Why Theology Sucks
I recently had a pastor tell me that the in-depth, formal study of what is commonly called “systematic theology” would be a waste of my time and would not have a real benefit for the church. When I tried to engage yet another pastor in discussion about theology he remarked flatly, “theology is boring.” Both of these men hold advanced theological degrees. I am quite certain that these men are not isolated in their sentiments. In our Evangelical (whatever that means) Protestant circles, there are a great number of people who have some serious misunderstandings regarding the role and task of theology in the life of the church. I don’t fault these people entirely. Some commonly held and passed-along assumptions inevitably lead one down the path to either a jettisoning of theological study (these people may still engage in exegesis or “practical theology,” both of which they think are free of the nasty type of stale, impractical, and “boring” theology) or, if one somehow avoids this disillusionment, they become exactly the caricature which the disillusioned have been warning about all along—they become boring, irrelevant, and quite useless to the average person who sits in the fold-up chairs in the rented gymnasium every week. Here are some of the commonly-held assumptions about theology (or about God, for that matter), that lead theology to become dead, lifeless, and useless.
Assumption #1: What God reveals is primarily informational and propositional. This assumption generally goes undetected and uncontested in most people’s minds. I would even say that a great portion of the last generation of American evangelicals spent a great deal of time and energy fighting to establish this fact in the minds of seminarians. The problem with this notion of revelation is that it leads to a theology that is primarily concerned with the collection of “biblical data” and the incorporation thereby into a “system” of doctrine. So there are certain biblical facts that are to be read directly out of the biblical text, put together with other facts on the same topic, and synthesized into some type of propositional teaching. For example, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” becomes demythologized into a proposition: “God guides and provides for his people,” then gets matched with other verses saying the same thing, and then the proposition is taught to people as almost a more raw, real form of revelation than any of the texts themselves! In some ways, this method has so much in common with Bultmann that it is quite comical.
Assumption #2: God’s revelation is inseparable from the very words of Scripture. This is obviously an assumption that is very closely tied to the assumption above. In and of itself, this is quite ironic though, because it seems as if you held to Ass. #2, you would tend to shy away what Ass. #1 does when it turns the actual words of God into a supra-historical, timeless proposition or principle. However, these two beliefs or assumptions are able to coexist and cooperate nicely because of a third and final belief about what revelation is.
Assumption #3: Revelation becomes revelation when the human mind grasps or assents to a supra-historical proposition that is embedded in the text (regardless of the genre). The event of revelation happens when someone reads the Bible, grapples with it cognitively, and turns what is written into some sort of proposition about God, an ethical imperative, or perhaps just a normative recording of some past believer’s experience of God.
How do the above notions of God’s revelation turn theology into something boring, useless, irrelevant, or perhaps even dangerous? It’s simple, really. They turn the task of theology into the building up of a body of theological (philosophical) knowledge that is either rationalized or left standing as paradoxical. This body of “truths” is then looked to as the end-goal of God’s revelatory actions. So if the Christian can come to some type of embrace and assent of these truths, their life will be transformed. As we all know, however, the mere assent to proposition doesn’t mean that a person has been conformed into the image of Jesus Christ at all. Beyond that, the mere assent to propositions doesn’t equate with biblical, saving faith, does it? Given this version of theology, I can see why many would shy away and want nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, those who abandon this version of theology often resort to sheer pragmatism, moralism, or an over-emphasis on experience. As if we could ignore the issue and move the locus of revelation to the emotions!
Now, before I’m whisked away to Colorado Springs and burned at the evangelical stake, let me say that I’m not denying the propositional element of revelation. I believe that there are certain things about God’s nature, his plan, and our salvation revealed in Scripture. To deny this would be to abandon Scripture altogether. Further, I am not denying the Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura, nor am I denying the inspiration of Scripture. These are vital beliefs that, when abandoned, cause the whole task of theology to implode upon itself. So I am not trying to adolescently antagonize my own tribe or push the envelope theologically. I’m trying to bring to the fore one of the central teachings of Scripture and allow this teaching to save theology from itself. This teaching is simply this: Jesus Christ is the Word of God, the object of revelation.
To put this another way, what God primarily reveals to his church is not propositions, not historical schemes for the future, or emotional experiences, but rather God reveals Himself. God the Father reveals Himself in Jesus Christ through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Revelation–while having propositions that can be made about it, emotions that can be generated in response to it, and historical ramifications that result because of it–is primarily personal. Revelation is what happens when God shows up and reveals himself.
Now, how does this concept of revelation rescue theology? First of all, it takes the burden off of theology. Theology no longer has to do the work of cramming the totality of revelation into human concepts (what a silly task, anyways!). Second, it gives room to the Holy Spirit to be the primary mover in the church. In the broken scheme of proposition-as-revelation, the Holy Spirit was (for all intents and purposes) done with its work when Scripture was done being written, or perhaps when Scripture was authoritatively canonized. In the God-as-revelation scheme, the Holy Spirit is what Karl Barth calls “the subjective side of revelation,” actively responsible for making the event (!) of revelation happen every time the Scriptures are preached or read, or when the Lord’s Supper is taken, or when baptism is administered. Finally, and most importantly in my mind for the future of theology, the notion of God-as-revelation allows theology to be freed up for its proper task: to serve as an auxiliary science to the proclamation of the church. If God “shows up” when his word is preached, theology is no longer burdened with the work that properly belongs to the Holy Spirit. Instead, theology and theologians can turn their sights to the proclamation and ministries of the church and they can do what Barth calls “critical reflection.” God has intimately tied his presence to His Word (Jesus Christ), which is revealed through His Word (Scripture), which is delivered through His Word in the church (preaching primarily, and other church ministry as well). So the church’s task is faithfulness to this three-fold Word. Theology then, becomes the “critical reflection” or evaluative tool of the church. Is she faithful to her Lord? That is the question theology must ask every day. The answer to this question will require intense exegesis and deep understanding of the text, a constant self-doubt in light of our sinfulness, a discerning of the lingua franca of culture, a willingness to learn from those who have gone before, and most of all a reliance on the Spirit’s work of illumination.
When we construe revelation as personal it shifts our view of the role and task of theology, thus rescuing theology and theologian from irrelevance. Further, if the evangelical church and her churchmen could welcome this type of theology back into the fellowship, a new prophetic voice would be present that could ultimately rescue the church from thinking she is being faithful when in reality she may be playing the whore.