The spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.
(Samuel Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner)
This is a commissioning of sorts—of the ship Vulnerable Theology—and with all commissionings and commencements, it includes an unbearably long charge (it is a manifesto of sorts, as much as a blog can be a manifesto). The title Vulnerable Theology got mixed reviews. Although I can’t come up with a word that better captures a full theology than vulnerable, I get why it would be a turn-off. Christian blogging has become today a skill in self-congratulatory agonistisism. “I’m just a wanderer figuring it all out—I don’t really know what’s true or not about Christianity, but I do know that H&M is having a sale this weekend.” And if it’s not that, it’s a race to align oneself with the strongest dog pack, hunting the sentimental and the fringe self-congratulators. A swing between tough and tender, both fulfilling their own purpose, one highlighting the historic roots of orthodoxy, the other highlighting orthodoxy’s abuses and implausibilities. Self-congratulating vulnerability is now recognizably unoriginal, and snobbish orthodoxy is intuitively impractical. Neither are creative, or very compelling to those outside their own packs. Vulnerable theology will earn in contrast, I hope, this definition:
Vulnerable theology proactively displays the theologian’s own weaknesses, to the end of more excellently testifying to Christ and the certainties he provides.
When I was sixteen, I gave my grandfather’s eulogy, and spoke on 2 Cor. 12:9, in which Paul recounts Christ’s words to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) My grandfather—Grandpa Jack—he was an angry man for much of his early life, so I heard. I’m the same way. My dad (also an angry man) ran away many times as a kid, and didn’t speak to him for decades (until I was born). Their relationship reminds me of that between conservative and progressive Christianity today. But by the time I knew him, Grandpa Jack was a mellow old man, who had been softened by suffering, and the systematic loss of his own family due to the consequences of his youthful anger. He was the sweetest man I knew. And he was a devout Christian. And as he leaned into the weakness which magnified Christ in his old age, death took him. He was a man of limits. And I am unconvinced that any of us are very different.
Theology at its best reflects the softness that characterized his attitude and life—surrendering power for the sake of love. Pursuing self-knowledge in order to more wisely repent, and love others well—to prize Christ above all things, even while having a collection of carnival prizes from a life of sin, learning to leave them behind one at a time. So, I hope, by explaining ways that our Christian theology is weak and limited, we might be able to highlight the ways in which theological certainty and strength thrive—and by God’s grace, learn to deal with weakness, failure, and disagreement better in our evangelical culture (which gives us a million theologized reasons to be ruthless and cruel in the most subtle and shocking ways).
Here are fifteen distinctives of a genuinely vulnerable theology (and perhaps even fifteen ways in which excellent theology is inescapably vulnerable).
1. Biblical: Theology should be vulnerable to the critique of Scripture. “For what does Scripture say?” (Rom. 4:3) The Bible is “the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined” (WCF 1.10). The relativist quip, “That’s your interpretation,” confuses the means of transferring truth for its obstacle. Marcus Aurelius reminds us, “The obstacle is the way.” John Calvin gives us an apt reminder for all who seek to build a worthy vulnerable theology today:
“Those who think the authority of the Word is dragged down by the baseness of the men called to teach it disclose their own ungratefulness. For, among the many excellent gifts with which God has adorned the human race, it is a singular privilege that he deigns to consecrate to himself the mouths and tongues of men in order that his voice may resound in them.” (John Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.5).
The theology of which we speak, then, is not that theology articulated in revelation, but human theology—the theology which is professed by the church. Herman Bavinck distinguishes between revealed theology (principia fidei) and human articles of theology (articuli fidei) (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:109). Articuli fidei is that theology which is vulnerable in all the ways we mention here.
2. Honest: Theology should be honest about its weakness by nature. Jürgen Moltmann tells us, “Every human life has its limitations, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses. We are born needy, and we die helpless” (Jürgen Moltmann, “Liberate Yourselves by Accepting One Another,” Human Disability and the Service of God, 110). Of course, we are commanded, “Be strong and courageous” (Josh. 1:9). But the reason for being strong is, “the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” We are not marked by strength in this age, but by weakness: “God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). And yet, vulnerability is not merely weakness. It is openness—whether by our choice or not, a weakness that is hidden and fortified is not genuine vulnerability. For a theology to be vulnerable (and thus genuine), it requires honesty about weakness—honesty to self, neighbor, and God. Anything else is hiding in the shadows.
3. God-Centered: Theology is vulnerable to critique by God. “All men are either in covenant with Satan or in covenant with God” (Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 68). Whether or not we accept this truth will determine how much theology has to say to us—or whether there is much to be said at all. If theology is “the art and science of living well to God” (Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, xiv), then theology is not the philosophy of religion, or the psychology of religion, or metaphysics, or the psychology of “ultimate concerns,” or worldview philosophy. Because God is the subject of theology, he is also the one to whom we are called to be vulnerable. John Owen insisted, “What [a] minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.” That is the essence of theological vulnerability—the ability to be open and truthful toward God and about God. In a handsome turn of events, those who open themselves toward God will be met with a God who is himself vulnerable:
”God also made himself vulnerable and subject to suffering. The other side of the sovereignty of God is the suffering of God himself” (Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 147).
