Some days I feel like calling for an end to all theological discussion. I hate the way that theology spirals into nasty battles about whose got the corner market on truth.
When I told my co-workers at a a steel manufacturing warehouse that I was quitting to study theology the response I got was, “What is theology?” Literally theology means, “words about God” from the Greek ‘Theos‘ (God) and ‘Logos‘ (words). But is that enough? I believe that it isn’t. The trouble is that when theology is understood as words about God our debates quickly degenerate into a battle of words. We just end up spilling ink and blood over the meanings and ideas. We argue about what one dead white man said over another, walk out the door and don’t change a thing. We feel self righteous that we have successfully defended “the truth” against the “other.”
Here’s the thing. Theology is not our words about God. Theology is our convictions. Convictions are the things that we believe deeply and are critical to our identity. Convictions are the thing that shapes the way we live in the world.
James McClendon writes that theology is the discovery, understanding, articulation, and clarification of the convictions of a convictional community (in this case, the Christian church), including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to other fields of knowledge (1).
Convictions is a big word. They are central to our identity, even if we do not know what they are until they are challenged. For this reason McClendon challenges us to search out what our convictions are, and discover them.
After we discover our convictions we then need to learn how to understand how our convictions fit together.
Once we are aware of our convictions we also need to articulate them (e.g. “I believe that Jesus is fully God”). Convictions are of no use, if we are unable to speak them in a way that people around us can understand what they are and why they are important.
Finally, is the process of clarification. Perhaps in the process of understanding and articulation we will find that our theology of prayer and theology of God’s sovereignty are like (to use Gonzalez’s term) hot ice cream. We may discover that we cannot keep our theological system the way we thought we could because of new information that has come to light, or a contradiction in the way that things are.
This clarification will always cause discomfort and pain. We do not easily give up our convictions. So we must decide. Will I be open to reworking my theology? Will I return to the Scriptures, the community, the tradition and see if or how my convictions need to change?
Or will I retreat and close my eyes and ears to the challenges to my conviction? Will I lash out at those who question the validity of my convictions? Will I perpetuate a cycle of angry blogs and criticism of those who think differently, because something that has been said challenges what I hold as a core conviction.
Convictions are more than intellectual assent. This, I believe, is why theological debates can degenerate so quickly. Not everything we believe about God is a conviction. There are many beliefs about God that we are willing to take a new look at the evidence and change.
Convictions though, those are protected. Convictions shape the way we live, they drive our evangelism, our prayer, our trust in God. When our convictions are challenged it is natural to respond quickly and angrily. Something essential to our life of faith is being challenged.
Here is where I land. There can be no end to theological discussion. This blog is evidence of the importance of it. Here we have people from all over the world joining together to discuss and debate with each other about the most important subject/object we can know, the person of God.
We need each other to sharpen us. We need each other to challenge our convictions.
I hope though, that we will realize that this is what we are doing. We are poking holes in each others deeply held beliefs, the beliefs that have shaped the way that we understand God’s activity and relationship with us. So my prayer, hope and encouragement to all of us bloggers is twofold.
First, be sensitive to the way in which we engage each other, since we are going way beyond just words, to people’s core beliefs. There is great discomfort in being challenged to rethink things that you have always believed. Secondly, be open to having people challenge your convictions. If our first response is to get angry, defensive, self-righteous, then maybe we need to stop for a moment and enter the process of discovery. This does not mean that our conviction must change. That is to be discovered in our community as we understand, articulate, and clarify our conviction.
I promise that the reworking of our convictions will be painful. But convictions shape how we live in ways that intellectual assent never will, and so we need to be open to the reality that each of us has convictions that the Holy Spirit would like to mold and change.
Thanks to my good friend Nathan McCorkindale for this great article.
1) James McClendon Ethics, 22.