How is Theology Done?

How is Theology Done? August 8, 2012

How does one “do” theology? Think of how theology comes to us… sometimes it is done by constructing an entire  theology, as one finds in Origen, more or less in Augustine, but especially in Aquinas and then Calvin and the into the Protestant scholastics and then to our times: Barth, Pannenberg, Moltmann, Jenson, etc.. What one does is put it all together, and by “it” I mean the major topics. (But observe that the major topics in theology have been connected to the themes of soteriology, dropping out one important theme after another in biblical theology. I digress.)

But there is another way theology has been done, mostly through more occasional writings — and here I think especially of Luther and Wesley. Some theologians, of course, have been theology professors and have only written on topics they want to write about. This is not quite the same as Luther and Wesley, who I believe theologized in pastoral contexts.

The apostle Paul did theology the way we find in Luther and Wesley. In spite of what one sometimes hears, Romans is not systematic theology but theologizing about a particular context (how to include Gentiles and Jews in one family of God).

What happens to theology when it is distanced or extracted from pastoral, missional contexts and then re-contextualized into more philosophical or ecclesial debates?

When it comes to our attempting to put the theology of someone like Paul together there are lots of challenges, and debates are heated. Hence, the number of “theologies” of Paul. And it is commonly said one can find most anything in Luther because of the way he did theology, and it is not at all hard to get Wesley enlisted on many fronts. That is why we all need the new series Thomas Oden is producing called John Wesley’s Teachings, which is designed to be four volumes: God and Providence, Christ and Salvation, Pastoral Theology, and Ethics and Society.

Oden, a specialist on Wesley and who stands at the top of the mountain of his career writing on the orthodox consensus in theology, is doing the nearly impossible: he’s “systematizing” Wesley so that we will all have the principal statements of Wesley on the major topics of systematic theology.  I’ve skimmed through two of these volumes, I value what they will do for my own consultation of Wesley (who has been an enigma to me because his ideas are hard to access — scattered as they are all over his works) because we have an expert’s synopsis of Wesley’s ideas in his Wesley’s own words. This is a godsend!

There were four major streams to the Reformation (not two): Lutheran, Reformed (Calvin), Anabaptism (very pastoral, but mostly Protestant with little concern for Reformation theology debates), and Wesleyanism. Wesley was a thoroughgoing Protestant when it came to justification, but he had little sympathy for some of the separations (say between justification and sanctification) one found among the Reformed. So these volumes will give immediate access to the major post Reformation spiritual revival.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of this is that theologians will no longer be able to ignore Wesley, which I find to be very common even among good theologians. Wesley’s ideas are hard to access. No longer.

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  • Andrew Butler

    Looks very useful indeed. Thank you for mentioning this.

  • James Petticrew

    Although Wesleyanism is Protestant I am not sure historically it would be accurate to say it was part of the Reformation as a historical event. Wesley lived nearly 200 years after Luther and his theology was developed in part in response to the Calvinism and Deism of the Church of his day rather than Catholicism.

    Wesley told people who wanted to understand the theology of the Methodists to read their hymn book and listen to the stories of their people.

  • Rick

    Oden continues to be a blessing to the church.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Tom Oden has been an interesting scholar through the years (read his “After Modernity” for where he went from a very liberal theology back to the Fathers and early church teachings). Oden was so infuential on me that I still use “paleo-orthodox” as my email descriptor. Oden is also doing so incredible work on African Christian theology.

    I have a Wesleyan minister friend who wants me to buy these two volumes so that he can borrow them from me 🙂 I have so many things I am reading at the moment, I am not sure when I wil get to Oden? Speaking of how theology should be done, has anyone noticed the “Round table discussion with Mike Licona” on Patheos? Here is one of the best scholars on the Ressurection up there with N. T. Wright and he like going through heresy trials. Can Evangelical theologians and Seminaries quit trying to be self-appointed “truth squads” for everyone else?