4. Objective: Theology is vulnerable to objective truth. Despite our limits, truth is still an operating category for any vulnerable theologian. If truth is not objective, no claim is ultimately open to critique—backwardly, to the extent that we critique any notion of objectivity, we actually critique genuine vulnerability. And yet, what motivates Christians to make claims that are open to criticism is the offer made by God in his word that we think his thoughts after him: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7); in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).
There is a tension between certainty and discovery in the life of all Christians who know that their faith is an objective claim (and it is). “All believers are fallible in themselves and only infallible with and through him” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics,4:404)Kevin Vanhoozer helps us further: “Theologians, in imitation of Christ, must humble themselves and not retreat to [pietistic] commitment or hide behind ecclesial authority.” (Vanhoozer, First Theology, 367).
5. Autobiographical: Our theology is vulnerable to our own story. The vulnerable theologian will always feel a tug-of-war between what they read in Scripture and what is experienced in life, and that’s not a bad thing.
“The dialectic between narrative and nescience, anthropomorphism and agnosticism, vision and darkness, autobiographical enactment and the suffering that breaks our constructed identity, is constitutive both of Christian religious practice and of the relationships that obtain between the various patterns of theological enquiry in which that practice is critically reflected.” (Nicholas Lash, “Ideology, Metaphor, and Analogy,” 137).
In other words, one’s lived experience must retain some critical power in theology, or else it fails to be honest—it fails to be genuine, to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is not a cherry we place on top of our theology. To the degree that we are rightly vulnerable, we are skillful and truthful theologians. To the extent that our stories inform our theology, it is more honorable, not less.
“Though he [Frodo] had been healed in Rivendell of the knife-stroke, that grim wound had not been without effect. His senses were sharper and more aware of things that could not be seen. One sign of change that he soon had noticed was that he could see more in the dark than any of his companions. . . . He felt the certainty of evil ahead and of evil following; but he said nothing. He gripped tighter on the hilt of his sword and went on doggedly. (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 304–305).
6. Personal: Theology is vulnerable when it is owned internally—when it is claimed, “This faith is mine; I believe it.” That’s a frightening claim, because it is then subject to the torrents of personal emotions and doubts and fears. Again, vulnerability is not a bad thing. At its best, vulnerable theologians are people who publicly claim, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15).
“Christians who don’t know the tension of ‘I believe; help my unbelief’ might not be Christians at all, or at the least they might be very infantile ones. Our faith is one of brutal tensions. Not everyone can express this, but every Christian knows it. We feel it in our guts” (Barnabas Piper, Help My Unbelief, 28).
7. Practical: Theology is vulnerable in that it must be enfleshed, not merely thought. Vanhoozer helps us again: “Doctrines are not simply truths to be stores, shelves, and stacked, but indications and directions to be followed, practiced, and enacted. Christian discipleship is the practice of doing truth, of learning the way of life that is in Jesus Christ.” (Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, xiv). If a concept is only indirectly practical, then it is only indirectly theological. “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15)
8. Embattled: Theology is vulnerable, because all true theology is theology-under-attack (and all truth-speaking theologians are theologians-under-attack). “We experience in all of Satan’s deeds what Christ testifies concerning him, that ‘from the beginning he was a murderer . . . and a liar’ (John 8:44). The devil opposes the truth of God with falsehoods, he obscures light with darkness, he entangles men’s minds in errors, he stirs up hatred, he enkindles contentions and combat, everything to that end that he may overturn in God’s kingdom, and plunge men with himself into eternal death” (John Calvin, Institutes, 1.15.14). And if it’s not the Devil, then it’s your Australian brothers suffering from tall poppy syndrome.
9. Safe: Theology is vulnerable, because it has an obligation to the vulnerable—God has a heart for the vulnerable. “He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy” (Psalm 72:13). More proof of this is that God has a heart for us: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6) Christians, therefore, have an obligation to take into account the large constituency of Christians and otherwise who are victims of abuse—even those who are abused by Christians, and by misuses of orthodox theology. The abused are those who have had their vulnerability presumed upon, misused, monetized, or quantified for the sake of another’s gain. Most horrendously (and more commonly than we suppose), the sexually abused are misunderstood and marginalized in the church—not by mistreatment, but by misinformation. A vulnerable theology will be aware of how ideological abrasiveness—and even confrontation with God himself—can be unsettling and remindful of abuse.
