Why Theology Matters (July-Aug 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

by Brad East
July – August, 2010

I have a distinct memory of reading C.S. Lewis as a teenager and, in a passage on the practice and reality of prayer, having an epiphany. This revelation consisted of the head-spinning realization that, if God is eternal, then prayer itself is not bound by time. For example, if I were praying for a friend’s successful surgery, and I knew that the surgery had been completed but did not know the outcome, I ought to continue to pray, because my “future” prayers prayed “backwards” could still be effective in the economy of God’s relation to time.

Of course, I could not have spoken this epiphany in so many words, but I “got” it—and this “getting it” was confirmed when, just a page or two later, Lewis stated in English what my mind had grasped wordlessly: that our prayers, and God’s hearing them, are not bound by what we perceive as time’s limits. Hallelujah, amen—I had made the connection before the Oxford Don even told me!

Of course, I took this experience to be clear evidence of my intellectual kinship with C.S. Lewis. What it was in actuality was less fantastic, but more important: I had taken a step in learning to think theologically.

Theology is notoriously difficult to define. Many have claimed that theology, taken literally, is simply any and all talk about God. And to some extent we ought to allow this straightforward understanding: certainly to be a Christian, and in a sense to be human at all, is to engage in theological practice. All of life, it may be said, is a kind of grappling with how to speak—not to mention what that speech entails in day-to-day living—about, and to, God.

But theology is, and must be, more than that. And I suspect it is this “more” that causes hesitation in some ranks.

One of these “ranks” may be found in church traditions that are heavily Bible-centric. If Scripture is the final authority for all matters of faith and practice, what else is there to say? Moreover, it seems to be historical record that, as often as not, theology serves as a bludgeon in the hands of the powerful, or at least the educated, to eliminate their enemies (whether theological, denominational, or political). And what of the simple gospel? Did Jesus bother with systematic theologies, heavy and weighted down with philosophical speculation and words only scholars understand?

The answer, for these Bible-centered folk, ought to be clear: if theology inevitably becomes an edifice built on top of the simplicity and clarity of Scripture, resulting in a clouded rather than clear witness to Christ, stop building altogether — and get to the foundation.

These are well-known, and well-inhabited, concerns and conclusions that especially mark American Protestant streams of the church. There is another, somewhat more recent stream, however, that mirrors them as a kind of reactionary reflection. Such responsive concerns essentially transplant Bible-centric suspicions of theology back onto the Bible. Whereas before, the Bible could be trusted in place of creeds and dogmas, now it is unclear what can be trusted at all. Who says the Bible has got it all right? Jesus didn’t just avoid systematic theologies: he didn’t write down anything at all! Much less did he offer a theory of biblical authority. Perhaps the best way to follow Jesus, suggest these action-centered folk, is to imitate him at this very point: give up figuring everything out, and instead get out the door and live, caring for widows and orphans and serving neighbors in love.

In this case, James 1:22 is the clarion call: Be not merely hearers — and parsers, arguers, splicers, surgeons, debaters, scholars, experts — of God’s word, but doers of it. Or perhaps a more concrete paraphrase: Who needs a bunch of empty God-talk when you’ve got a community of compassion that loves people more than doctrine?

It is not my task — with gratitude — either to resolve the differences between these two groups or to assuage all of their worries. It is my hope, however, to affirm their concerns alongside a vision of the crucial role theology has to play in the life of the church. Let’s explore that vision below.

We should recognize first that theology is a consequence of the fact that the church is a missionary people. Because the Jesus community exists over centuries and millennia, and finds itself scattered among hundreds and thousands of cultural contexts, what Christians said at one time and place cannot simply be repeated—we must find new ways of expressing the faith that are both faithful to the gospel and appropriate to the context in which we live. The simplest example here is the translation of the Bible into different languages; this is not to be taken for granted, but belongs to the nature of the church’s mission to all nations. The church itself is a living translation: we are, on the one hand, the “same” community as the church of the apostles, and yet, on the other hand, we speak a different language, at a different time, in a different place. As Christians we are nothing short of living translations of the first century gospel in the 21st century.

We might say, then, that theology is the church’s ongoing task of translation — not in the sense of leaving behind the truth to speak on the world’s terms, but in the sense of improvisation, of finding ourselves in new situations and saying, “What does it mean to speak the old message anew here and now?” Theology is each generation’s commitment to asking this question again and again.

In this way, our Bible-centered friends need not be anxious, for theology is internal to Scripture’s witness. If we believe that the same Spirit who inspired these texts inspires us today, both to read and to embody them, then we must also believe that the Spirit inspires and empowers us to be master improvisers. Christians should thus be a people so filled and fed by the word of God that, like a jazz player feeling the moment, we are able to speak truthfully but creatively to whatever situations we encounter.

This picture ought also to help subside some of our action-centered friends’ concerns. Theology has already forsaken its Subject if it is merely the hobby of a few erudite scholars who tell the church what books to read to be smarter. Theology must be from the ground up; must be centered above all on the person of Jesus—the “talk” (logos) of “God” (theos) made flesh — and therefore on the obedient discipleship of the church. In other words, Jesus Christ is God’s theology. Every human attempt at theology must, as a consequence, be participation in God’s own “talk” about himself, which is neither a tome of thick propositions nor a doctrinal system of thought, but a person. It is this person — his birth, form of life, teachings, death, resurrection, and ascension — that is the norm for all theology.

But as history attests, it is hard work grappling with this person! In a nutshell, that is the challenge of theology: forever working out this Jesus, this inexhaustible artisan of Nazareth, this anointed one of Israel, this one once dead and now alive. In so doing, we are in a profound sense thinking God’s thoughts after him. And that is why theology matters so much for the church today: not as an exercise in in-house squabbling; not to be masters of doctrine lording over others; not to raise up abstraction at the expense of action, nor to make truth the slave of innovation. Theology matters, simply and finally, because it is the unending practice of dealing with Jesus. Getting Jesus right, not for anywhere or anytime or anyone else other than this place, this time, this community — just as we recognize that we will never “arrive” at such a task, and that getting Jesus right means obeying him and not just talking about him — is the hard but infinitely rewarding work of theology in the church.

I made a small step in “getting Jesus right” in my Lewis-inspired teenage epiphany. I realized something about God that I had never read, thought, or heard before: God’s presence to me in Christ and through the Spirit is not limited by time, but full of time — God has all the time in the world to be with me in prayer. What a wonderful realization! Had I known it at the time, I would have called this more than a happy coincidence: it was good theology.
New Wineskins

Brad EastBrad East is in the final year of his Master of Divinity at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. With his wife, Katelin, Brad is originally from Austin, Texas, and he is planning to go on to earn his PhD in systematic theology. You can find him online at his blog Resident Theology [http://resident-theology.blogspot.com/].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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