Are You a Curious or a Studious Theology Student?

Domain of the wordIn the Christian tradition, curiosity has always been considered a vice. That’s surprising to most of us used to the more modern sense of the term. For many of us it tends to mean something like inquisitiveness or a thirst for knowledge. To call curiosity a vice would seem like another line of argument for seeing the Christian tradition as fundamentally anti-intellectual and hostile to questions. That would be a fundamental misunderstanding, however.

In his essay ‘Curiosity’, John Webster–the theologian’s theologian–claims that, “Christian theological intelligence is exercised in the conflict between studiousness and the vice of curiosity” (The Domain of the Word, pg. 193).

Curiosity, then, has a positive counterpart in the form of the virtue of “studiousness.” Indeed, Webster says we can only know what curiosity is as a deviation or perversion of studiousness since vices have no positive reality of their own. To condemn curiosity, then, is not to condemn reason or thought wholesale, but its perversion by sin and idolatry.

But how should we understand these twinned realities? What is it that relates the two and what separates them? As I begin my Ph.D. courses, I’ve been giving some thought to the point of my studies. Just why exactly am I doing what I’m doing and how should I be doing it? And also, how should I not be approaching them? Webster’s reflections in this essay have been stimulating and helpful to me, so I figured I’d summarize and highlight some quickish thoughts for the benefit of other theological students, whether in school or not, pastoral or lay.

Studiousness

According to Webster, studiousness and curiosity are related in that they are both movements of our intelligence to “come to know” that which we don’t know. But the motive and the means of these relationships to unknown knowledge are what distinguishes them.

So what is studiousness? Well, it “is a strenuous application of the power of the creaturely intellect” to figure something out for the first time, or understand something better than you did before. Studiousness is a virtue particular to created beings who can come to know as opposed to God who just knows because he knows. Our way of knowing requires effort, energy, and time–as do all the activities of finite, embodied beings. “God, in short, knows as the uncreated one, creatures know as creatures” (194).

Furthermore, studiousness is the way the “well-ordered creaturely intellect” comes to know things. According to Webster, that involves at least two things. First, it means “earnest, arduous application of the mind.” It is an activity in the fullest sense of the word. Studiousness recognizes that knowledge doesn’t simply happen to you. Second, “it is a reflective” activity that can be judged according to standards of excellence that are intellectual and moral. Intellectually it is an activity that must treat the object of study with respect and integrity, coming to its conclusions, its representations, without undue haste or carelessness (195).

Morally, we come to the fact that studiousness is related to the very natural desire to come to know. And this is where Webster says “an element of ambivalence” can enter in.

Curiosity

Using the language of Aristotle and Aquinas, Webster states: “Curiosity results from the corruption of intellectual appetite”(195). Indeed, he quotes Aquinas who says, “curiosity does not lie in the knowing precisely but in the appetite and hankering to find out.”

From here, Webster gives us four of the “elements” of curiosity, which I can only briefly touch on.

First, curiosity is a corruption in that it aims at improper objects of new knowledge. It strains to know what it is not appropriate for it to know. It refuses to acknowledge the creaturely limit and wants to know “as God knows”, or to focus on those things which God has given it to know. Curiosity sits in the garden devising ways always to snag the one fruit that’s off-limits (195-196).

Second, it’s a way of learning about the world, to created realities, without referring them to their Creator. It’s a sort of “lust of the flesh” (1 Jn. 2:16) applied to knowledge; it is a desire to know things without pushing on to see their relation to God and his glory (196). It is a Romans 1 reality, in that sense.

Third, curiosity “is a deformation of the manner or mode of intelligence, when the movement of coming-to-know takes place inordinately, indiscriminately, and pridefully” (196). In other words, wanting to know can become an addiction to the rush of learning new things so that you end up neglecting other goods, crossing lines, and so forth. Intellectual greed also leads you to get caught up less in the truth or goodness than the “novelty of the object of new knowledge.” Or, again, curiosity leads to self-satisfied pride in our exceptional intelligence the more we come to find out.

Fourth, related to the last, curiosity chases knowledge for wrong ends. Either to puff yourself up, to use it for your own gain or power, or other unrighteous ends. Even good study can fall under “curiosity” if aimed at your own pride.

What Does Curiosity Look Like in Theology?

Next Webster examines the ways and reasons that curiosity can enter into the spiritual work of theological study.