Christians are starting to do helpful work which demonstrates the difficulty of connecting with God after an event of abuse. Andrew Schmutzer explains that abuse “poisons a person against community. It severs relational ligaments connecting the ‘who’ of personhood to the ‘what’ of embodied life. The links to one’s place in community, and the ability to read social interaction, are cut. . . . Post-traumatic symptoms of startle response and emotional volatility can make the victim ashamed of their behavior; and attempts to control these lead to a life of suppression and avoidance” (Andrew Schmutzer, “A Theology of Sexual Abuse,” 800).
God talks about the Christian’s role in this: to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:14). Moreover, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1 ESV). I am writing my dissertation on theology and sexual abuse, and hope to work out some of those more complex theological tensions here on this blog. Quite honestly, the state of the conversation about abuse and trauma in Christianity (and even in popular blogs outside Christianity) lacks informed voices or compelling authorities. The issue is just too messy. But it is very real. And it deserves special attention. To be safe for the vulnerable is first to know that they exist, and second to know what they are.
10. Gendered: Theology is vulnerable to gender biases smuggled in by the theologian. A fully vulnerable theology will be marked by “the theological propositions that maleness and femaleness are theological categories and that therefore sexuality is caught up in the drama of salvation” (Elizabeth Stuart, “The Theological Study of Sexuality,” The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, 21). I am a male, so my maleness will give me certain blind spots as I write. I hope to be as helpful as possible in forward-moving theological dialogue as a male, but this is one area that I am particularly unaware of how my blindspots manifest themselves. Gender and sexuality are theological categories. And so are the biases that those foster, whether for or against reading the pages of Scripture with a “hermeneutic of suspicion”— of course we are suspicious. The abused have a story that has given them good reason to have a suspicious instinct. And the powerful have a good reason to be suspicious of themselves. That is neither a progressive nor a conservative admission—it’s just true that danger lurks in every corner of our interpretive biases, no matter what theological confession we are speaking from, or for.
11. Public: Theology is vulnerable, because it should be public. Once again, vulnerability presupposes openness, and one form of theological openness is its articulation in the form of a confession. Carl Trueman says it best, as usual:
“Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather, they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions that are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique, and those who have private creeds and confessions that are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not, therefore, subject to testing by Scripture to see whether they are true” (Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative, 15).
12. Dependent: Theology is vulnerable, because it is dependant on God (who is perfect), on people (who are fallible), and on systems (which are broken).
God: “If this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail” (Acts 5:28).
People: “Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Tim 4:11)
Systems: “In the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness” (Eccl. 3:16).
13. Repentant: Theology is vulnerable, because it is done by sinners, who are constantly called to repent. Speaking to Simon, who tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit, and was “in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity” (Acts 8:23), Peter commanded, “Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” (Acts 8:22 ESV) What more relevant challenges are posed to the vulnerable theologian on the internet than bitterness and iniquity? We are a community of Simons, and the less we admit it, the more Simon-like we become. The repenting theologian is a vulnerable theologian, because a good theologian is a public confessor—confessing truth about God, and truth about himself or herself.
14. Generous: Theology is vulnerable, because its best practitioners do not take opportunities to justifiably injure. Calvin quotes Augustine on how to deal with perfectionists: “Mercifully to correct what they can; patiently to bear and lovingly to bewail and mourn what they cannot; until God either amends or corrects or in the harvest uproots the tares and winnows the chaff.” (Augustine, Against the Letter of Parmenianus 3.2.15). Debate for the sake of precision may have its place, but it is rarely successful to such an end on the internet. Do we need more controversies and intramural-quibbles-turned-sour to prove that understanding rarely emerges from internet debate other than “This person doesn’t like that person”? Sensual lust “divides the human nature into a thousand pieces, and we, who all share the same nature, mindlessly tear each other into shreds, like wild beasts.” (Maximus the Confessor; cited in Hans Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy, 197). The vulnerable theologian blogs about others as they would blog about themselves.
15. Patient: Theology is vulnerable to hot-tempered personalities—precisely because it attracts captain-of-the-debate-team characters, theologians should be especially critical of their gut-reaction to internet controversy.A vulnerable theologian admits the necessity of time to think—that means, the value of a thought is not merely in its truthfulness, but its timeliness. “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Prov. 15:23). “I give an apt reply. I don’t shoot from the hip. I think about what is apt or appropriate. What is the appropriate way to respond? It is not just finding the right words. The words need to be timely. There are also times when I need to wait” (Winston Smith, Wisdom in Relationships, 39).
May the posts on this site reflect the attributes of a genuinely vulnerable theology—not weak, but manifesting the power of Christ in weakness. I openly confess—I will fail. Call me out on it. This list is a swing at starting something good and true. I welcome critique and dialogue, and hope my interlocutors will do the same. I owe a special thanks to Brandon D. Smith—who is my go-to definitive, thoughtful word on any current issue—for the Patheos hookup, to Peter Voth for designing a killer banner, and to Lore Ferguson for her continued encouragement to be authentic in my writing, even when I would rather play the game (Lore, you’re the shining example for aspiring vulnerable theologians, like me).