  • Scott Gay

    Wesleyans have always held that sanctification is a crisis and a process. It is not a crisis, it is not a process, it is not both a crisis and a process held in loose conjunction. It is not a series of crises unrelated to one another as in Oberlin( or strictly existentialist interpretation). The closest I’ve seen an “outsider” come is Hartshorne’s being and becoming( process Christology today however seems to result in an adoptionism or else a neo-Apollinarianism). Wesley’s view steered between legalism and situationism. It was and is more dynamic than static.

  • Wesley is also helpful in bridging the divide between East and West. He was extremely influenced by the early church Fathers and by a desert monastic Macarius (who we now call pseudo-Macarius). His conception of theology was in many ways taking Eastern Christian ideas and putting them into Western Christian language. Theosis becomes sanctification, for instance. There’s definitely distinctions made along the way but it’s interesting to read Wesley through the lens of the early and Eastern church, something that Oden (not related) does so well–having edited the marvelous commentary series of the ancient Fathers.

    Moltmann does mention how important his own pastoral work was in developing his theology. After his PhD he went to work as a parish minister, working with farmers and country folk for a number of years before working in a university. While his theology definitely is academic there definitely is a consistent interest in having integrity with those lived experiences, something that helps make his theology critiqued much the way Wesley was–not systematic enough, not consistent enough, too much oriented towards experiences.

    I often wonder what theology would have become had Bonhoeffer lived. We were left with Barth–who though marvelous and vitally interested in the church, really helped continue theology’s trajectory away from common experiences of faith. Bonhoeffer, with his passion for community, would have been a great counterbalance and defining force for Germany and beyond.

    Ah, but we still have Wesley, that brand plucked from the fire.

  • Scott Gay

    I really like the progression of Patrick Oden’s post at 8:44am 8/8/12. His bridge of east and west, Moltmann’s theology of hope(“the principle of hope is the revolutionary openness to the future……a wiki approach if I’m not misunderstood), and then a neo-orthodoxy( yes Barth’s trajectory away and the need for a passion for a community). Contemporarily, I don’t even know the dude, but I’m saying Dave Workman shows evidence of this trajectory that Patrick Oden is expressing in “The Outward Focused Life”.

  • Scot,

    Thanks for this, I had not seen this project. I too have struggled with Wesley. He is like Edwards in that way, but with less “major” works to act as poles to construct his theology. The work is already on my wishlist! In terms of the Reformed, I’m not sure it is that easy. Calvin didn’t write a systematic theology, that is not what the Institutes are. Calvin’s great project, in his own mind, was his commentaries. Because he didn’t want to keep re-addressing the same topics over and over in his commentaries, he wrote the Institutes. The Institutes, in a way, is a robust “rule of faith” for reading his commentaries and therefore Scripture. It was his pastoral inclinations that guided that project.

    It strikes me that very few theologians in history actually fall into the category of constructing a “here is all is” kind of theology. I don’t think Barth can be read that way. In line with his own thought, if he had lived to finish the Dogmatics he probably would have just started over. Nonetheless, in my mind, you are hitting on the right issue. The question is not the form theology takes, but the posture of the theologian in relation to the church and her life. Protestants need to, in my mind, once again expect that theologians are church-people, and not simply academics.

  • Bev Mitchell

    What great news, thank you. Elmer Colyer (“How to Read T. F. Torrance”) is working on a book on Wesley’s theology as well. Interestingly, but not really surprising, he says that he is finding many parallels between Wesley and Torrance. Interesting times for reasonable theology.

  • Dear Scott, your readers mıght do well to check out the works of THomas Oden on Amazon ( Pastoral studıes, Wesleyan and also a massıve systematıc theology. He also edıted commentarıes heavıly ınfluenced by the early Church Fathers) . As I am sure you know hıs theologıcal hıstory ıs very ınterestıng where he went from lıberal theology to later puttıng more weıght on the Church Fathers ınterpretatıon of Scrıpture. Though he does not claım to be an Armınıan, Roger Olsen ( an unashamed Armınıan hımself) claıms that he ıs. The fact that both Wesley and later Oden promoted the Church Fathers ınterpretatıon ıt ıs not surpısıng that they came to an Armınıan posıtıon. You may also fınd ınterestıng Roger Olson’s Armınıan Theology: Myths and Realıtıes whıch I found both ınformatıve and enjoyable to read.