Theology Allergy

Posted: August 24, 2012 by J in Church, Theology

‘There’s only one thing that you can say in the interview that would get you barred from the Cornhill course: and that’s young men who say ‘I love discussing theology.’ They get a line through their name.’

Christopher Ash was talking to a room-full of young pastors at a training conference. It was hard to know how seriously he meant the remark, but it wasn’t spoken flippantly. An appreciative chuckle rippled across the room: we all knew what he meant. Who hasn’t been annoyed by young opinionated loudmouths who like arguments? Especially at Bible college!

But it did make me wonder. Christopher Ash is a very nice person. But if theology is not for discussing, what is it for? It is, after all, by definition words or talk about God and his ways (theo – logos). Theology is something you do. What alternatives are there to discussing it? And why in our evangelical tradition is there this suspicion of the practice?

As a writer of a blog dedicated to promoting theological discussion, these questions concern me. I spent four years at a ‘theological’ college, and I can testify that not many such discussions occurred. In class theological discussion was carefully controlled, generally channelled through the lecturer. There was rarely time for students to discuss what they were learning with each other, and outside of class theological talk was far from the norm. Try to start such a conversation over the lunch table, and see how far you got!

The fact is, if you engage with theology at all, then you have really only two alternatives: it can either be a discussion or a monologue. But I would say that a monologue doesn’t really allow for the doing of theology. For students to learn theology, they must be included in the discussion, and given freedom and encouragement to take part.

If it’s a monologue, then I think the appropriate word is doctrine. The authorised teachers transfer a body of ideas to the students, whose task is to learn them. In this approach, reflection on the doctrine learned, questioning, exploration, is not of much value. Questions should ideally be confined to the task of clarification.

There is a place for learning doctrine, and while it overlaps with doing or learning theology,  it’s not the same thing. Doctrine without theology is an unhealthy thing: the uncritical absorption of ideas taught by the establishment. What is so unhealthy about it is that it squashes the question, ‘What does the Bible really say about that?‘ It narrows a priori the possibilities for hearing and understanding God’s voice in Scripture. It entrenches false or poorly constructed ideas by shielding them from investigation and critique.

It is also possible to have the appearance of theology, of a discussion, while all the time we know the answers before the questions are even asked. In this case the discussion is aimed at justifying the ideas we already have – i.e., it is not really a discussion at all, but another form of monologue. Only one voice is allowed. Around here when someone starts talking theology there is usually a political agenda behind it.

The only alternative to the monologue is the discussion. The only alternative to uncritical learning is for us to talk theology together. And this is what Ash tells us he excludes from Cornhill.

And it’s not just Cornhill. How you noticed how very few works of serious theology are produced by the evangelical movement. We write biblical studies, we write ministry practice, we don’t write theology.

I would suggest that the annoying young men who love to spout theology are not usually engaging  in true discussion: they generally have a viewpoint they wish to impose on others, and this is what makes them so tiresome. They too prefer the monologue: they can talk but not listen. (We at The Grit may ourselves be guilty of this!)

Why do we have this fear of theological talk? I don’t know the answer, but I can think of possibilities:

  • Are we afraid to empower the many to read Scripture for themselves? Safer to keep in the hands of the few the power to say ‘The Bible says this‘. The others can just listen and learn.
  • Are we afraid that some of our favourite doctrines may not stand up to the scrutiny? That our teachings are not well-enough founded in Scripture to bear the weight of critique?
  • Are we worried that alternative ways of expressing Christian faith may turn out to have equal grounding in Scripture, and that our doctrinal tradition might thereby lose its ‘superiority’?
  • Do we lack a confidence in the clarity of Scripture, so that we feel we ourselves must impose clarity on the faith, promoting doctrine while discouraging theology?
  • Are we ultimately more loyal to the Reformation tradition than we are to the Bible?

All of these possibilities are worrying. Can anyone suggest a nicer answer for us?

And is there any hope of curing this allergy? Will the time come when The Grit‘s tagline no longer sounds fanciful?

