5 Ingredients to Being A Good Theologian

StAugustine

St. Augustine — patron saint of theologians, sore eyes, and brewers. No wonder the Reformed love him.

As a part of my reading during this Lenten season I’ve chosen to finally hunker down with Thomas Weinandy’s Does God Suffer?–a theological defense of the doctrine of God’s impassibility. God’s wired me to worship through my engagement with systematic theology, so I figure deep meditation on the issue of God’s immutable nature in light of the reality of sin, suffering, and the cross are just the ticket. Only two chapters in I can see why Kevin Vanhoozer listed it as one of 5 of the best books on the doctrine of God for theological students to engage with. He is nothing if not a model for Christian scholarly engagement.

Using primarily the words of its best advocates, Weinandy first reconstructs one of the strongest presentations in favor of passibility I’ve read yet. I even started to doubt my own newfound impassibilism (which is saying something after the amount Moltmann that I’ve read.) Thankfully he moves on to make a stunning case for the traditional doctrine. Still, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this level of fairness, honestly, and intellectual integrity in a theological teacher.

Weinandy then moves in the next chapter to sketch his own understanding of the theological enterprise. In it he lays out 5 “ingredients that help foster and encourage the theological enterprise, and so help define the task of the theologian.” (pg. 27)

So according to Weinandy, what makes for a good theologian?:

  1. Theologians Reason About Faith – “First within the very nature of Christian revelation is the principle that faith seeks understanding…Christian theologians, their reason guided by faith and the light of the Holy Spirit, clarify, and advance what has been revealed by God, written in the scriptures, and believed by their fellow Christians.” (pg. 28) The theologian is to use the reason he’s been given, in submission to the Holy Spirit in order to elucidate what has already been revealed in such a way that it can edify and bless the community.  It is both an exercise of faith and reason, in precisely that order. It is reasoning about what we have accepted by way of God’s revelation–thinking more deeply about what we have believed in God’s testimony about himself. 
  2. Theologians Calm Down and Make a Case - “Second, Christian theology also wishes to defend, by reasoned argument, what has been revealed against those who question, distort, or attack it.” (pg. 28) There is a real place for reasoned ‘polemics’, or persuasive argument. Weinandy goes on to say that this shouldn’t be done with an attitude that assumes any and all questioning is made in bad faith or with hostility, or that doesn’t recognize the benefits of theological controversy. We would not have the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian definitions if the theologians of the Church were not forced to think more deeply on the mystery of Christ because of the doctrinal controversies in those early centuries. The point is, theologians make a case.
  3. Theologians Connect the Dots – “Third, Christian theology also wishes to demonstrate the inter-relationship between the various truths of faith.” (pg. 29) Weindandy gives the example of the relationship between the Father and the Son. In thinking through what it means for Jesus to be the eternal Son of the Father, the Church had to think through a bit more clearly what it meant to be a “Son” and what it meant to be a “Father.” Or, for that matter, what we mean by the idea of a person at all. No doctrine can be examined abstracted from the whole, but must be set within the full body of Christian doctrine otherwise it loses its proper shape. In other words, it’s not a bad thing for theologians to be “systematic” about things.
  4. Theologians Don’t Fly Solo – “Fourth, the work of individual theologians is not done in isolation. Theologians work within an historical context and within the Christian community.” (pg. 29) All good theologians stand on the shoulders of those who have come before them. Wanna make sure you’re a crappy theologian who runs into heresy? Do whatever it takes to remain ignorant of Christian history and the history of doctrine; never read or consider the teachers of the church in other times or places who have wrestled with the subject matter you’re studying. For the rest of us, we need to understand that neglecting the studies and advances in understanding that the Church has made over the centuries in our theological reflection is like trying to reinvent the wheel instead of trying to make it smoother. That is not to say that in certain times and places, the church can’t make advances in our understanding of doctrine (for instance the 4th century on the Trinity, or the 5th on the person of Christ, or the 16th on justification, or even now on the doctrine of impassibility) it is to say that it’s unwise to try and fly solo theologically.
  5. Theologians Worship – “Fifth, personal prayer and communal worship likewise foster theological understanding. Liturgy is a living expression of what is believed and so through participation in it one grows in an understanding of the faith.” (pp. 29-30) As the old expression goes, lex orandi, lex credendi, (the law of prayer is the law of belief). Weinandy points to the fact that in the past liturgical practices, the concrete worship of the church, shaped and gave the raw material of theological explanation. This was certainly the case in Basil the Great’s arguments about the full divinity of the Holy Spirit in the 5th century. Beyond this, we can’t begin to think we’re truly speaking of God, reasoning about the faith, if our own faith isn’t growing through a worshipful encounter with the Triune God. If theologians are not worshippers, not personally involved with the God they’re speaking of, then they’re trying to approach the task from some sort of neutral, 3rd-person perspective, describing the faith in the way a sociologist or ethnographer would. That might make for some interesting texts in religious studies, but not good theology.

