Briefly Noted: History with a Beer Chaser; Or, Why Theology is Best Done in Community

Not at Southeastern Seminary, mind you, but at Ithaca College. That’s where they have a Beer’n’History club. So writes Michael B. Smith in a recent edition of The Chronicle Review (Dec 14, 2012). In the article, Smith tells the story of a small group of faculty members who get together regularly to dialogue about history, writing, and life. As Smith tells it:

Having ranged in size from four to six members, the Chapter House writing group—aka Beer’n’History—has helped midwife 10 books and nearly a score of articles and book chapters, a powerful testament that we have succeeded in our purpose. As publishing has become an ever more significant part of the reward system in academe, Beer’n’History has been indispensable to all of us, both for encouraging our scholarly productivity and for celebrating the craft of writing. But above all we value our gatherings for the way they embody what too often seems to be missing from academe: trust, honesty, and the absence of hierarchy.

Smith goes on to delineate the benefits of this small community of scholars. First on the list is the vigorous and rigorous exchange of ideas; the conversations are sometimes heated and often humorous as everyone at the table engages fully and honestly with the ideas being set forth. But equally significant is the friendships they’ve built that go far beyond the campus borders. “The camaraderie and trust forged around those tables,” he writes, “have not only enriched our lives as academics but also led to collaborations on home renovations and soccer fields, to an annual intergenerational family football game the day after Thanksgiving each year, to canoe trips to the Adirondacks.”

Smith is “spot on” about the value of a close circle of peers doing their scholarship and writing together and at the same time building friendships that go beyond their scholarship. The first time I remember reflecting upon the value of such friendships was years ago during my M. Div. studies when philosopher L. Russ Bush told the story of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ famous friendship, of the walks they took together, the hours they shared at The Eagle & Child, and the countless discussions and debates which sharpened them both. The second time I was forced to reflect upon this was during my Ph. D. dissertation stage, sitting in Stanley Hauerwas’ office. Dr. Hauerwas was my external dissertation adviser, and he graciously gave me upwards of 15 hours helping me with my dissertation. During that time, he mentioned several times how much he had benefited (personally and professionally) from the friendships he had built over the several preceding decades.

Since then, I’ve increasingly become convinced of the value of community for theology and scholarship. A sound theology puts our feet on this sort of path. First, God created humans to be relational beings. Second, our human propensity towards idolatry has deleterious noetic effects which can be lessened because of the positive influence of community. Third, God saved us for relationship with him and his church (universal and local). God created us to be thoroughly social and communal beings, and this need for relationships remains and is even enhanced in the aftermath of the Fall.

What does “theology in community” look like in practice? Each person’s situation differs, but for me, there are several ways this works out. First, I have chosen to co-author or co-edit many of my writing projects, including the manuscripts I am working on right now. If a book or essay is co-authored well, it might take more time to write than if one writes alone. The authors discuss, debate, write, re-write, and then discuss and debate some more. I am a far better theologian (or perhaps a “less deficient” theologian) because of the influence of friends such as Heath Thomas, Keith Whitfield, Craig Bartholomew, and J. D. Greear. Second, I’ve been blessed to hold informal “theology and coffee” or “theology and mission” discussion groups with students. Most semesters, this lasts from 6:30 a.m. until 8:00 or so, as we read through a book, discuss the ideas, and pray together. The lively exchanges we’ve had have benefited both student and professor.

Third, I am enjoying a Tuesday lunch appointment with 8-10 colleagues in which we discuss theology and life, and share more than a little laughter. Similarly, we have impromptu Earl-Grey-and-Chat meetings during some late afternoons in my office. Fourth, I thoroughly enjoy doing theology in my local church context. God’s church is in fact the primary context for receiving the word of God, and I remain profoundly grateful to my church and to certain friends in particular for sustaining me theologically. Fifth, I am grateful to global Christians (Asian, African, Middle Eastern) who teach me much about the gospel. Finally, I cannot fail to mention the great theologians of yesteryear who provide substantive and sumptuous theological fare for our benefit, and who help point out blind spots in our 21st century theologies.

