Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Theology and the Church.

Massive disclaimer: This entire post contains genuine and sincere questions. I'd like answers.

Ever since I started studying theology, I hear all the time that theology must be for the Church. This was presented as a possible answer to my post below about theology and the academy. If theology is not "for the Church", then it is meaningless, self-indulgent, irrelevant, etc. Most with whom I have spoken who express such opinions think that theology disattached from the life and concerns of the Church would prefer silence to such selfish speech about God. What could be worse than one who claims to speak about God and only gives a damn about their own career ambitions? What kind of God could that person possibly be witnessing to if that God clearly has no conditioning upon that person's concerns?

I think I understand what people mean by this sentiment. And yet, I don't. What does it mean to say that theology is "for the Church" and "by the Church"? What do we mean when we say the word "Church"? Are we talking about our particular denomination, sect of Christianity, or the one holy, catholic, apostolic church? Does theology that is "for the Church" have concerns for those "outside" the Church, or would we prefer to offer less strict dichotomies between the Church (and "Christianity" for that matter) and the world (so that there is no "outside")? Is theology that is "for the Church" mean anyone can read it? Does it mean we teach Sunday school? Does it mean that we hand out free copies of our work?

Sometimes I think that those who say that theology should be "for the Church", especially those who actually do formal academic theology, only say so because they feel guilty saying anything else. But is the only positive reason for saying that theology is "for the Church" the fact that it is some kind of lip-service shield of sorts that protects you from looking like a complete fool? Nothing could be worse than admitting you don't do theology "for the Church." So if it is so important, why doesn't anyone really talk about what that phrase might actually mean? I want theology to be "for the Church". I really do.

Even more, if theology is "for the Church" then who is the Church for? Is it for itself? Is it for the poor? Is it for all sinners? And if the Church was actually defined (both in confession and action) in my own dearest hopes as those who find solidarity with the least of those in society then how should the questions we ask in theology be informed by this task?

Simply put, I have no idea what people mean when they say that theology should be "for the Church". I don't even really know what the word "Church" should mean.

That might be the entire problem.


david driedger said...

Thanks for putting this out there. I have been in the midst of my own significant throes in terms of theology and practice. I move in couple of directions in response to this post.
First, I appreciated reading through Kierkegaard last year particularly as it 'culminated' on his attack of official Christianity. One of the most succinct lines in his articles was his question and response,
What do I want?
One significant move is to be at least a little more descriptively 'honest' (yes that is a difficult term). I have de-spiritualized much of my ordination process and vocation as a pastor. Not that I deny the spirit of these things but that I recognize the very material motivations that accompany these things. I likely would not be a pastor if I did not need the money (though I suspect I would be involved in the church). And I may not stay a pastor depending on need and circumstance. There is still too much pious posturing around many theological questions and engagements.
The other direction I move in is reflecting on how my national denominational body (Mennonite Church Canada) is entering, again, into the question of human sexuality (which of course means facing the question of the church and non-straight folk). I feel like I have something theological to say in this conversation that, in my mind, would greatly impact which way we as a national body will move.
To respond to your last question I would say that theology is the primary way that I engage the world, this engagement includes the formative influence and responsibility of the church.

Anonymous said...

I think you (somewhat sarcastically?) name the issue at stake in the first paragraph - the concern that theology will become a "life of the mind" project disconnected from the lived experiences of the church. But then I wonder if that's actually just called Philosophy of God, or something like that.

Anyway. By "the Church" my impression (or at least for me) this is a broad reference to the body of Christ, a la Ephesians 4 or 1 Cor 10. So the collective body of believers, that takes particular social form in the denominations and individuals you are about the work of bringing God's kingdom. I don't think we say "for Christianity" because that is too removed from the actual content of what is "supposed" to be explored. I'm imagining this denominationally (like what Krister Stendhal did to address historic anti-Semitic theology in Lutheranism) and pastorally (Yoder's commitment only to write about specific issues brought to him by specific Christian groups). I think "theology for the Church" also means addressing issues that might seem absurd to those without certain doctrinal commitments. Like who is going to give a rip about disability in the resurrected body if they don't think there is such a thing as a resurrected body?

And "for the Church" seems like it must include a missional confession. To do good theology we need those outside the church to interrogate the church where it has participated in violence and oppression. And we remember that the Gospel's announcement is to invite people to participation in God's kingdom. So I don't think *most* people mean "theology for the Church" as a boundary marker but as a description over against disembodied theory.

Kevin Davis said...

I'll give you a short answer. This whole phenomenon of "theology for the Church" (a good phenomenon) is a reaction (a good reaction) to theology that was "for the academy." Whatever else it may and should mean, that is the historical point of reference. It is basically the neo-orthodox refrain that theology has its own intrinsic ground in God, not in man, and thereby in God's revelation, not historical science or philosophy. So, we find this emphasis on "theology for the Church" in Brunner, Barth, the "Yale School," nouvelle theologie (de Lubac, von B, Ratzinger), and such. The Church is the locus of revelation, so the issue of denominations and polity is not the point. It seems rather straightforward: the how and why this emphasis developed.

mw said...

Briefly, my vantage point:

I think doing theology for the church is an acknowledgment of one's self. I don't know of any theologian who came to theology without also coming through some church or being somehow shaped by members of a church community (others can enlighten me...). I am a theologian; I am a member of the church; my local church, and the churches of which I've been a member, have profoundly shaped my sense of myself as a theologian and how I imagine myself in those communities and therefore how I imagine such communities (of whatever denomination) can be meaningful to others. "Let the only debt that remains outstanding among you be the continuing debt to love one another."

