What Is “Theology” and Who Does It? Part 1

What Is “Theology” and Who Does It? Part 1 May 26, 2013

What Is “Theology” and Who Does It? Part 1

            It may sound like a simple question (or two simple questions), but it’s not. I’ve been a “professional theologian” (someone who gets paid for being one) for thirty-one years and before that I was preparing to be one for several years. The dream of being a theologian probably formed in my mind during seminary. I sensed that I would never understand my Christian faith as fully as I wanted to without being a theologian myself. And I desperately wanted to understand my faith. But the roots of my vocation go back to childhood. I was raised in a pastor’s home and in a “high demand” church. Jesus and the Bible saturated our home, not just our church. And I always had an inquiring mind. After church I would often quiz my father about the meanings of hymns we sang and of things I heard in his sermon or in my Sunday School lesson. I didn’t always find his answers satisfying and that sense of dissatisfaction with answers stayed with me and grew stronger as I matriculated at our denomination’s college where I was spoon fed doctrines and not really allowed to explore them.

            The sense that theology might be my calling, however, really dawned in me during seminary. Some of my professors were brilliant, sensitive and very spiritual men and women who encouraged my inquisitiveness even when they didn’t have satisfying answers to my questions. My main textbook in “Systematic Theology” was Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics (3 volumes) and I loved it. Reading it propelled me to read deeper and wider in scholarly theology so that I eventually read in Barth, Tillich, Moltmann, Pannenberg, etc. And, yes, I also read portions of the church fathers and great Reformers—especially Calvin (Institutes). I knew I was an evangelical and determined to remain one, so I explored evangelical theologians. I found Carl Henry dry as dust but Bernard Ramm exhilarating. But my favorite was Donald Bloesch and I read everything I could get my hands on by him.

            My own faith family (broadly defined) rejected my thirst for theology and my calling to become a theologian. Nobody in it had ever done that without “losing the faith.” Seminary was routinely called “cemetery” and my determination to study theology led indirectly, if not directly, to my exclusion from my faith family which was saturated in anti-intellectualism. That I was attending seminary was bad enough, but when I announced my acceptance into the Ph.D. program in Religious Studies (with a concentration in theology) at a secular university my spiritual mentors rejected me entirely.

            All that is to say that my earliest experiences of becoming and then being a theologian, someone who professionally conducts research in and teaches and writes theology, were negative—so far as the people nearest and dearest to me were concerned. I will never forget the day before I left to study theology in Germany (during my Ph.D. work) I attended a family reunion. A dear uncle who was a wonderful Christian, but untutored in biblical studies or theology, took me aside and said “Roger, remember, there’s such a thing as an over educated idiot.” No one congratulated me or patted me on the back or said anything positive about my studies or my calling or my goals. I could easily detect a great hesitation and even uneasiness about what I was doing. It was considered dangerous and a waste of time. They all would have preferred I went directly from college into ministry—preferably as a missionary.

            In large segments of American Christianity “theology” is almost a dirty word.

            And yet, whenever I explained theology as “faith seeking understanding” or “thinking about God” those same people, my faith family, would indicate that they thought that was something they did—better than any professionally trained “scholarly” theologian. And yet, time and time again, as I listened to and attempted to interact with them, I realized they knew almost nothing about theology. Their “theology” was folk religion. I wanted to move beyond that without leaving my evangelical faith behind.

            I hoped to discover a “world” where theology as I understood it—intellectually serious, even scholarly thinking about God (“the science of God”)—would be valued and where my vocation and training would be affirmed and used by people of God. That was my dream. For the most part it has been dashed.

            My advice to young would-be theologians (in the sense I mean the vocation) is be prepared to be misunderstood and under-valued. Only go into it if you can’t do otherwise. For the most part, with notable and blessed exceptions, American culture and faith communities will not really value what you do. And you will often, even continually, be confronted with two attitudes among people of faith. One will be that you are wasting your time and theirs and unnecessarily complicating the Christian faith. The other will be that others do what you think you do better.

            During my studies in Germany my wife and I attended a Baptist church pastored by a “missionary” from the U.S. It was an English-speaking church with ties to the Southern Baptist Convention. The reason is that my wife and daughter did not speak or understand German. There were a few German-speaking Baptist churches in the city where we lived, but we settled on the English-speaking one for their sakes. (I often attended a German Lutheran church down the street before they joined me for the early afternoon Sunday worship service at the English-speaking Baptist church.) The pastor was a nice enough fellow, but he had no use for theology—except his own folk religious version of it. (He was not a seminary graduate.) I will never forget the Sunday he preached on the Christian’s attitude toward “secular culture.” He ended his sermon with “The Christian’s attitude toward secular culture should be ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is already made up’.” I felt swept up and transported back to my faith family of origin and the college I attended.

            I reveled in my doctoral studies in religion and theology but always held tightly to the broad evangelical faith of my seminary days.

