Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Two comments on academic theology...

Chicago is on a quarter system, so we're in exam week at the moment- hence the lack of posts around here.  Below are two quotes from two different theologians to dissuade all of you academic folk from thinking that your work really matters all that much to Jesus.

"I fancied myself a Christian when I picked profound and beautiful sayings out of Jeremiah's writing, for a disputation, lecture, or sermon, or for other speeches and writings, and I thought that this ought to please God extremely well.  But when I began to think and reflect properly, I discovered that I had neither come to know God nor to love the highest good as a good.  I saw that the created letter was what I had come to know and love; in that I rested; it had become my God and I did not notice that God said through Jeremiah, Those who kept my commandments, knew me not and did not ask for me."
                       --Andreas Carlstadt, "The Meaning of the Term Gelassen and Where in Holy Scripture it is Found", The Essential Carlstadt, (Herald) p. 140.

"Christ did not write a book, nor did He bid the disciples or apostles to write one, yet He gave many precepts concerning the Church; hence when about to send apostles out to plant the Church, He did not say, Go write, but Go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature."
--John Eck, Enchiridion of Commonplaces, (Baker), p. 12


  1. Evan,

    This post surprises me a bit, based on my (admittedly small amount of) interactions with you. While certainly God has no inherent need of "academic folk," does God technically need anything any of us do? Is that what you're saying?

    If you're saying that academic pursuits are less worthwhile than other expressions of discipleship, then I must dissent. Not because I think what I do is more important than others (although to be honest I am wearying of the false humility that accompanies much of Christian scholarship), but b/c I reject the idea that we should try to measure or quantify the value of certain Christian vocations relative to others. Why do we have to do this? While faithful expressions of Christian living from preachers, bank tellers, and anyone else should be encouraging and convicting, why should we get out the tape measure to see who is in closer proximity to the heart of the gospel? The whole line of thought feels modern, being more concerned with quantifying than being faithful to God's call on an individual and/or communities' life.

    Sorry this ended up long, this has been something that has been bugging me for awhile now, & unfortunately I was ready to vomit when I came across this post. Finally, know that I greatly appreciate your posture in theoblogging discussions, and pleas take this a venting session that contains some honest questions.

  2. Hi Derek, thanks for commenting. I'm sorry that this post was so troubling for you, and I appreciate the time you took to voice your problems with it. Let me try to tell you a bit about what I'm thinking; hopefully it will allay your concerns to a certain extent, and to the extent that it doesn't, at least some benefit will come from more clarification of differences.

    To begin, my phrasing about whether scholars' "work really matters all that much to Jesus" was a bit flippant and provocative, and intentionally so. Maybe it was the wrong way to go about things and ended up being needlessly offensive to people, but I stand by the point that I was trying to convey through it.

    I think that theology is important, otherwise I wouldn't be doing it (except perhaps as a hobby of some sort). I think that theology was important to Jesus as well, at least insofar as the law and the prophets were relevant to His work of redemption, or insofar as His teachings on the kingdom, or the Spirit, or His death and resurrection, or the sacraments were concerned.

    I do not, however, think that the theological literature as currently produced in academic institutions- however true or edifying for the Church- is a ministry of the Gospel in the way that praying, or preaching, or evangelizing, or healing and exorcising are. While academic theology may fall under a sort of "teaching" ministry of the Church as described by Paul, I think that this sort of teaching can be more than adequately accomplished without recourse to academic levels of competence or specialization, so I do not see this as an especially persuasive justification for academic theology on the grounds of redemptive or missional significance.

  3. Theology is with the other academic disciplines an immense project of theorizing that goes way beyond anything of necessity for our faithful understanding of the redemptive work of God in Christ. That's not to dismiss it as "mere" theory... we humans are theorizing animals, and constructs of understanding based upon reason, texts, observation, or testing allow us to live better in the world around us. Furthermore, misunderstandings based upon problematic theorizing can indeed lead us astray from a faithful understanding of the world around us, and ultimately of God (n.b., this is a reason to be cautious about entering into academic theology as much as it is a reason to enter into it... as much as theology corrects heresy, it can also lead one into it).

    What theology does, in my mind, is hold the congregation together long enough for the preacher to finish a sermon. It has a sort of diaconal purpose, in that sense. In the mind of Christ, there is nothing especially significant about mundane tasks like cooking for the homeless, or making sure that the church’s bills are paid, or offering a coherent account of the logos asarkos, or repairing the roof of the church building. This is all Martha stuff rather than Mary stuff. It’s worth getting done by someone at some point, but it doesn’t hold Christ’s gaze. And while it may even be necessary to do some of this stuff in order to create the space for Mary to sit at the feet of Jesus, I’ve never really gotten the impression that Jesus cared that much about it in an immediate sense. He was naive. Or, to put it in a more theologically palatable way, he was unaffected by the sinful inheritance of any sort of Tree of Knowledge.

    This has gotten to be a pretty long response, although I still haven’t offered any concrete descriptions of what theology should do or how one might construe its value. I could also probably offer concrete descriptions of the sort of self-understanding that I take to be wrongheaded for academic theology. It’s getting late, though, and this is probably enough to offer at the moment. If I feel I have anything else to add in order to express things better, I’ll be sure to do so. Do feel free to respond, continue to disagree, etc., I’d be interested to know what you think. And my apologies to anyone else who took this post in a similar way as Derek. I’m open to criticisms, and of course I’m also working all of this out for myself as I go along just like everyone else is.

  4. ...I should also note that when I spoke of "the theological literature as currently produced in academic institutions", I was not intending to imply some sort of decline narrative whereby church fathers at some early date used to do things well, but now theology has lost its soul and original purpose. Everything I've said here I would say of the earliest texts of Christian thinkers and of all that has come after them in the genre of theoretical accounts pertaining to the faith.