Friday, March 18, 2011

Is Theology Totally Irrelevant to the Church Today?

John Webster's editorial in the new issue of IJST has me a bit depressed.  In it he discusses the conditions in which theological intelligence is most likely to thrive.  His first point is that it is likely to flourish when it understands its vocation as "contemplative and apostolic", contemplative in that addresses itself to the deep things of God and apostolic because it commends these things to others - no problem there.  Second, the whole enterprise of Christian theology is enhanced when it attracts godly and intellectually gifted people to its pursuit - no problem there either.

Its in points three and four I get bummed out.

Third, Christian theology flourishes when in some measure it enjoys favourable
institutional circumstances: some particular academic or religious form of life which
is hospitable to a work of the mind with little apparent impact, some happy gathering
of minds with sufficient rapport and energy that their unique talents combine to form
something like a school. (Webster, "Editorial", International Journal of Systematic Theology, vol. 13, no. 2, p. 128)
Those of us who have made the sacrifice to leave our normal lives and go to a theological school are blessed (if it is a good school) to temporarily live in a situation that satisfies this condition.  I can attest that in Aberdeen we are abundantly blessed with a situation in which academic, spiritual and social life intertwine in an almost Edenic situation for theological pursuit.  We read and think and write and talk (some of us even pray) all the live-long day.  Those who have gone through this training for the spiritual life of the mind/intellectual life of the spirit and have returned to the real world have made, as Webster notes, "little apparent impact", no sales-record-breaking books, no mega-church ministries.  Usually guys like us go into rather humble academic teaching or church ministry jobs.  The question is whether we will be able to foster similar intellectual situations when we leave the academy and go back into the real world.  Those of us who get university jobs won't have this problem, but those of us who go back to our homes and churches have this question in front of us: Will the insights we have gained and the patterns of reflection we have developed in our theological study benefit the life of the church for whom we toil, or will it all be filtered through ears who only hear the potential for church growth or other practical impact.  This leads Webster's fourth point:
Fourth, Christian theology flourishes when it honours and is held in honour by the Christian community. Theology is ecclesial science, a work of reason pursued (whatever its precise institutional locale) within the community of election and faith. All its inquiries ought to hold that community in high esteem, as a servant glad to be about its tasks in such a company; and that company, too, should esteem this servant and expect good things of its service. ("Editorial", p. 128)
I've already alluded to my worry here: will the churches us theologians go to and serve, either as pastors or even on a volunteer lay level, welcome us as theologians, value our training and insights, be willing to hear and consider the sometimes difficult things we have to tell the church?  Have Evangelical churches in America become so focused on the tangible (cars in the parking lot, butts in the pews, hands in the air, testimony of changed lives - all good things by the way) that it simply does not value the other kinds of good things theologians' service has to offer?  Most of us love the church and want to serve it; the worry is that it doesn't love us and doesn't want our service.

Webster (who I should probably mention is my doctoral advisor, not that I otherwise wouldn't think he is right about everything, which he is), does go on to alleviate my depression in his fifth point which is that we get it wrong when we think these conditions are in fundamentally worse shape now than they were at some other point in history - "Theology is not exiled from its past but its future."  The present is not depressing in light of the past but in light of the future in which sin is removed as an obstacle and theology is fully united to He whom it considers.  The fifth condition is that we believe theology is actually possible, that in spite of the limitations imposed on us in our currently fallen context, we believe that "God is not hindered by our hindrances", that God speaks and enables us to hear and understand.  On that basis, no matter what intellectual climate I find myself in in the future, I will pray with Habakkuk "I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known" (Hab 3:2), not that God would restore some notion of the past but that he would reach into the present from the future and give the church a love for himself and for thinking on the gospel greater than its present love for spectacle and novelty in his name.  I pray this against my own fears that I make myself increasingly irrelevant to the church by pursuing disciplined thinking on the church's foundation.

(To get more people to be directed to this post from Google: Rob Bell, Hell, Universalism, Sex, Money, Murder - thank you).


  1. Amen Adam. I couldn't agree more with both the thought and the feeling expressed here. I definitely want a finger to point in all the directions this post points it. But I guess I want to ask what part of this is the academic theologian's 'fault'. More truly, since this really wasn't a post about laying blame (and thus I don't want to make it one), I want to ask not only what the churches can do but also what theologians and academics can do better. Seriously, thanks for the heads up on this editorial and for this post with which I so highly resonate (as I'm sure you know).

  2. Adam,

    Thank you for drawing my attention to this. I think John's fourth point is very hard to keep in mind when I'm also holding it in tension with the book of Qoheleth. I imagine that the search for a community of praise and discipleship, rather than a community of "theological futility," and being active in forming one, is one of the most important, and difficult tasks of theology. It should drive us to intercession.

    Blessings and Shalom in Christ! Chris

  3. Adam,

    Thanks for this post and your honesty - I read the same editorial by Webster and I was incredibly encouraged by his views. But I can understand why they would be discouraging in another sense given the current state of the Church and the academy (since even the academy isn't excited about dogmatics except for a few places and jobs are hard to find). For what it is worth, I have a professor at Gordon-Conwell who also had John Webster as an advisor when they were both at Oxford. His name is Peter Anders. He has single-handedly breathed new life and excitement into Gordon-Conwell for the task of theology in his short time of 4 years at the school. Since he arrived, he taught the first Karl Barth course ever offered at the school and continues to convince countless students that theology is essential for every Christian. Though he continually has obstacles and challenges like any other theologian, he has tangibly impacted numerous lives of students who will work in the Church and the academy. Students have written him letters post-graduation to tell him that they are single-handedly doing theology today in their doctoral programs because of his influence inside and outside the classroom. So while Webster's third and fourth conditions might seem idealistic, the theologian called by God to embark upon the task of bringing theological literacy within the Church and the academy will bear fruit (even if it isn't always tangible).

    Prof. Anders constantly reminds me that to be a faithful theologian means to be a theologian of the cross. A true theologia crucis involves suffering which might be met in the form of less conducive conditions that Webster mentions in points three and four. But we remain faithful to the task, and ask the Holy Spirit to continually work even if we experience the proclamation of the Gospel falling on deaf ears in the Church as well as the academy.

  4. I was going to add something, hoping to lend the voice of a wife of a theologian but I liked what Kait said so much that I'm not really going to. I believe your jobs are now to be fully engrossed in what you can learn and what you can say and when you leave the "tower" of knowledge and Eden-like surroundings, you will be an ambassadors of knowledge, humble about what you have learned and eager to point towards Christ in all things so that we as laymen of the church can benefit by your studies.

  5. Adam,

    I have just discovered your postings and would like to assure you that there are lay persons like myself who search scriptures and theologians, from the Desert Fathers to Dietreich Bonhoeffer, in order to better understand our faith. Clearly, we need Christian pastors and brothers and sisters to help enlighten us when we struggle. I am amazed at what God reveals in His own time to us as we make this journey. Even his own disciples had to grow in their faith before they were able to accept and believe (as little children) all that they had seen and experienced, and they had the Master as teacher. Just as God lives so does the study of God live. Parish ministry makes a difference to the life of the future church.

  6. Just got to this page via google search on "news peter anders theologian". I was trying to find out what the latest is with Dr. Anders in terms of where he will be teaching in the future. It is my understanding that he will not be continuing at GCTS for the long term. Please just reply to me via e-mail it you don't want to take this comment thread down that path. Thanks!