            I walked into my first full time teaching position, in a Christian university, thinking my theological training would be valued and affirmed by people of my own faith orientation. It was an evangelical university with a strongly charismatic flavor. I had wonderful colleagues and many fine students—some of who come here occasionally (to my blog). The top administration, however, was just as anti-intellectual and anti-theological as anything I had ever encountered in my childhood and youth. The president (who was also the founder) forbid any philosophy major or department and was clearly suspicious of theology and theologians. He attempted to change course titles that included “theology” to say “doctrine” instead. “Introduction to Christian Theology” (which I taught in the undergraduate department) was to become “Introduction to Bible Doctrine.” Several of my colleagues in both the undergraduate and graduate departments of theology informed me that the president of the university was intentionally “untouched” by theology. Still, and nevertheless, I was left mostly alone in the classroom. I was free to select textbooks without interference and teach theology as I wanted to and felt led to.

            I left that university for several reasons, the main one being the top administration’s attitudes toward the life of the mind including theology. I could sense that I could never flourish there as a theologian. And I desperately wanted to enter into the “mainstream” of evangelical academic life by teaching in an evangelical Christian liberal arts college with a seminary (and perhaps eventually teach in the seminary). So I made my first career move—to a well-known and influential, growing evangelical Baptist college and seminary (now a university). I taught theology there for fifteen years and, for the most part, loved it. Again, I had many wonderful colleagues and excellent students. The constituency, however, was another matter. So were some of my colleagues and administrators.

            I will never forget the day I walked into the faculty lounge (to get a cup of coffee) and was introduced to a long-time member of the Cultural Studies Department—an anthropologist. He asked me what I would be teaching at the college and I replied “theology.” He scowled and said “Theology? We teach theology in our department.” It was the first shot across the bow of a long-standing debate about theology that would go on for years within the college. Some of my colleagues believed (and they were not alone among evangelical academics) that “theology” is a pseudo-discipline and that “real theology” was taught in other departments (than the Biblical and Theological Studies Department). One colleague in the Arts Department informed me that his works of art expressed Christian faith as well if not better than theology.

            Gradually I deduced that I was faced with a new form of antipathy toward theology—as I understood my professional discipline and vocation. It wasn’t anti-intellectual at all; it was simply rejection of formal, scholarly, academic theology as a distinct discipline alongside others in the academy. That rejection stemmed from various impulses; there was no one reason for it. But I found it to be common, not only in the college where I taught but in many other academic and religious communities—both “mainline” and evangelical.

            I entered theology as a career, a vocation, a life’s endeavor, for personal reasons of faith. I wanted to understand my Christian faith. But I also expected to find Christian communities that would value and affirm it and me. I at least hoped to be respected if I conducted myself rightly. What I often encountered, however, among both so-called “mainline” Christians and my fellow evangelicals was a suspicion of theology and resistance to it. (I worked for a few years under an administrator who regularly referred to those of us who taught theology as “you theology types” with a sneer in his voice. Most who shared his opinion were not as blatant about their disdain. Later, another administrator told me “Our students don’t need to know anything about Barth or Tillich or any other theologians”.)

            Of course, there have been many exceptions. And they have given me hope and strength.

            Overall and in general, however, I have encountered mostly suspicion and resistance to serious, scholarly, academic theology—from secular people (of course), anti-intellectual Christians, and fellow Christians who do take the life of the mind seriously.

            The most dismaying party of people who are suspicious toward theology and resist it has been fellow evangelical (or just biblically-serious) intellectuals, scholars and academics—philosophers, biblical scholars, sociologists, anthropologists, etc. Many of them openly express the opinion that if “theology” has any value it is what they do and that theology itself, as a distinct discipline, is unnecessary at best and a pseudo-science (like astrology) at worst.

            Here are some reasons for that attitude. First, many evangelical scholars, intellectuals, academics have encountered and been “burned” by theologians who pontificate. They tend to blame all theologians and theology itself for those who have abused them. Second, many tend to think of theology, as a discipline, as esoteric and therefore unworthy of being taken seriously as a distinct discipline (in the sense the Germans mean by “scientific”—wissenschaftlich). In other words, they view it as speculative at best. Third, and perhaps this is a combination of the first two, many think that theology unnecessarily and even harmfully complicates religious faith, the Bible, and spirituality. One form this takes among some biblical scholars is the suspicion that theology attempts to impose harmony on the Bible—reducing the gospels to one account of Jesus’ life and ministry and forcing Jesus (or the gospel writers) to agree with Paul and vice versa.

            Perhaps the single most important, influential reason for the attitude I describe is the opinion that religion is primarily about ethics and/or spirituality and not doctrine. Therefore, the work of theologians is unnecessary unless it is simply the exposition of Christian discipleship and/or spiritual formation.

            No doubt some readers will think I am simply whining here—“I don’t get no respect!” (Rodney Dangerfield) Well, not really. I came to terms with this situation long ago even though I still find it dismaying—not because it hurts my feelings but because I think it hurts the churches.

            In Part 2 I will explain what I think theology really is and why it is a distinct and important discipline that should be valued and respected by Christians.

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