  1. Can I come at it from a different angle?
    Perhaps we have too small a view of praise. The assumption is that discussing theology will be argumentative, or self absorbed and unloving. Theology as praise, however, encourages us to seek and explore, to know God richly and to name him rightly.
    I think lying behinds Ash’s comment is this idea that we should be about loving people, or spreading the message. Both good and important things. But why shut down the communal exploration of the wonder of God?

    • Jonathan says:

      Yeah wouldn’t it be great if we had the courage to let each other discover God afresh!?

      • Dan W says:

        I’ll come clean and tell you why I sometimes get scared of encouraging discussion in a ‘teaching setting’. I’m a) not used to doing it; b) worried about the practice of discussion because then I can’t control the outcomes; c) for some reason not convinced it’s the best way to teach people (even though it’s my favourite way to learn… go figure…); d) I’ve got niggling doubts that I might be wrong about some things or not have the answers.

        I LOVE discussion amongst peers, but I sometimes get scared of it when I’m in a position of ‘authority’. Like, when I’m supposed to be the ‘teacher’ or something. Stupid, I know, but there’s some honest thoughts.

      • Jonathan says:

        You guys are a few steps ahead of me. I’d be happy if we were just encouraging a culture where theological students talk theology with their peers. That’s enough of a challenge. But ordinary people having the floor to discuss theology in the church – that’s way too scarey for me! Once let that happen, and they’ll be having ideas of their own (shudder!).

  2. Hi Dan, I feel ya!
    I was just preaching on church discipline, and opened up the floor for discussion. Scary. But good. But scary.
    But I digress.
    Why isn’t theology our goal as those in authority?
    Really. Don’t I want my people to be able to wax lyrical on God?
    There is a wonderful, godly, Scottish lady in my church who i think has strengthened the saints more with one rich and thoughtful prayer than I have in 2 years of sermons. (Though she is very nice, tonight she told me that I should preach for longer)
    But I digress again.

  3. Alan Wood says:

    There is of course (A) the type of guy (and we’ve all been him) who wants to win arguments. And there’s (B) the type of guy who likes to say ‘ontological’ a lot. It’s to appear smarter – it’s posing. And sometimes, there are the people whose theology (and discussion thereof) is theoretical and not practical – whether because of (C) a weak linkage in their metaphysics (nineteenth century, I’m pointing at you!), or (D) a lack of moral courage (hey, where are my other three fingers pointing?) or (E) a basic inability to re-understand and reword the formulas in which they work.

    Not having been there, I wouldn’t be surprised if C.A. was really complaining about Es, the tongue-tied super-brainy polysyllabic academic types, who can’t apply themselves out of a paper bag. A and B can be jerks, Cs do a lot of damage and Ds do too little. Es are incompetent communicators.

    Probably worth pointing out, for the record, that we were encouraged to read an awful lot of different voices, and to join in by writing: “Discuss” was in a lot of essay questions. Conversely, opening the discussion in a big room can lead to As and Bs holding the floor, while Cs never get their links straightened out and Ds feel godly and humble for cowering in the corner. Which goes to show that Mike was spot on in his diagnosis above. Worth thinking about how we frame and participate in group discussions so that they are redeemed and not simply fallen. Hmmm. Thanks, guys.

    • Jonathan says:

      Great comment, Alan. I think we all recognise the sort of problem categories you describe. No doubt these problems are part of what gives a bad name to young men who like to talk theology.

      We certainly were encouraged to join in a discussion about theology, but my point was how carefully controlled and supervised it was: only with dead people or with lecturers in lectures or essays.

      I think you’re right that there’s a lot of fear about what will happen if we talk theology. We aren’t very good at doing it helpfully are we.
      Of course the place where theological talk really belongs is in the local church. There it has a chance to be grounded by real life concerns, and the pressure of trying to live as disciples.

      I’d love to see the people in my church learn to talk about God and his ways together. Better start with me…

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