Friday 8 July 2005

Theology: what’s the point?

To start with, we should be quite clear that theology has no intrinsic purpose. It does not exist for its own sake. A theology that existed only for its own sake would have already ceased to be theology. Rather theology exists for the sake of preaching. It is meant to be a servant—it exists to serve preaching.

The church is the gathered community of people who have heard the gospel, the message of Jesus Christ. And this gathered community has only one task and one goal: to tell the same message to others. In short, the church exists to speak the gospel. But as simple as this sounds, in every period of history it has been the church’s greatest challenge and problem.

Here's the problem: now that I have heard the gospel, how should I go about speaking it? What will it mean, in my own world and my own situation, to speak the gospel? For if I simply repeat the message exactly as I heard it—word for word and phrase for phrase—then I will in fact be changing the message into something quite different.

In the constant flux of history, words and concepts change, images and metaphors change, the basic structures of human thought change. To take just one example: if today I tell someone on the street that Jesus is the “lamb of God”, it will mean something entirely from what it meant to a first-century Jew with his apocalyptic worldview. Or if I tell someone today that she must have “faith”, it will probably mean the very opposite from what it meant for Paul, when he contrasted faith with all human striving.

The great problem, then, is to speak the gospel in such a way that it really is the same message—in other words, to change the message precisely so that it can remain the same. Ernst Käsemann described this problem, when he said that “continuity with the past is preserved [only] by shattering the received terminology, the received imagery, the received theology—in short, by shattering the tradition.... The truth is that it is this variation which makes continuity possible at all” (“The Problem of the Historical Jesus,” in Essays on New Testament Themes, pp. 20-21).

And this is exactly the task of theology. Theology seeks to interpret and to translate the gospel in such a way that it can faithfully be repeated in the present. Theology stands in the transition between hearing the gospel and speaking the gospel—and it seeks to ensure that when we do speak, we are really speaking the gospel.

This, and nothing else, is the point of theology.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a good and helpful definition of the purpose of theology. Over on my blog "Intellectus Fidei" I am posting on 'describing theology'. Can i link your post to one of my posts?

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