Thursday, 24 August 2017
Why We Bind Theology To Doxology
1. Any theology that does not lead to song is, at a fundamental level, a flawed theology (J. I. Packer).
Logos.com describes Packer as "perhaps one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries."
2. I think a good theologian prays well, first. No theologian who doesn’t has even begun to understand the discipline. And then s/he serves the Church, and his or her particular part of it (down to a local congregation) in humility and faithfulness. Theology belongs to the Church; any theologian divorced from the Church is a bad theologian, however brilliant or knowledgeable. A good theologian has a grasp of gospel values, and would swap everything s/he has written to see one sinner repent, or one broken life healed. A good theologian writes and speaks only to help the Church be more faithful to the gospel, bringing whatever knowledge of the tradition, whatever insight into contemporary modes of thought, and whatever native cleverness s/he may possess, all into service of this one end. A good theologian is marked by humility and cheerfulness, knowing how far short of the mystery of God and God’s works his/her best efforts fall, and knowing that in the good grace of God something of lasting worth may still come from them. A good theologian, finally, does know something, and has some capacity of thought, and so can make a contribution through his/her God-given vocation.
I am not a very good theologian.
I describe Stephen Holmes as an extremely knowledgeable and apparently humble theologian. Holmes had an important impact on my own understanding of the Trinity around 2014-2015, and I continue to use his book for reference on historical contributions.
The purpose of our learning and contributions is not for us, but for Another and for others who worship that Other - God, say Holmes and Packer and indeed the lion's share of Christian theologians. Are they correct? Does theology lead to doxology? Doxology defines itself pretty clearly to me, but how is theology to be defined? If it is that which we can say of God via the biblical text on the historical platform from which we gaze, then we presume the reality of the God in question. Thus, in the case of Christian theology, then we must indeed humbly agree and reaffirm what is said above.
However, it should probably be remembered as well that Christianity is also an intensely historical phenomenon which has affected humanity globally. Therefore, historical studies can and must overlap considerably with the work of theologians. This is where we need to tread carefully and, I think, welcome the inter-worldview historical task. On the one hand, "neutral" history without faith commitment could actually shed greater light on Christianity's authenticity. On the other hand, it could also cast doubt on central tenets, doctrines or beliefs.
This comparison and overlap remind me a little of the evolution "debate": we see some anti-christian science on the one hand, and six-day creationists on the other. However, I think, most people overlap: scientists on the most-part are not setting out to disprove religions, simply to understand the universe better and produce life-enhancing insights. It's positive, not negative. Further, many Christians, myself included, do not believe a six-day creation 6000 years ago to be at all credible in light of the data produced by extensive research. What do we do in that overlapping space? We interact. Christians do science; scientists have faith. Both are enhanced.
The same should be said and clarified for theology and history. Historical theology reaches back through the hermeneutical spiral toward the source, both for theologians and historians of religion. Collaboration is necessary. Collaboration produces the results both enterprises need and should detract from individual glory.
But let's get back to the Christian task of theology. Yes, theology in its brute form is without a doubt a Christian task. But why point out that it has to lead to doxology? What might the alternative be? Obsession? Pride? Distraction?
For me, I do believe there is truth in this from the perspective in which I have been raised and have now affirmed as an adult believer. But during my recent journey, theology has been quite historical when I was horrified to consider that my cherished trinitarian beliefs no longer seemed to fit the biblical text that I also cherished so dearly. Theology is also about wanting to know the truth, and that's ok. That can take time. And mistakes. And learning. And humility. Such a process can run deep through your soul, and, without you even realising it, prepare the way for a deeper and sounder doxology than the fractured, pride-ridden self could have arrived at without the history.
Is the theology to doxology idea something of a paradox, why even bother saying it? Perhaps theology requires that it be said from the same lips of those who have authentically and personally wrestled with the issue for themselves (I make no judgement on either Holmes or Packer here), but that incarnational approach I find deeply appealing. Any preacher who speaks of his own pride gets my instant and total attention. I can relate to him or her. Now we get real. Now we get to ditch the crowns, and we can do it together and we can do it alone.
Perhaps also theology doesn't want Christians to get too lost in historical analysis and forget their purpose. As we have said, there is this wide overlap with historical analysis, with its neutral goal of simply better understanding past events. There can be a conflict of interests though here. Let's take my example of the Gospel of Matthew. I have deeply divided feelings about the Gospel of Matthew. Part of me loves it - in particular, we get the sermon on the mount, which is amazing. My history part loves it too, as I now understand the baptism formula in 28:19 in a new light that enhances earlier teaching. However, my faith part has at times suffered as I have wrestled with the modifications that I see this author has made to his sources and his thinly concealed objectives. My understanding of Scripture and inspiration has been severely tested in the case of Matthew, yet when I look back in history I also get fresh faith: Matthew ends up being the most popular and retranscribed gospel (I think) for the early church. A massive contribution has been made by Matthew, and I am an inheritor of its contribution, whatever the conclusions I reach about it.
It may feel like a paradox at times when we get to ugly texts or bits we don't know if they are even literally truely recounting actual events in our past. But if we stop for a second as Christians and ask ourselves why we are even asking that historical question, we should remember to answer ourselves: because we want to know God better.