First, curiosity creeps into theology when we forget the “location and situation” of our work. “Theology takes place in a sphere in which God the teacher is lovingly present to reconciled creatures, summoning the intellect to attentiveness and learning” (198). Curiosity forgets this and leads us to study, not in response to God’s prior direction, but as an independent exercise of intellectual acquisition (198).

Second, curiosity in theology leads to a certain restlessness that gives pride of place to the novel, the “creative”, and cannot follow the particular course theology should take. In a word, faddishness (198).

Third, curiosity “stops short at surfaces.” There are a lot of disciplines to master in theology (text-based, historical, etc). Webster says that all of these phenomena, though, serve to point beyond themselves as signs towards God. Curiosity can get caught up in the signs for their own sake instead of pushing onwards towards the theological end, which is to know God. In other words, it’s the kind of study of the Bible that gets caught up in historical minutiae of the text, trying on novel interpretations and grammatical innovations, all the while forgetting that the point of studying Scripture is to hear the voice of God (198).

Fourth, curiosity corrupts the character of theological work by leading us into pride, or the drive towards individualistic advancement, or a separation of theological study from the “common life of the church”(199).

Fifth, curiosity forgets the chief goals of theology which are “contemplative and apostolic.” Theology aims at delight in God. As such, it is apostolic because this truth is lovingly spoken to others that they might be built up and not fall into error. Curiosity aims only at itself and so curves inwards.

How to Avoid Curiosity in Theology?

Well, Webster is very clear that avoiding curiosity requires the work of the Holy Spirit who gives the gift of temperance, restraint, only with the new birth as a person is remade in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). The Holy Spirit redeems, perfects, and redirects created minds, bringing them out of their prideful, lusting alienation from the life of God by the gift of a new, regenerated nature conformed to the image of the Son (Eph. 4:23; Col. 3:10; 199-200).

According to Webster:

Theological curiosity is checked and theological studiousness promoted when the intellects of saintly persons are directed to the proper object of theology and to the proper ends of contemplation and edification. (200)

Theology is the only discipline where the object study is your only, ultimate hope in doing it well. Webster notes three dimensions to this.

First, “immoderate desire” for novelty in coming to know can only be curbed if theological students come to recognize their place in the “pedagogy of divine grace.” In other words, “The grace of God has appeared…training us” (Tit. 2:11). We need to understand our study as a work taking place in the space of grace opened up by the grace of God in Christ and the work of the Spirit which sanctifies our reason. This is why:

The saints lack curiosity; but they are eagerly studious, devoted to acquiring the knowledge proffered by divine revelation. In theology, the affections, will and intellect are ‘fixed’ on the ‘ways’ of God (Ps. 119.15), ‘delighting in’ and ‘cleaving to’ the divine testimonies (Ps. 119.24), turned from ‘vanities’ (Ps. 119.37) in order to ‘meditate’ on the divine law (Ps. 119.48), eager to be taught knowledge (Ps. 119.66). Such is the studious theological intellect sanctified and schooled by divine grace. (201)

Second, curiosity fades when theologians devote themselves “to a singular matter with a definite interest.” It’s not so much that theology restricts itself to a few subjects, but that it learns to relate all subjects to the one subject it’s supposed to be directing everything towards: God and his works in the history of redemption. This maintains its focus as a “single science” instead of a disconnected study of whatever happens to interest us at the moment (201).

Third, directing theology towards its ultimate goal, the love of God, “mortifies” curiosity. Focusing on the self-communicating love of God cuts at the natural selfishness of curiosity, as it continually draws us out beyond ourselves into the love of God and our neighbor (202).

To cap it off, Webster closes with a prayer from Aquinas, “Ante Studium” (HT: David Bunce):

Ineffable Creator . . . You are proclaimed the true font of light and wisdom, and the primal origin raised high beyond all things. Pour forth a ray of your brightness into the darkened places of our minds; disperse from our souls the twofold darkness of sin and ignorance. You make eloquent the tongues of infants: refi ne our speech and pour forth upon our lips he goodness of your blessing. Grant to us keenness of mind, capacity to remember, skill in learning, subtlety to interpret, and eloquence in speech. May you guide the beginning of our work, direct its progress, and bring it to completion, for you are true God and true Man, who live and reign, world without end.

Soli Deo Gloria

Jane Austen, Tim Keller, and the Happiness of Holiness

pride and prejudiceAfter many long, inexcusable years, I finally sat down to read a Jane Austen novel; Pride and Prejudice, to be exact. I suppose I had avoided them in my youth because they were the type of thing my sister–a girl, mind you–read. Also, I’d been subjected to the film Sense and Sensibility as a young boy and I’m still not sure what effect that’s had on my disposition ever since. In any case, inspired by my English acquaintances and a sense of nostalgia for literature, I picked up the copy off the shelf last week and got to work.