There’s more to be said about the task of the theologians. I’m sure many of you have your own suggestions (feel free to suggest some in the comments.) Still, for those aspiring theologians among us, these are a good place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria

Responses to “Calvin Killed Servetus!” by Denomination (Or, Dealing with Theological Moral Hubris)

men_debate_calvinism

HT: The Sacred Sandwich

It’s a well-known fact that the heretic Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva during Calvin’s pastorate there. This is universally condemned by both Calvin fans and foes alike. At least it should be. What’s often debated is Calvin’s role in the whole affair and what impact, if any, it should have on our judgment about the man, his theology, and the subsequent theological tradition that follows him. And indeed, it is problematic. That anybody could think that burning at the stake those with whom we disagree on theological matters is, in any sense, compatible with the Gospel of the crucified Messiah, is a morally-disastrous lapse in judgment to say the least.

So what do we say to this? Especially when the subject is brought up in order to discredit Calvin or the Reformed tradition as a whole?

Two Classic Responses
1. The General Point - The first typical, and valid, response is to make the general point that one wrong action, incident, statement, or even habit, doesn’t necessarily invalidate someone’s entire career. Obviously one can find dubious actions and statements in the biographies of most of history’s heroes. Lincoln’s anti-slavery record is brilliant and yet he made statements that by contemporary standards (as well as transhistorical ones) are quite racist. Martin Luther King Jr. broke his marital vows to Coretta Scott King numerous times. And no, this isn’t just prudery or relativistically equating personal sexual misdeeds with corporate violence. By engaging in the adulterous trysts he did, he risked the public moral integrity of the entire Civil Rights movement he came to represent. At the biblical level, one might point out that not a single figure in the Bible, even its authors, comes out clean except for Jesus. In that sense, Calvin keeps company with the long line of saved wretches like Abraham, Moses, David, and Paul.

2. Moving to Calvin – Second, one can move to the particulars of the case, placing Calvin in his historical context. Clearly he wasn’t the only one at the time to make that lapse. Calvin was unfortunately a “Constantinian” in the sense that he un-biblically mixed the authority of the State with that of the Church, but then again so was everybody else. It’s easy to forget that Servetus was already condemned to death by the Roman Catholics. Similarly, if the Lutherans had gotten their hands on him he would have been a goner.  Further, Calvin explicitly warned Servetus in correspondence not to come to Geneva or things would not go well for him there either. He even risked his own life at one point to go meet him in an area outside of Geneva where he himself was a wanted heretic in order to reconcile theologically. It is not the case that Servetus was the victim of Calvin’s peculiarly authoritarian personality that flowed from his inhuman, predestinarian God. If anything, it was an inherited, though still culpable, flaw in thought and practice. It should be noted that Calvin held no explicit political authority in Geneva and was not even a citizen until much later in life. Also, he is reported to have pleaded with the city elders to, at the very least, execute him in a more humane manner than burning. (Now, to us that doesn’t sound like much, but comparatively-speaking that’s something.) To place it in a broader framework, sadly Servetus was one of many heretics tried and executed in the Reformation era by both Catholics and Protestants of all stripes–they were universally more violent and barbarous times. To put it bluntly, the reason Servetus is brought up today is that he was a little more famous, and because it’s an easy way to criticize and single out Calvin. For more along these lines, see R. Scott Clark’s post on the “Calvin as Tyrant Meme“, and a more complete summary of the Servetus affair here.

