Letters Between Friends: Dear David Cannon

To those of you know do not know David Cannon here is quick fact sheet:

David Cannon hails from Idaho.  He is a Calvinist/Reformed theologian. He went to Whitworth with a large group of people who also attend Fuller.  He is single and we are looking for a suitable wife for him. He is very nice and patient and has a great sense of humor.  He is also a good friend of mine who I met before I began at Fuller and who has consistently and patiently pushed back on my extreme statements which are either intentionally provocative to push the envelope or come from a place of stupidity and ignorance.

Dear David,

I have recently begun to be more open with my incredibly low view of theology and said things like, “theology is useless.”  On this point you have disagreed with me and I received your permission to write you this letter on my blog to go deeper in our discussion.  I would like to here clearly explain my position and what I mean by “theology,” to whom it is useless, and why it is useless.  Then maybe you can help me understand where I am wrong or help me make some positive connections between said “theology” and the rest of the world.

But first I want to make plain some of my assumptions and get clear on my terminology.

First, I believe everyone, even an atheist, has a basic theology about God and the spiritual realm that drives their actions in this world.  I call these beliefs “theology” because anything said or believed about God can be referred to as theology; so even the atheist who says, “God does not exist” believes something about God and has a theology.  I think people do exactly what they believe and how one conceptualizes the spiritual realm, God, and our eternal destination as human beings undoubtedly influences how people act in this word.  However, surprisingly I have found that this theology for most people is unstated and not clearly defined, but is nonetheless very real.  For the sake of clarity I will call this theology, inherent to all people, “practical theology.”

Second, I believe most people’s practical theology is primarily from their experiences in this world, which may or may not include some type of formal religion, or direct religious teaching.  I believe life experiences are far more influential and formative in establishing a person’s beliefs than formal religious teaching.

Third, this practical theology may or may not be in-line with one’s formal or declared theology.  By “declared theology” I mean what a person says they believe, mentally assent to, or what doctrinal statements they would sign to and agree with.  What one says one believes is often not what one “really” believes as displayed by ones actions.  In my experience people’s practical theology, which they truly live from, is only partially in line with their declared theology.  Often private fears or un-articulated beliefs about God compromises a large part of a person’s actual beliefs.  But more about this later.

With those basic assumptions and beliefs made plain let’s move a little closer to our discussion…

I think to be a faithful Christian what is required to know about God, salvation, justification, humanity, creation, etc. is revealed in scripture.  Read in humility, and guided by basic Church tradition (such as the Apostle’s Creed), I believe the Bible is readily comprehensible to most people.  From the Bible Christians can and should know orthodox Christian theology and it should be the goal of any Christian to bring both their declared and practical theology in line with what God has chosen to be revealed in the Bible.  If a Christian’s declared theology is not formed by the scriptures they teach heresy.  If a Christian’s practical theology is not formed by the scriptures they will perpetually struggle to live in line with the Bible.  People simply cannot act against their beliefs and values which I would suggest are to be primarily located in one’s practical theology.

From everything I have said above, one might wonder how I could ever say, “theology is useless.”  Truth be told I think that practical theology is incredibly important.  It shapes how we live in this world and how we experience the divine.  To a lesser extent I think even one’s declared theology is important, if only for the practical implication of that this is what they will espouse to others, their children, their fellow Christians, etc. and it will in some cases dictate how they will interact with other Christians.

The theology that I think is useless is what I will for simplicity sake refer to as “obscure theology.”  I am tempted to call it “high theology” as some tend to do but this would implicitly suggest that it is a “smarter” or “better” or “higher” theology or a theology for “smarter”, “better,” or “higher” people.  Nothing could be further from the truth. I would suggest there are three kinds of obscure theology.

The first kind of obscure theology as theology that is over-concerned with what is clear and plain in revelation. To use an example…in the class that made me want to dis-enroll from seminary this came up with a force.  The Scholastic theologians were spending countless hours (decades?) arguing over what a person could do to please God.  In describing half-merits, and full-merits and what a person could do that was good in the sight of God I was bashing my head against a table.  First, it is incredibly presumptuous for any human to tell other humans what pleases God.  Second, and more to my point, it seems abundantly clear that there are things people do that please God and God has made very direct explicit statements about this in scripture such as, “For I (God) desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6) It seems like if God tells us what He wants and does not want form humanity continuously and clearly throughout the Bible and it seems a colossal waste of time to ask if we can do things that can please God and what these things are.

The second kind of obscure theology is theology that seeks to answer or claims to have answered questions that are, by God’s wisdom, intentionally not revealed in scripture; this type of theology seeks to go beyond what we need or are meant to know. To explain my position on this point more I will use your dearly loved Calvin. (Forgive me if I have misread or misunderstood him.  In his Insititutes it is clear the Jean Calvin is concerned with the limits of revelation and human knowledge.  Whatever is in scripture was put their by the Holy Spirit for the benefit of Christians.  As such, if Christians gloss over, ignore, or diminish what is in scripture, we are committing a gross error.  On the other side, and more to my point, Calvin also believed that certain things about God are not revealed to us in scripture and it is impious, improper, and quite dangerous for human minds to search after what God has decided to keep hidden.  I agree with Calvin.  Yet some theologians have spent years and lifetimes squeezing meaning out of scraps of Greek or Hebrew grammar to provide the “biblical” answer to a question the Bible does not answer clearly.  This is, as Calvin suggests, impious and dangerous.

The third kind of obscure theology is theology that has no discernible pastoral or practical use or function. When faced with the question, “Does this change anything?” or “So what?” such theology is silent in response.  In my estimation of Christian history, theology with no purpose or implication does not remain neutral but has  tendency to get used to the detriment of the Church.

These categories are not mutually exclusive and it is quite possible for any given theology to be a mix of the above three categories.

It is this obscure theology that I think is useless.

In fact I would say such theology has almost exclusively been detrimental to the Church.  Basic Christian orthodoxy was settled centuries ago in the councils.  As Christians have spent more time investigating minute aspects of scripture and delving too deeply into secondary or tertiary doctrines, obscure theology began proliferate and this was not without consequences. I fear it is obscure theology that has most fragmented the Church.  The standard narrative is this: some obscure theology gets promoted as a core belief of Christianity, an obscure theology turns an area of freedom into a new Law, an obscure theology turns a vice into a virtue, etc.  The confused Church becomes the Church divided and we end up with decades of intra-Christian religious wars, a post-Christian Europe, and 30,000+ different Protestant denominations, many of whom think they are the “one true Church.”

While I could probably continue on I think this is enough for now and hope this has given you a better understanding of my argument.  I eagerly await either your correction, insights, or simple befuddled amazement at the compelling nature of  my argument.

-Kevin

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About Speakfaithfully

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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One Response to Letters Between Friends: Dear David Cannon

  1. Joel Gonzaga says:

    “Yet some theologians have spent years and lifetimes squeezing meaning out of scraps of Greek or Hebrew grammar to provide the “biblical” answer to a question the Bible does not answer clearly.”

    Kevin, I share your disdain for this kind practice. It seeks to find answers in scripture that are not there, and tries to make scripture address things that it does not. It attempts to honor scripture, but IMO it just does damage to it.

    Where scripture is silent, we are free to explore other sources of knowledge or even practice.

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