Against Theology

The following is an extract from chapter 2 of my Against Christianity (Canon Press, 2003).  You can get a 30% discount on the book by entering LEITREADER during checkout at www.canonpress.com/AgainstChristianity

The Bible never mentions theology. It does not preach theology, nor does it encourage us to preach theology. Paul did not preach theology, nor did any of the other apostles. During the centuries when the church was strong and vibrant, she did not preach theology either. Theology is an invention of biblical scholars, theologians, and politicians, and one of its chief effects is to keep Christians and the church in their proper, marginal, place. Theology is gnostic, and the church firmly rejected gnosticism from her earliest days.

There are two problems with theology, one of form and one of content.

Formally, the Bible is not a “theology text” or a “catechism” that arranges doctrines in a systematic order. Paul’s epistles have often been treated as mini-textbooks, but they are manifestly not. They are epistles, encyclicals, addressing specific issues in the churches. Paul was not a university theologian calmly writing from a safe haven above the fray. Like the Lord he served, Paul entered the fray. He taught truths about God, but they were taught in the context of conflict and deployed in the form of weaponry.

Form cannot be stripped away without changing content, and when Paul’s various statements on, say, justification, are removed from the epistolary and ecclesiastical context and organized into a calm and systematic and erudite “doctrine,” they become something different from what Paul taught. The Bible is preaching and prophecy, not theology.

With regard to content: Theology frequently aims to deal not with the specifics of historical events, but with “timeless truths” of doctrine.[1] But the content of Scripture almost wholly consists of records of historical events, commentary on events in prophecy and epistle, celebration and memorial of events in Psalms, and, occasionally, reflection on the constants of life in the form of Proverbs. Much of the treatment of historical events takes the form of address to the community of Israel, address that includes both invitation and rebuke.

Further, theology is often conceived as a theoretical science, which can, at some secondary moment, be “applied” to practical life. Theology is theory, and the process of “application” serves as a bridge to connect it to the practical lives of Christians and the church. Heidegger better captured the flavor of Christian teaching when he wrote that “every theological statement and concept addresses itself in its very content to the faith-full existence of the individual in the community.”[2]

When I teach that the persons of the Trinity live in eternal perichoretic unity, I am not merely making an ontological, first-order claim about the nature of reality — though I am doing that. I am not teaching a “timeless truth” that has to be “applied” to the ever shifting realities of an historical community. Rather, I teach about the Trinity as a way of regulating the language and practice of the church, especially her language and practice in worship.[3] Properly, all teaching is application.

***

Consider “theology proper,” the doctrine of God. Does the Bible give us “timeless truths” about God?

In a sense, Yes: God is eternally a Trinity, eternally righteous and holy and just and true.

In an important sense, No: We know God as eternally Triune because the Father sent the Son who with the Father has poured out the Spirit, and this all happened in history. We know God is righteous and holy and just and true because He has spoken (in time) and because He has acted (in history).

Even theology proper does not deal with purely “timeless” realities.

And how can a “doctrine of the atonement” be formulated as a set of “timeless truths”?

***

Theology is a product of Christianity, and aids in its entrenchment. If theology deals with “timeless truths,” then all the temporal things we encounter in life are outside the range of theology.

But everything we encounter in life is temporal.

Therefore, all life is outside of theology.

All that remains within the realm of theology are (perhaps) ecstatic and “timeless” encounters of the soul with God, God with the soul. Theology keeps Christian teaching at the margins, and ensures that other voices, other languages, other words shape the world of temporalities. Politics is left to politicians, economics to economists, sociology to sociologists, history to historians, philosophy to madmen.

Theology ensures that Christians have nothing to say about nearly everything.

***

Practical theology departments at seminaries do not make theology more practical. They ensure that theology, outside PT departments, will remain impractical, that it will remain theology.

Practical theology ensures that life with remain outside theology.

Practical theology ensures that the secular remains secular.

Practical theology ensures that the church will remain in the grip of Christianity.

***

Theology is bad enough, but modern theology is theology cultivated into idolatry. Bowing before science, social science, or philosophy, modern theology has adjusted its distinctive language and insight to conform to the common sense of modernity. Metaphysics or evolutionary science or liberal political theory or whatever determines in advance what can be true of God and His ways.

Heidegger again may be cited as a prophet from among the Gentiles: For modern theology, “the deity can come into philosophy only insofar as philosophy, of its own accord and by its own nature, requires and determines that and how the deity enters into it.”[4] This is suicide for theologians.

Before it begins to listen to God’s word, modern theology has already decided what that word can and cannot say. This is not only suicide. As Barth discerned, it is disobedience.

***

Theology is a specialized, professional language, often employing obscure (Latin and Greek) terms that are never used by anyone but theologians, as if theologians live in and talk about a different world from the one mortals inhabit.

Theology functions sociologically like other professional languages — to keep people out and to help the members of the guild to identify one another.

Whereas the Bible talks about trees and stars, about donkeys and barren women, about kings and queens and carpenters.

Theology tells us that God is eternal and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.

The Bible tells us that God relents because He is God (Joel 2:13-14), that God is “shrewd with the shrewd” (Ps. 18:25-29) that He rejoices over us with shouting (Zeph. 3:14-20), that He is an eternal whirlwind of Triune communion and love.

***

Theology is a “Victorian” enterprise, neoclassically bright and neat and clean, nothing out of place.

Whereas the Bible talks about hair, blood, sweat, entrails, menstruation and genital emissions.

***

Here’s an experiment you can do at any theological library. You even have my permission to try this at home.

Step 1: Check the indexes of any theologian you choose for any of the words mentioned in the section 9 above. (Augustine does not count. Augustine’s theology is as big as reality, or bigger.)

Step 2: Check the Bible concordance for the same words.

Step 3: Ponder these questions: Do theologians talk about the world the same way the Bible does? Do theologians talk about the same world the Bible does?

 

     [1]Evangelical theologian Millard J. Erickson makes this explicit: “Doctrine deals with general or timeless truths about God and the rest of reality” (Introducing Christian Doctrine [2d ed.; ed. L. Arnold Hustad; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), p. 16.

     [2]Quoted in Merold Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001), p. 16. In spite of Westphal’s spirited defense of Heidegger, I remain convinced that Heidegger is fully modern, still confining theology to an “ontic” status that can be corrected by the science of being, philosophy.

     [3]I am echoing the well-known claims of George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine. Christian doctrine, however, is not only a matter of regulating the cultural-linguistic practice of the church; that is one element, but the creeds also claim to be speaking about what is so, and the cultural-linguistic practice of the church should be regulated by what is so. Lindbeck’s definition of the purpose of doctrine does, however, have the salutary effect of eliminating any separation of theory and application.

     [4]Quoted in Westphal, Overcoming Onto-theology, pp. 11-12.


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