Dealing with Theological Hubris by Denomination
Now, while all of these points ought to be considered and weighed, there’s another way to handle the whole charge: the tu quoque (“you too”). Admittedly, it is formally a fallacy, but in response to the ad hominem nature of the “Servetus” denunciation, I think it has a part to play in the discussion. It’s more commonly-observed that most of us suffer from chronological moral hubris, the malady that makes us think we obviously wouldn’t have done what our historical forebears did if we had been there, attributing to ourselves a righteousness in some particular area that is only ours by dint of our social-historical location. What also needs to be recognized is how easily people fall into denominational or theological moral hubris, in thinking one’s own tradition has no truly dark stains in it. This particular hubris is commonly-spotted whenever the Servetus charge is raised.

In order to remedy this situation, I thought it would be helpful to begin to catalog differing “Calvin Killed Servetus”-type rejoinders to some of the major theological and denominational traditions. Some might find this dubious and divisive. I sympathize. I find my writings dubious most of the time as well. In this case, I’d like to think of it as a helpful moral reminder to cool your theological jets when it comes to traditions other than your own. It’s a negative task, with a positive goal: greater humility towards the various wings of God’s family.  That’s a little easier when we remember that everybody’s got something–I just thought it might be helpful to list some of the biggies.

Note: this is not intended to be a comprehensive list, nor is it intended to be denial of the fact that each of these denominations have martyrs, and gentle heroes of the faith. Still, in no particular order, here goes:

  • Anglicanism – Long history of violently persecuting Puritans, Dissenters, Lollards, Society of Friends, Catholics, and everybody not going to the State church. Also, Henry the VIII. ‘Nuff said.
  • Anabaptists - John Leiden and the freaky weird, violent, Munster incident. I’ve long been convinced the Anabaptists saw the beauty of pacifism partly because they got their lunches handed to them at Munster. I know that’s not entirely true, but…
  • Roman Catholics – Do I really have to? Well, just off the top of my head: the Inquisition, various Crusades, vaste swathes of Papal history…
  • Eastern Orthodoxy – Some crossover highlights with the Roman Catholics, (Crusades), 1000s of years of collaboration, collusion, and sanctioning of corrupt governments by various patriarchs and theologians in the church. In our own day, one thinks of the persecution of fellow Christian Evangelicals in Orthodox countries like Russia supported by current patriarchs.
  • Lutherans – Well, Luther wasn’t a daisy himself. Most of us know that, but let’s just mention two: “The Jews and their Lies” and the Peasant revolt.
  • Methodists, Baptists, Society of Friends - All three of these streams and denominations, in their American iterations at least, have, alongside of others, had devastating struggles with slavery and racism. For quite some time it was perfectly acceptable to own slaves within the Society of Friends until the valiant efforts of John Woolman. Both the Baptists and the Methodists had separate African-American counterparts formed because of white racism.
  • Pentecostalism, Charismatics – Now, when you start moving closer in historical distance to the current day, denominations and traditions are less likely to make some of the tragically violent mistakes of their pre-cursors, simply by dint of cultural and political shifts. Given that the rise of Pentecostalism and Charismatic movements in the last 100 or so years, most of the excesses will be of the more common sort: pastoral indiscretion, financial shadiness, abuses of power, and widespread problems with heresy and false teaching. This can happen in all streams, though.
  • Non-Denoms and Young Denoms – Of course, there are many random theologically-indeterminate, non-denominational evangelicals, or maybe emergents, who don’t feel very bound to any tradition and sit loose with respect to Christian history as a whole. They might pride themselves on their virtually stainless record. Let me just say that having a decent theological-history that goes all the way back to the 70s is nothing to brag about. That’s like boasting about your perfect attendance on the second day of school. The reality is, in some way you’re dependent on what comes before so you, regardless of whether or not you acknowledge it.

As I said, this is a far from comprehensive list. It’s open to revision and addition. Sadly the history of Christian sin and failure is broad and wide. Thankfully so is the grace of God. He can use the broken and sinful to do his good work. People like you and me. Even people like John Calvin. Just something to keep in mind next time you’re about to write of a particular thinker or an entire tradition. 

Soli Deo Gloria