Thursday 11 May 2006

The usefulness of theology

“For dogmatics is really done well only by people who undertake this study not for the sake of any utility they see in it but because they cannot help themselves. This is true, for that matter, of any science. It is studied simply because a person wants to know. And it is precisely then that discoveries are made that prove later to be very useful.”

—Hendrikus Berkhof, Introduction to the Study of Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 13.


Patrik said...

Wow, well, I don't think I could disagree more... I'm not familiar with H. Berkhof's dogmatics, but such an attitude to me would seem to create the kind of dogmatic metaphysics that lack much relevance for anything really. It would put dogmatics on the same level as stamp collecting and studying made-up languages.

If there is not a sense of "this has to be done" about one's work, then what is the point? Isn't dogmatics about trying to communicate the gospel in one form or another? Or at least trying to give a better description of what christian doctrine entails? Or a way to "understand the Christian message as the answer to the questions implied in every human situation" (Tillich)?

Or am I misunderstanding the quote? I could understand it if it refered to the historical study of doctrine, the work with bringing out new sources about the development of dogma and so on. But can the work on dogmatics really be compare to natural science?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Patrik. Well, I think I'd agree with you -- but then I'd also want to agree with H. Berkhof!

To add a bit of context, he has just finished arguing that theology is "useful" and "relevant", especially on account of the "continuing process of the interpretation of the gospel, each time in [different] vocabularies and idoms", etc. But then, having established the "utility" of theology, he points out that this concept of "utility" shouldn't be tied too closely to theology, since all truly useful theology will be driven first and foremost by a desire to know, i.e., by a faith that seeks understanding.

So I agree with you that "relevance" is of the very essence of theology (since the whole point of theology is to interpret the gospel for each new historical moment). But I also think that Berkhof's point is a valuable one -- as Eberhard Jüngel likes to say, "God is interesting for his own sake", so that theology does not exist simply for the sake of its perceived utility.

Anyway, does this clarify Berkhof's statement at all?

(P.S. -- It's well worth getting a copy of Hendrikus Berkhof's dogmatics, Christian Faith; the work is deeply shaped both by Schleiermacher and Barth, and I reckon it's perhaps the best single-volume dogmatics available. Most notably, it's one of the few works of dogmatics that really takes historical-critical exegesis with full seriousness.)

Patrik said...

Thanks, that makes it clearer what he means. So what he wants to see is a kind of eros attitude in dogmatics; I like that.

I guess it is my current reading of Pannenbergs system that made me react, because this is precisely what I see as the major flaw of Pannebergs system: it doesn't connect with anything that feels important to me. Sure it is useful for other things, one learns tons about the history of dogmatics right up to the present, but there is very little that engages me in it.

Anonymous said...

Hi guys,

I think Berkhof's (very Barthian) point is that the point is -God! That is, dogmatics is not done because it is "useful" or "relevant" or "important" by any criterion external to the dogmatic enterprise itself. How's that? Because God alone is the measure of uselfulness or relevance or importance. And that goes not only for dogmatics but for faith itself - which is precisely what is meant by sola fide.

In the introduction to his recent What Is the Point of Being Chrisian? (2005), Timothy Radcliffe writes:

"If Christianity is true, then it does not have a point other than to point to God who is the point of eveything. . . A religion that tries to market itself as useful for some other purpose - because it helps you to live a stable life, because it gets rid of stress or makes you wealthy - is shooting itelf in the foot. If it has to justify itself by serving some other end, then it cannot be a religion that one could take seriously. The point of religion is to point us to God who is the point of everything."

Patrik said...

I'm sorry, but I find it ard to relate to that. God is not really someone you can say anything about, like he was an object, so I cannot buy that that would be the purpose of theology. I like to think of theology as talking "about" God, in the sense that you have this great unknow variable in the middle and you talk around it. This is why theology is interesting because it is the only human activity that has this humility built into the system: we have a huge "if" that we build on.

And I think religion does have a purpose: not making people wealthy of course, but I do feal it is there to help us deal with our fundamental fears and our need for meaning and identity. If religion is not doing this it is just false.

To say that the purpose of everything is God may be true, but that is taking it beyond the level of purpose anyway. And you can't get to that level before asking the right questions. This is what theology needs to do.

attycortes said...

I've heard this line before in other contexts: Goethe not caring about being useful and by doing that turned out quite useful! Justice Holmes: "to know is not less than to feel" - immersing himself in law, eating sawdust without butter, and turning out quite useful in the field of law. Isn't this similar too to Newman's point in The Idea of a University regarding liberal education? You read the great books for the joy of it but in the process you incidentally train yourself to be a person with a mind that society may find very useful. Josef Pieper and Thomas Merton too I think would not be averse to Berkhof's point. In the end he doesn't really do away with usefulness; he's merely suggesting, I think, that the indirect approach is ironically the surer and better way to usefulness.

BTW, Ben, I really like this quote. Might even make it my life's motto henceforth.

Guy Davies said...

We must not become professional students of theology, who only read dogmatics because we need the info for our jobs. We should study theology becasue we are worshipfully fascinated with the subject matter - God. But having read theology we find it very useful, for our ministries.

Guy Davies

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