It was delightful, of course. Singing Austen’s praises is a bit absurd at this point; the humor, lively characters, dialogue, and so forth, was a wonderful change of pace from all the theology and biblical studies. (And ladies, I get it. That Mr. Darcy. What gallantry.)

Now, I’ve known for a while that reading literature is more than simple entertainment. Reading thick literature is a soul-expanding experience, especially with novelists possessing as keen an eye for the richly textured diversity of human experience and character as Austen. Indeed, it’s not simply that Austen was a keen observer, but she was also a moralist in the best sense of the word, whose portraits of virtue and vice not only amuse, but enlighten, shape, and form us. I remember one of the liveliest sections of Alasdair MacIntyre’s magisterial After Virtue was dedicated to examining the shape of Austen’s moral thought. I’m sadly only now in a position to begin appreciating it.

(BTW, spoiler alert on a 200-year-old novel). While there were multiple passages throughout the novel that caught my eye, one encounter between our protagonist Elizabeth Bennet and her sister Jane in particular drew my attention. It is towards the close of the novel, when the amiable, wealthy, generous, and all-around perfect match, Mr. Bingley has finally proposed to Jane and their happiness is secured. Jane and Elizabeth are rejoicing at her good fortune and we find this little nugget of moral wisdom:

Jane: “Oh Lizzy, why am I this singled from my family, and blessed above them all! If I could but see you as happy! I there were such another man for you!”

Elizabeth: “If you were to give me forty such men, I never could be so happy as you. Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness.”  pg. 331

Elizabeth’s response to Jane ought to be memorized by our particularly discontented and unhappy age. Jane looked at her sister in the rapture of her own delight in her impending marriage to such a good man and wished that Elizabeth might too share in that same kind of joy. For Jane, the cause of her joy and happiness was Bingley and she supposed that if Elizabeth could also have a Bingley, she would be just as happy.

Elizabeth knows better, though. While not writing off the truth that Bingley is a good man and that the situation that goes along with him is a favorable one, she knows that the another significant difference in separates the two young women: their “goodness” and “dispositions.” In other words, their characters. All throughout the novel we are keenly aware that Jane is far more humble, less critical, a bit too trusting, but much more easily contented, and, in a word, more virtuous than Elizabeth. (Though I’m sure some Austen fan could correct me here.) The point is that Elizabeth knows happiness is not only an issue of having favorable external circumstances, or even the possession of a great good, but one of having the right character.

You see, it would not matter if even the most advantageous situation were cooked up, a woman with the wrong character would be unable to enjoy a good husband. The woman lacking in wisdom would be unable to recognize the good man for who he is. The woman lacking humility would suppose the good man is deserved and so would be unable to receive him with the delight of a gift or with gratitude; also, should there be some understandable, human defect, she would be tempted to take it as a greater affront and be less likely to forgive, be contented, or patient. I could go on listing any number of virtues and vices and you’ll the problem. It doesn’t matter how good the situation is, if the virtue is missing, there can be no long-term joy, only short-term pleasures. Of course, this applies equally to men.

I’m reminded of a section in Tim and Kathy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage where they speak of the happiness of holiness. Many think that marriage is about making you happy, being pleased by and pleasing your spouse. The Kellers show disastrous fruit of pursuing that impossible approach at length. Instead, Paul teaches us that the end-goal of marriage is the holiness of your spouse. Marriage is about sanctification and one day seeing your husband and wife looking radiant, with the beauty of Christlike character. In that setting, the struggles, the pains, trials, as well as the pleasures, joys, and celebrations can take their place as part of a grander whole.

Now, at this point some may get the impression that marriage isn’t about happiness at all. But that would be a mistake. In fact, what we’ve seen with Austen is that happiness and goodness, or happiness and holiness go hand in hand. The Kellers write:

Does this mean “marriage is not about being happy; it’s about being holy”? Yes and no. As we have seen, that is too stark a contrast. If you understand what holiness is, you come to see that real happiness is on the far side of holiness, not the near side. Holiness gives us new desires and brings old desires into line with one another. So if we want to be happy in marriage, we will accept that marriage is designed to make us holy.

-Timothy and Kathy Keller. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (pp. 124-125).

