The moral task of theology

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

Does theology have a moral or ethical function? Should it have such a function? If, as the Puritan divine William Perkins put it, theology is the science of living blessedly forever, then theology is linked to discipleship and the present life as well as the life to come. If that is the case, then theology should inform the full spectrum of morality and ethics.

This is not the place to discuss theological ethics or biblical ethics. In a previous role I served as a Christian ethicist in a denominational and educational context, and I am aware that the field is broad, complex, variegated and controversial.

Here I simply want to note that our theologising ought to reorient one’s whole being, not merely one’s intellectual convictions. It should also contribute to the transformation of life in community. Theology should definitely inform and transform our ethical vision, practices, choices and dilemmas. If it does not, it is bad theology.

Evangelical theologian David K. Clark offers an important caution in his discussion of the spiritual purposes of theology:

Evangelicalism’s family tree includes many branches that arose in part as reactions against overly intellectualized theology. Calvin himself, writing in a context where Catholic theology had become academic and scholarly, called for theology that does more than flit in the brain. He promoted theology that is anchored in the believer’s heart and life. Movements like various forms of Anabaptism, Pietism, Wesleyan revivalism, along with the Pentecostal and charismatic renewals in the twentieth century are in various ways responses to mere cognitivity …

Cognitive approaches that bypass personal integration bring several results, none of them happy. First, they give the impression that theology is being taken very seriously, yet they actually obscure the true purpose of theology. …

Second, they give the impression that a true grasp of the Bible and theology requires formal study, that only those who study academically have the proper skills for reading the Bible aright. …

Third, they intimidate Christians who cannot do formal study in theology into thinking that they either cannot or should not bother to become theological. In contrast to this, however, if theology is important to becoming Christlike, the simple believer who faithfully honors the Lord is the one who “gets it.”[1]

Or, as philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard put it:

What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain understanding must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.[2]

How is this done? A deep understanding of Scripture and its application to life is a good foundation. Understanding the historical dimensions of ethical debates and issues, coupled with theological reflection, offers further wisdom.

Grenz and Olson suggest that theologians must also listen to culture – the various voices that give expression to the ethos of our day, our public or institutional life, the issues and movements that make headlines. These are scrutinised for “hints that reveal the theology underlying our cultural life,” enabling dialogue and interaction.[3] They recommend asking questions such as,

How does this theology square with Christian conviction? To what extent is what I see here a helpful contemporary expression of biblical theology? Is the gospel present here? Or am I finding non-Christian, even antibiblical beliefs at work? …

In addition to discerning the theological dimensions involved, we attempt to apply Christian convictions to the situation. We ask: What aspects of Christian belief help to illuminate the deeper aspects of the problem? How might the Christian worldview point the way forward? What solutions or answers does the Christian understanding suggest?[4]

There’s a lot more to be said about the moral dimension of theology, and the ways in which theology and ethics interact.

How do you see such interaction taking place in your context? What else would you want to say about the moral task of theology? How has your theology shaped your moral compass and ethical practice?


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), 240f.

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, “The Journals,” trans. Alexander Dru, in Robert Bretall (ed.), A Kierkegaard Anthology (New York: Modern Library, 1946), 4f.

[3] Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 127f.

[4] Ibid, 128f.

Image source: EthicsDaily