Also, I do not think the people in the church are different than the people who wouldn't say they are 'in the church'. But to say I do theology for the church means I do theology for the nurture and strengthening and correction of communities that center their identity on an ancient faith because they believe that faith carries some basic insight into our humanity. I am a part of this community, so to say I do theology for the church also means I do theology for myself; and in doing it for myself, I do it for all those I love -- whether they would consider themselves in the church or not. In this way, the theological task becomes a mode of loving neighbor as self and loving God.

Adam said...

When I say that theology needs to be done for the church, I mean that there should be some value identified in the work that the church broadly would benefit from. That is entirely too broad. So I would also say that you need to be in conversation with the church. That does not mean you need to write for some abstract person that is not theologically trained. But I do think you should make an effort to communicate theology with people outside the general academy.

For instance a friend of mine is a Hebrew prof. He tries to teach a general Old Testament or specific bible class at least once a year so that he stays in conversation with people at his church. We also go backpacking with a group of about six guys. We have started intentionally reading and discussing some theological topic on our backpacking trip. We are not uneducated (I have an MDiv, another guy is a missionary in France and working on an MDiv, all of us went to a christian college and have more than average theology background). But that discussion often forces my Hebrew prof friend to think of different ways of looking at things and different ways of communicating because we have a range of theological positions, we trust one another and push back (sometime very hard) against one another's ideas.

I also mean by 'for the church' that I believe that the local church is where spiritual growth and discipleship occur. If you have a chance Eugene Peterson's Practice Resurrection is a good book that has helped shape my view of why the local church should be the center of spiritual growth and discipleship. That does not mean I minimize the academy as important, but that as important as the academy is, academy theologians need to work hard to be part of a local church. You will often be smarter and MUCH more theologically trained that the clergy of the church. Some pastors will be quite intimidated by this and try to isolate you (I would sugget finding another church if this is the case.)

I also think that the academy has lost some of its pastor/theologian history. While I was working on my MDiv at Univ of Chicago only two of the staff had ever served as a pastor. And Martin Marty had not been a pastor for nearly 40 years when I had him. And the adjunct prof that taught pastoral care, preaching and supervised the pastoral internships was replaced by another adjunct that had a PhD, but had never served as a full time pastor. I did not have her for any classes, so she may have been wonderful. But because that was also the year Martin Marty officially retired that left an MDiv program with only the Dean of the Chapel that had any pastoral experience and she did not teach any of the classes required by the MDiv program.

I have had an occasionally strained relationship with local churches. My father, three uncles, an aunt, a brother and grandfather are all pastors. I worked for about 7 years for a denomination until they laid me off because of money problems that were a result of bad management. I have some real theological issues with my current church (ordination of women is a large one). But I still try to serve how I can (occasionally a bit subversively) and my commitment to the church is a high priority in my life.

You have to work out what "for the church" means in your life. But I think it is something that needs to be intentionally worked out in the life of every theologian. And it needs to be re-addressed occasionally.

Adam said...

Sorry, this is so long. Two last thoughts. Sometimes serving the church means changing diapers, cleaning toilets or making snacks for VBS and not teaching or thinking theologically.

Also, while there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting paid and seeking out tenure or good reviews for your latest book, I do think that viewing your theological work as a calling and a vocation is important.

Mike Radcliffe said...

You don't know me, but I was linked to a blog post of yours on Barth and the Pastorate by a friend and have been following this blog since then. I am an Mdiv student at an Anglican seminary near Pittsburgh, where all of our training is explicitly "for the church" (so much so that we are not "Trinity Anglican Seminary" but "Trinity School for Ministry").

Your questions remind me of a paper presentation I sat through a couple of years ago at Wheaton College where Richard Hays slammed N.T. Wright for epistemological naivete and conducting his historical/exegetical/theological project so closely in dialogue with the Jesus Seminar. Wright was following Tillich, not Barth, and so on. And I'm inclined to agree with Hays in that, yes, Christian theology is for and by the church in that it's true ends must ever be love of God and love of neighbor (which imply koinonia and mission, etc). I even dedicated a lengthy two-part
blog post to working out my own thoughts on this question.

I think though, however much the church needs theologians measuring it against the witness of Scripture (as Barth would have it), that doesn't mean the academy doesn't equally need active witnesses to Christ. I guess I'm saying that it seems like a question of vocation: if the academic world, even with all its petty competition, is God's place for you, if you can be a redemptive presence there, then that sounds fantastic. I know that most of my colleagues in seminary would be of absolutely no use to that world. But that doesn't mean there aren't people out there--yourself?--whom God has given the academy to as their vocation.

Returning to Wright, I'm also reminded of the first talk I ever heard him give. It was called "Jesus as the World's True Light" and he was emphasizing that Christian vocation had to do with being and doing for the world what Christ was and did for Israel. He asked (speaking to graduate students and staff from InterVarsity) people to consider where they found tension, pain and brokenness within their disciplines and fields and charged them to be praying, Christ-bearing presences in those places. I see no reason why a follower of Christ couldn't legitimately be his vector in a place as troubled as the academy, although it seems the calling would imply a variety of crosses to bear.

Kait Dugan said...

Hey all - thanks so much for your deeply thoughtful and helpful comments. I can't tell you how encouraging it has been to receive such great feedback. I've been too tied up this week to spend the hours it would take to respond to all these lengthy comments. But I will try my best to do so this weekend. I just didn't want you thinking I was ignoring you! Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

More anonymous blathering, including bad grammer and punktuat!on missteaks. Harsh comment. harsh comment. Take that! HA!

Mike Radcliffe said...


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