Dear David Canon,
First off, thank you for your kind words. While it is self-evident that I am the most wonderful of all the Gonzagas here at Fuller, it is always nice to be reminded.
Second, I apologize for starting this conversation several days before I had to bury myself in the library to finish final papers and finals. I would have responded to you sooner had this not been the case.
Third, I wanted to clarify some points and respond to some of your question.
In regards to the issue of experience influencing one’s practical theology…
You wrote, “…I don’t believe that experience should be the most formative element of a person’s ‘practical theology.’…”
I am not saying that a person’s experience should inform their theology more than any teaching. I am suggesting one’s experience inherently does regardless of if we want it to or not.
I think it is impossible to completely divorce our experiences in this life from our practical theology. At the very least it has been impossible for me. This came up at the recent Hauerwas lecture where a student asked him how his experience (of being married to a mentally ill woman for many years) impacted his theology. Haurewas was perturbed by this question, as were many seminarians who “got” his Barthian theology, because Haurweas believes that one’s theology should not be formed by one’s experience. To him, and other the question was not applicable.
On one hand I agree with this notion. The theology revealed in scripture does not change with our experiences in this life. As such, orthodox Christian theology that all Christians should seek to bring their practical theology in line with does not change. Ever. Our experience does not change what is written in the Bible.
However, I think separating our practical theology from our experience is impossible. While my experience in this life does not change what is written in scripture it will highly impact how I understand it, what scriptures I give weight, or if I even belief what Scriptures says. I have not met any titans of faith, who like Job, after major tragedy simply say, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away…blessed by the name of the Lord,” presumably showing that despite the circumstances of his life changing God was exactly the same and worthy of praise. Most people question the God of revelation through their experience in this world, and in terms of forming one’s practical theology I think the latter often wins out.
To be clear I am not saying this should be the case, I am suggesting this is the case regardless of if we want it to be or not.
Think about it. If a friend constantly said, “I am trustworthy” but kept breaking their promises eventually you would stop believing them. I have been, and I have encountered many people, who say they ascribe to some virtue but live completely differently. In this we are judged as hypocrites regardless of our statements. If revelation declares that God loves us, cares for us, answers prayer, etc. and yet we experience a God who appears indifferent or even against us, unconcerned with our plight, and silent in response to prayer, is it reasonable to think that one’s practical theology will stay in line with the teaching of revelation? I think not.
On the Bible teaching theology…
“Christian theology in its purest form, I think, is simply making sense of the theology in the Bible. Contrary to what some people think, the Bible actually teaches theology…”
I would agree. Revelation provides what God says about God and for Christians this means this is how we are to understand God.
On settling theological differences…
You wrote, “Theology is not settled in the way you imply.”
I am curious, what did you think I was implying?
On using good theology to correct bad theology…
“Lots of people believe bad theology! What a terrible situation, Kevin. There’s quite a lot at stake here. But what better weapon do we have against bad theology other than good theology, founded on scripture and informed by tradition and communal discernment?”
On one hand I agree with you. Much of what I have written could be termed “theology” and I do believe that in some cases people’s practical beliefs must be brought in line with good teaching…that in turn comes from theology that is, “founded on scripture and informed by tradition and communal discernment.” This seems especially true with new believers who are unfamiliar with basic Christian beliefs. To use a whimsical example, if a Christian came to believe they were a previously unknown fourth person in the Trinity, they would need to be taught the error of their ways from scripture and tradition. And again, the only way to understand scripture and tradition is to in some way engage in theology.
However, I would suggest this is often not enough to bring one’s practical theology in line with orthodox Christian theology revealed in the Bible. If someone suffers a painful tragedy and comes to believe that God is not good, we cannot simply point them to verses that talk about God being loving or near the brokenhearted. I personally would want to really search out how people got to their practical theologies that were so different from what is made plain in scripture and Church tradition and come along side them as they wrestle with their experience.
To use an example of what I am talking about…how many Protestants would profess with their mouth that their works do nothing to contribute to their salvation, but then turn around and work thinking their Christian behavior directly controls God’s attitude towards them and consequently compulsively engage in ministry as a result? How many Protestants approach devotional time as a work, thinking if they do it for one hour a day they are close to God and He love them, and when they forget or fail to set aside time for the Lord, God is mad at them? For how many of our peers at Fuller is this true? The answer lies not just in teaching them justification by faith…again…which they may already believe in…but exploring how they got to this practical theology in the first place.
On the nature of schism…
You wrote, “…We must humbly and selflessly bring theology to bear against bad theology (whether it be too obsure, etc.) which begets schism, bitterness, and sin in the church!”
I do not think “bad theology” causes schisms because this is just a contextual label that means nothing. “Bad theology” versus “Good theology” often coined by the victors and used by one theological camp to label an opposed theological camp. One cannot say “bad theology” causes schisms because one camp’s bad theology is another camp’s deeply cherished orthodoxy.