So, if you’re a Baptist friend, I heartily recommend that you find a group similar to Smith’s Beer’n’History club. Maybe you can call it Milk’n’History. Or Cheerwine’n’Theology.

 

 

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (15): Christian theology aims for wisdom.

In the last installment, we noted that Christian theology strives for truth. In our Western intellectual context, we tend to equate “truth” with science-oriented knowledge. But Christian theology provides more than that sort of knowledge. It also leads one to wisdom. In fact, for two millennia, theologians have debated about what type of intellectual activity characterizes the task of theology. Should it be construed upon a scientific model (Latin, scientia) or upon a wisdom model (Latin, sapientia)? Augustine preferred sapientia to scientia, but later medieval theologians preferred scientia to sapientia. This chapter will argue that theology is indeed science, but more ultimately it is wisdom. We agree with Vanhoozer that, “Doctrine has a cognitive component . . . but the thrust of Christian doctrine is not mere knowledge, but rather wisdom.”[1] In our opinion, wisdom is the ultimate goal of theology because it includes not only the scientific aspect of knowing, but also the prudential aspect of living wisely in light of what we know. In order to flesh out this view of theology as science and wisdom, we will address both aspects of theological knowledge.

On the one hand, theology is scientific, if by scientific we mean that it is a bona fide discipline oriented to a legitimate object and possessing appropriate methods of investigating.[2] Wolfhart Pannenberg argues that theology is a science because it has a defined sphere of investigation, an internal coherence, a purposive attempt to describe external reality, and a public sphere of justification.[3] Likewise, Millard Erickson writes, “(1) Theology has a definite subject matter to investigate, primarily that which God has revealed about himself. (2) Theology deals with objective matters. It does not merely give expression to the subjective feelings of the theologian or of the Christian. (3) It has a definite methodology for investigating its subject matter. (4) It has a method for verifying its propositions. (5) There is coherence among the propositions of its subject matter.”[4] Pannenberg and Erickson both argue that theology must be subject to verification, and in Pannenberg’s criteria, public justification. We agree with Pannenberg and Erickson that theology is a bona fide discipline oriented to a legitimate object and possessing appropriate methods of investigating, and in that manner science-oriented.

On the other hand, theology is wisdom-oriented. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10; Ps. 111:10). As Craig Bartholomew and Ryan O’Dowd have argued, the wisdom theme pervades the biblical witness.[5] Although theology is science-oriented, it is more ultimately wisdom-oriented for two reasons. First, theology is more than science because it involves a personal relationship between the knower and the known.[6] True knowledge is rooted in commitment to God. Gerhard von Rad writes, “The thesis that all human knowledge comes back to the question about commitment to God is a statement of penetrating perspicacity. . . . Israel attributes to the fear of God, to belief in God, a highly important function in respect of human knowledge. She was, in all her seriousness, of the opinion that effective knowledge about God is the only thing that puts a man into a right relationship with the objects of his perception.”[7] Indeed, theology goes beyond correct information, extending ultimately to right relationship with God. Second, theology is more than science because it seeks to equip the church to live wisely in light of its knowledge. Theology is wisdom in that it involves both true theory and right practice. David Ford writes, “[theology] asks not only about meaning, interpretation and truth but also, inextricably, about living life before God now and about how lives and communities are shaped in line with who God is and with God’s purposes for the future. In short, it is about lived meaning directed toward the kingdom of God.”[8] If one focuses on theology’s science-orientation to the exclusion of its wisdom-orientation, one warps and distorts the task of theology and hinders the mission of the church.[9]

In summary, theology is more than science because theology is missional by its very nature. Theology is centered on knowing and loving God, on being transformed by Him, and on being a light to the nations so that they also can know and love God. David Bosch writes, “Just as the church ceases to be church if it is not missionary, theology ceases to be theology if it loses its missionary character.”[10] God’s biblical self-revelation is the true story of the whole world, but he does not reveal this account merely for us to step back and be wowed by its elegance and power. He has given us the Bible so that we can live within its pages, allowing its missional story to shape our identities so that we can in turn take this story to the nations.


