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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