Theologians engaging in research commit themselves to certain protocols of argument which are often absent from the populist theological debates which occur in the church. Involvement in research is, at the very least, a commitment to the academy’s culture of debate where protocols such as the following would (hopefully) apply: the sifting and weighing up of evidence, a humility to see the weaknesses in one's own position and to be corrected by one's critics, care in the construction of arguments, a willingness to employ persuasion rather than dogmatism, and (therefore) a refusal to be dominated by the immediate....I think these questions deserve much more attention than they usually receive. What does it mean to say that theology can be practised as university research? One of the most interesting things I've read on this is an article by Hans Ulrich, which I summarised in an earlier post. And I also really appreciated Bruce McCormack's brief article on the justification of a theology faculty.
Sometimes theological discussion in the churches is illuminating and inspiring. Generally, however, the culture of theological discussion in the churches has little patience with the kinds of protocols noted above. It is frequently reactive, often trapped in denominational and geographical parochialism, and seldom well-informed. It is often driven by the pragmatic and the contingent, and is thereby distanced from any patient quest for the truth which intentionally draws on a larger horizon of theological wisdom. All of this is intensified by the underlying theological and biblical illiteracy which characterises so much contemporary Christianity.
Of course, for an alternative model to be recognised and appreciated, it would be necessary to break through the prevailing culture. The work and witness of the research-oriented theologian might not of itself be sufficient to effect that break through. Nevertheless, a research-strong faculty might become something of a benchmark within the life of the church for more patient and theologically-richer discussions within the church at large.
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