[1] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 88.

[2] This sense of the word “scientific” stems from the earliest medieval universities. I have adapted this definition from David Clark’s definition. Clark, To Know and Love God, 213.

[3] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and Philosophy of Science, trans. Francis McDonagh (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 326-345.

[4] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 36.

[5] Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O’Dowd, Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011), 231-260.

[6] Ellen Charry writes, “Sapience [English, “wisdom”] includes correct information about God, but emphasizes attachment to that knowledge. Sapience is engaged knowledge that emotionally connects the knower to the known.” Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 4.

[7] Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, trans. James D. Martin (London: SCM, 1970), 67-68.

[8] David Ford, “Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God (1),” in David Ford and Graham Stanton, Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom (London: SCM, 2003), 4-5.

[9] David Clark notes that overly cognitive approaches to theology (1) obscure the transformational aspect of theology, which is its true purpose; (2) give the false impression that one must have a seminary degree in order to read the Bible; and therefore (3) intimidate Christians who have not formally studied theology. Clark, To Know and Love God, 240-241.

[10] Bosch, Transforming Mission, 494.

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (12): Further Thoughts on Theology & Philosophy

In the last post, we discussed briefly the relationship between Scripture, theology, and other academic disciplines. In this post, we will follow up on one strand of that discussion by discussing the historically enigmatic relation between theology and philosophy. An account of the theological task must provide an account of the relation of these two disciplines. Before doing so, however, one must define this notion of “philosophy,” which can be used in quite different manners. David Clark points out that theologians use the word “philosophy” in at least four different manners.[1] First, philosophy can refer to a person’s philosophy of life, his worldview, his most basic conceptual grid. Under this view, philosophy is a macroperspective which interprets the whole of life. Second, philosophy can refer to an academic discipline which consists of a cluster of sub-disciplines such as logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics. Third, philosophy can refer to second-order areas of study that have become academic disciplines with their own integrity. Examples include philosophy of science, philosophy of history, and philosophy of religion. Fourth, philosophy can refer to one’s commitment to critical thinking and argumentation.

When unfolding the relation of theology to philosophy, this post has in mind a combination of the latter three uses of the word philosophy. In our view, Christian philosophy is the attempt to describe systematically the structure of creation (the nature of being, of knowledge, of beauty, etc.), drawing upon God’s self-revelation found in the created order and in the Bible, and using the tools of critical thinking and argumentation. It seeks a comprehensive view of the created order as creation (not merely as “nature”), and draws upon Scripture. Although Scripture does not give a comprehensive or detailed analysis of creational realities, it does provide the framework and many clues for understanding them. Bartholomew and Goheen write, “In our experience, sometimes people get so excited about philosophy-believe it or not-that they forget that it is Scripture which is God’s infallible word. Indeed, in our opinion a healthy Christian philosophy, like a healthy Christian theology, will take us back again and again and deeper and deeper into the Bible. We also believe that because the Bible is God’s Word for all of life that philosophy too must bow to its authority.”[2]

How, therefore, is Christian philosophy related to the task of systematic and integrative theology (such as the type being encouraged in this blog series)? First, philosophy is helpful for conceiving one’s theological method. For example, Christian philosophers can help the theologian articulate the ontology and epistemology that undergird the theological enterprise. Second, the philosophical sub-discipline of logic helps the theologian conceive and articulate each doctrine in a unified and coherent manner, and further to relate the doctrines to each other in a likewise coherent manner. Third, the philosophical sub-discipline of “history of philosophy” can help the theologian understand both the positive and negative developments in intellectual history. Fourth, philosophical tools can help the theologian make a deep-level exegesis of his cultural context. Fifth, philosophical tools can help clear the ground for a person’s conversion, by answering various objections to belief. Sixth, philosophy can assist the theologian in analyzing various aspects of the creational order and of human life, an aspect of the philosophical task to which we now turn.


[1] David Clark, To Know and Love God, 296-299.

[2] Bartholomew and Goheen, Liberating Christian Philosophy, ch. 1.