Where Does Theology Really Matter?
I recently had reason to re-read parts of Karl Barth’s final volume of Church Dogmatics (IV/4 “Fragment” on Baptism). In the middle of his critique of infant baptism he digresses into a complaint about how the churches don’t listen to their own theologians. He clearly didn’t expect his own Reformed denomination to adjust its belief or practice of baptism because of his devastating critique of infant baptism. One can almost hear the tears in Barth’s complaint that the churches never listen to theologians or ask their advice. He was clearly profoundly disappointed that his life’s passion and work was largely ignored by the churches he intended to service.
When I read that I could feel Barth’s pain. I mean that I empathized with him. I originally took up theology as my life’s work for the service of God and the church. But sometimes I wonder what good it has done. Rarely have the churches I attend asked my advice about anything. When I have offered it, it has usually been ignored.
Centuries ago the Enlightenment essayist Rabelais said that he was wandering around lost in a forest with just one little candle to light his way when a theologian came and blew it out. Twentieth century radio preacher and author Vance Havner famously said “Happy is the Christian who has never met a theologian.” Most Christians I know seem to have the same attitude toward theology—that it just complicates their simple faith and it’s better to avoid it. The problem is, of course, that they don’t really avoid it. They get their “theology” from somewhere—usually from panderers of folk religion.
Over the years I have noticed that in every city with which I’m familiar the largest churches, even ones with strong denominational ties, are mostly devoid of any serious theology. I am acquainted with one megachurch that has the word “Lutheran” in its name mostly populated now by non-Lutherans. It is flooded with Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, Evangelical Free Church people. The attraction has nothing to do with the church’s Lutheran theology. In fact, I doubt most people attending its numerous weekend services know anything about Lutheran theology. I suspect they attend it in spite of, not because of, its ties with a Lutheran denomination.
That’s just one example. I know of numerous large, flourishing churches attended faithfully by people of all kinds of denominational backgrounds. Often these churches soft pedal their theology in order to attract crowds of people. Often the theology gradually diminishes to the point of disappearing. People come for the feeling they get in worship or the programming for their families or just to be part of something big that doesn’t expect much of them.
Folk religion is overwhelming theology in American Christianity. A few are fighting back against that tide of feeling-centered spirituality. Most of them are strongly Reformed theologically. I give them credit for their focus on theology even if I disagree with some of its tenets. An outstanding example of this is Tim Keller. I disagree with his views on God’s sovereignty but I respect his attempt to inject serious theology into his ministry to his own congregation and the larger Christian world.
My advice to young theologians is this: Don’t expect the churches to value what you have to offer. For the most part, they won’t. But don’t give up; persevere like Karl Barth. Sow seeds of truth wherever and however you can.
Postscript: There are exceptions to what I say above about American churches. Tomorrow I will spend the whole day teaching theology to various groups at a large Baptist church in a large city. The pastor there is devoted to theology as are many of his congregants. But I will drive two hours to that church. Churches like it are few and far between. What do I mean by “churches like it?” I mean churches where there is a general mindset that theology matters to sound Christianity. I mean churches that care that the songs sung in worship have lyrics that are true. I mean churches where Sunday School classes for all ages at least occasionally take up issues of belief and culture and do not just dabble in Bible stories, ethics and spirituality. I mean churches that build theological teaching events into their regular annual Christian education programs. I mean churches that care what their small groups are reading and studying and encourage them to increase their understanding of the Christian faith beyond devotions and spiritual life. I mean churches where the sermons challenge the mind as well as the heart and display to the discerning listener evidence that the preacher reads theology and thinks about issues deeply. I mean churches that invite and welcome biblical scholars and theologians to speak and teach and ask their advice about Christianity. I mean churches that treasure their theological heritage even as they think critically about it. I mean churches that call as pastoral staff members people with theological training and encourage them to stay lively and in touch with that through lifelong learning and periodical continuing theological education.