I have argued previously that obscure theology is the source of schisms. On further reflection I have come to realize that I believe that it is truly how we handle competing views on what the Bible says about a given doctrine that is the source of schisms. Rarely have Christians approached maintaining orthodoxy in humility and sometimes one is called to fight against false teachers. Jesus, Paul, and others are not so meek and mild when confronting false teachers and false teachings, however I fear that often systematic theologies become a list of “right beliefs” that are used more to exclude outsiders than they are to maintain orthodoxy. During the Reformation everyone seemed quite comfortable with executing heretics, meaning people who did not share their systematic theologies, even though there was widespread consensus on a lot of the basics of the faith. Burning people alive at the stake was not exactly correcting “bad theology” with “good theology.”
Systematic theologies, concerned with many things beyond the basics of the faith, often become a means by which we learn who is not “one of us.” In this systematic theologies just become a new set of purity laws by which one knows whom to welcome and whom to condemn, exclude and hate. But I am moving too far into my next answer so let’s move forward…
On the nature of my claim that theology is useless…
“So why say ‘theology is useless’ if you agree that Jesus and the apostles teach theology, and that we should affirm the creeds? That’s a rather sweeping statement, and I suppose that you were going for edginess. Why not say ‘bad theology is destructive’ or ‘theology is useless if its distant from or warps scripture and tradition,’ or something of the sort. Why the edgy, Kevin?”
From my initial post I created divisions between practical theology, declared theology, orthodox theology, and obscure theology for a reason. I think the last is the theology that is useless. If you ignore these categories, you ignore my whole argument.
To reiterate: I do not think all theology is useless, I think obscure theology is useless if not detrimental. I think people’s practical theology is important because that is what motivates their life. I think declared theology is important in that it is what they teach and espouse to others. I think orthodox theology in scriptures is important because it is the theology we are supposed to declare and live from.
However, I absolutely detest, loathe and hate obscure theology. Obscure theology is theology that is usually extrapolated from a small section of verses in the Bible, such theologies really serve no function in this world, change no one’s faith, do not change how anyone lives in this world, do not help anyone.
To use an example let’s take atonement theories. I am about to in respond to another post and engage in a discussion regarding atonement theories. There is support for a variety of understandings regarding exactly how atonement works. But regardless of which answer is “right” (or if there is even a “right” understanding of the atonement) no atonement theory really changes anything. Neither Christus victor nor penal substitution has ever put food in the mouths of the hungry or motivated anyone I know of to take action in this world. Neither satisfaction nor divine love have comforted the bereaved or motivated anyone I know to comfort the bereaved. Furthermore, the whole discussion of atonement theories completely misses if not obscures the point. In pondering the “how” of salvation we miss the Who in salvation. I think the real issues at stake is “Is forgiveness and salvation possible, and if so by what or whom is it gained?”
While obscure theologies serve no purpose and are as such a complete waste of time, resources, education, and effort, they sadly do not often remain neutral. Many obscure theologyes are promoted as central to the Gospel and/or become part of a larger set of doctrines to divide the Bride of Christ into warring factions.
To use another example, the addition of the filioque clause in the Creeds by a non-ecumenical council in Toledo was discovered and several hundred years later was one of the reasons the Eastern and Western Churches split. The belief that the Holy Spirit came from God the Father or both God the Father and Jesus the Son, was one of the reasons the Eastern Orthodox Church went its own way. This is a complete tragedy in my opinion. I do not think single or double procession actually changes anyone’s faith, feeds the poor, or clothes the naked but the debate over single or double procession provided theological grounds for a monumental schism of the Church several centuries before the Reformation.
I refer to it as obscure theology because the labels of “bad” and “good” are too contextual (as I have previously argued) and obscure theology might be in one tradition a core tenant and could hardly be called something too distant from scripture or tradition.
More to the reason I am so adamant about this issue is that I fear that much of what is engaged in in our own context would fall under this category. In the Library I regularly see loads of dissertations and in my own research have seen literally hundreds of books and writings from past and current Fuller graduates and things that are being and have been used to educate Fuller students. Much of this I fear fails to ever have any application or implication for how Christians live in this world. Is this how we should be spending our time? Should we be discussing the beliefs of dead Europeans had regarding half merits and full merits when the world is on fire with pain ans suffering and our Churches appear to be in an appalling state of apostasy? How many of our peers pursue obscure theology to attain a degree so that they can eventually teach other students the same? I fear that many of our graduate programs at Fuller are essentially perpetual motion machines that are based on and produce an unending amount of obscure theology. Have we just created a system that fails to ever connect with the real world beyond the limits of our own microcosm?