of theology precedes and undergirds the fruits of such constructive work. You may believe that you have come up with an original thought, but it’s most unlikely. On the other hand, make the best possible use of any knowledge or insight you stumble upon. As Grenz and Olson say, “Don’t settle for simply becoming theologically literate … Make every attempt to begin reflecting on your experience of the church and the world in the light of the knowledge you are gaining.”[2]

Moreover, they add, “If you want to grow in your own theological abilities, you should try teaching someone else. Teaching will force you to study and think. In addition, your mind will retain information and grasp concepts much more efficiently if you are expressing what you are learning.”[3] Good advice.

Another good idea is to keep a journal in which you record your thoughts on what you’re reading in Scripture and other sources, and reflect on your beliefs and convictions:

Which ones would you die for? Why? Which ones would you argue for but not die for? Why? Which ones would you be willing to throw aside or radically revise at the first serious challenge? Why? This exercise will help you see the shades of importance among various beliefs and expand your mind’s ability to recognize reasons for beliefs.[4]

Grenz and Olson also caution against doing theology in isolation. Make sure you try to engage in meaningful conversation with other Christians about your discoveries, and listen to alternative points of view. We learn best in community, and trustworthy friends “can caution us away from potentially dangerous paths.”[5]

Theologian Steven P. Mueller sounds a similar warning:

One danger often experienced by theologians is the temptation to treat this subject only as an academic discipline …

Another danger [is that] different theological presuppositions and methods lie behind different movements and teachings. We can understand how people reach different theological conclusions but this does not mean that we should agree with false doctrine …

A third problem often manifests itself in theological students. Excited over a new insight, we may expect all others to have that same insight and feel the same zeal. Perhaps they should – but we must remember to be humble, not arrogant.[6]

It’s hard to do constructive theology well. We should pay close attention to the four main loci of authority – Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Each one has valuable and essential things to teach us, and we may often emphasise one locus of authority at the expense of others, diminishing their valid witness. A proper balance is the key.

In this regard, I appreciate William Hordern’s description of three types of theologian:

    • transporters assume that their theology is derived directly from Scripture, and uncritically transport their theology unchanged to new contexts;
    • transformers attempt to connect the gospel to current culture, but fundamentally alter the gospel and lose touch with Christian tradition;
    • translators seek to establish their message according to biblical norms but shape their medium culturally, adapting it to new contexts in meaningful ways.

Clark says we need more translators, those who “may speak a new language in addressing their context, but they faithfully proclaim what the church has always taught.”[7]

Which theological type are you?


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 Books, 2003), 206f, original emphasis.

[2] Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 144.

[3] Ibid., 145.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Steven P. Mueller (ed.), Called to Believe, Teach, and Confess: An Introduction to Doctrinal Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005), 24.

[7] William Hordern, New Directions in Theology Today: Introduction (vol. 1; ed. William Hordern; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), 142.

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