While being so much more than this, Austen’s novel, in many ways, is parable about that suitability of character in marriage, and the happiness that attends holiness. I’d commend you, then, to pick it up, make yourself some tea, plop yourself down into a couch, and prepare to be entertained and maybe even edified at the same time.

Soli Deo Gloria

Three Dangers and One Hope for Pastors

parsonCalvin was nothing if not a theologian in service of the church. As much as he had to say about justification, faith, salvation in Christ, all of that was for the sake of the church and the right worship of God. To that end, he devoted a significant section to the proper calling and role of elders within the Christ’s Church, not only in the Institutes, but within the commentaries. As a careful student of the apostles though, he was not only concerned with right order but faithful pastoral care as we can see by his expansive comments on 1 Peter 5:1-4.

First he lays out the 3-fold structure of Peter’s instructions for pastors:

In exhorting pastors to their duty, he points out especially three vices which are found to prevail much, even sloth, desire of gain, and lust for power. In opposition to the first vice he sets alacrity or a willing attention; to the second, liberality; to the third, moderation and meekness, by which they are to keep themselves in their own rank or station.

Commentary on Catholic Epistles, 1 Peter 5:1-4

He then goes on to comment on the three at length, notably devoting special attention to the issue of pride or power:

  1. Sloth – He then says that pastors ought not to exercise care over the flock of the Lord, as far only as they are constrained; for they who seek to do no more than what constraint compels them, do their work formally and negligently. Hence he would have them to do willingly what they do, as those who are really devoted to their work.
  2. Avarice – To correct avarice, he bids them to perform their office with a ready mind; for whosoever has not this end in view, to spend himself and his labor disinterestedly and gladly in behalf of the Church, is not a minister of Christ, but a slave to his own stomach and his purse.
  3. Lust for Power – The third vice which he condemns is a lust for exercising power or dominion. But it may be asked, what kind of power does he mean? This, as it seems to me, may be gathered from the opposite clause, in which he bids them to be examples to the flock. It is the same as though he had said that they are to preside for this end, to be eminent in holiness, which cannot be, except they humbly subject themselves and their life to the same common rule. What stands opposed to this virtue is tyrannical pride, when the pastor exempts himself from all subjection, and tyrannizes over the Church. It was for this that Ezekiel condemned the false prophets, that is, that . (Ezekiel 34:4.) Christ also condemned the Pharisees, because they laid intolerable burdens on the shoulders of the people which they would not touch, no, not with a finger. (Matthew 23:4.) This imperious rigour, then, which ungodly pastors exercise over the Church, cannot be corrected, except their authority be restrained, so that they may rule in such a way as to afford an example of a godly life.

-ibid., v. 1-3

Far from encouraging an overweening authoritarianism, Calvin exhorts pastors not to keep themselves above the flock. Spiritual leadership does not equal license, or an invitation to “tyrannical pride.” “Imperious rigor” is not what is needed, but the “example of a godly life” in which pastors are chief in pursuit of holiness before anything else. Then, he moves to impress them with the importance of following the Peter’s commands by acknowledging the real obstacles pastors face:

Except pastors retain this end in view, it can by no means be that they will in good earnest proceed in the course of their calling, but will, on the contrary, become often faint; for there are innumerable hindrances which are sufficient to discourage the most prudent. They have often to do with ungrateful men, from whom they receive an unworthy reward; long and great labors are often in vain; Satan sometimes prevails in his wicked devices.

-ibid. v. 4

In fact, there is only “one remedy” for the discouragement they face amidst their many labors:

…to turn his eyes to the coming of Christ. Thus it will be, that he, who seems to derive no encouragement from men, will assiduously go on in his labors, knowing that a great reward is prepared for him by the Lord. And further, lest a protracted expectation should produce languor, he at the same time sets forth the greatness of the reward, which is sufficient to compensate for all delay: An unfading crown of glory, he says, awaits you.

-ibid. v 4

Finally, he calls attention to the fact that in the end Peter “calls Christ the chief Pastor”:

for we are to rule the Church under him and in his name, in no other way but that he should be still really the Pastor. So the word chief here does not only mean the principal, but him whose power all others ought to submit to, as they do not represent him except according to his command and authority.

-ibid, v. 4

This is a warning and a comfort. All pastoral authority is exercised only under the authority of Christ–remembering this will keep us from that tyrannical pride and vice. The comfort comes in knowing that as we pastor and fail, we have an unfailing Pastor who is keeping care over our souls as well.

Soli Deo Gloria