Monday 14 August 2006

Theology for beginners (2): Theology

Summary: Theology is the attempt to express faith verbally in a responsible way.

We find ourselves, then, in the situation of faith. But faith is never mute. Faith speaks; it comes to expression. Speech, or confession, is of the very nature of faith. And when we discover that we believe, at once we begin to struggle to find appropriate speech with which to express our faith. What shall we say, now that we have been grasped by God? How shall we speak, now that we have seen our lives in the context of God’s reality?

With questions like these, faith naturally gives rise to theology. Theology is not the same as faith. In no sense does faith depend on theology. Faith depends only on one thing, and that is God. But the speaking of faith, the confession and communication of faith, requires theology. And theology is really nothing more than the attempt to give voice to faith. Theology is the struggle to give faith a proper vocabulary, a proper idiom with which to speak of God. Faith wants to express itself, it wants to worship, confess and witness, it wants to be heard. And so theology seeks to verbalise faith, to help faith to speak meaningfully and intelligibility – and above all faithfully – about the reality of God.

This means that theology is always responsible. It is responsible to the Christian community, since it exists to serve this community by articulating the faith of the community. It exists so that the community will be equipped to verbalise its faith in worship, confession and witness. Even more importantly, though, theology is also responsible to God. Theology cannot simply be the spontaneous creation of a theologian’s own imagination; rather, it must take the form of a response – a response to the reality of God as it is encountered in the life of faith. If theology is to be of any value, it must therefore fulfil this twofold responsibility: it must faithfully serve the Christian community, and faithfully respond to the reality of God.

Theology, then, is the language-school of faith. Its whole aim is to allow faith to speak in a responsible way. In other words, the true aim of theology is to make itself redundant – just as the aim of a school teacher is to become redundant and superfluous. Wherever a teacher has succeeded in her teaching, she becomes unnecessary. And in the same way, theology seeks to make itself redundant by teaching faith how to speak.

Theology itself, in other words, is not intrinsically necessary. Only one thing is necessary: the expression of faith in worship, confession and witness. But until faith has become articulate, theology has a vital service to perform – a service which must be performed again and again for each new generation.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. The Göttingen Dogmatics, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 3-41.
  • Ebeling, Gerhard. Word and Faith (London: SCM, 1963), pp. 424-33.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 3-60.
  • Nichols, Aidan. The Shape of Catholic Theology (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 13-38.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 1-61.
  • Sauter, Gerhard. Gateways to Dogmatics: Reasoning Theologically for the Life of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).
  • Schillebeeckx, Edward. Revelation and Theology, Vol. 1. (London: Sheed & Ward, 1987), 95-181.
  • Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Brief Outline on the Study of Theology (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1966).


::aaron g:: said...

I've just started the "Brief Outline" and your articulation of theology's task is much clearer than Schleiermacher's!

W. Travis McMaken said...

That the previous commentor brought up Schleiermacher is interesting since I couldn't help but note the expressive nature of theology in your account. As opposed to theology being expressive / responsive of faith, which is something of an interior / expistential consideration, what about theology as being expressive / response of the Gospel?

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

In presenting "theology" as an attempt "to express faith verbally," you don't seem to be connecting theology very directly to talk about God. (I suppose that this is implicit, but shouldn't it be explicit?).

I've not thought carefully about this point, but my rule of thumb has been to think of theology as speaking systematically about God from within a theistic belief system.

That system might or might not be communally held, and a theologian could even be personally an atheist so long as the theologian is articulating a view of God from within a particular theistic belief system.

Serious atheists, for example, have to define carefully the God that they don't believe in.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Binx said...

"In no sense does faith depend on theology."

But doesn't this make faith as a purely subjective act (altho by your previous definition one can wonder whether the act involved oneself at all except to be acted upon) all there is to Christian Faith?

Again, looking at the history of the unfolding of Christian Doctrine (not merely Theology) is illuminating. Did Arius have Christian Faith? Did Marcion, Valentinius, Donatus? Why not?

Doesn't the answer to that question shed light on the radical orientation of faith to its object, and the critical role of doctrine in safeguarding that very revelation?

::aaron g:: said...

For another view hear Schubert Ogden: "faith without theology is not really faith at all; theology without faith is still theology, and quite possibly good theology at that."

And C.S. Calian: "theology is a responsible intellectual enterprise that need not presuppose faith; and faith in the living God is not necesary for theological discussion."

And finally hear Aaron G: "Why the heck would you want to study theology if you don't have faith? Go do something where you can make a bit of cash."

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these comments. Yes, WTM, I agree that theology is all about the gospel (that will be the topic of the next post!).

Jeffrey: I agree that theology is talk about God. But (in my view) since God is known only in faith, we talk about God by giving an account of faith. Or to put it another way: theology doesn't talk about God in isolation from ourselves, but in relation to ourselves. We speak about God by speaking about both God and humanity together (which finally means: Jesus Christ!). But I realise that many people approach theology in quite different ways (e.g. purely as talk about God, or purely as talk about human discourses and communities).

Tarwater: I don't think that faith is "purely subjective", since faith is relatedness to God! And just because faith really is relatedness to God, it never depends on any kind of doctrinal articulation. Theology and doctrine are always retrospective accounts of the God who is known implictly and intuitively through faith. (If you're interested in an excellent Roman Catholic discussion of this, I'd recommend Schillebeeckx's Revelation and Authority, Vol. 1: Revelation, Tradition and Theological Reflection -- this book has influenced my own approach.)

Aaron: thanks for this Schubert Ogden quote -- it's the perfect expression of everything that I disagree with!

Ap said...


Do you believe theology is a science and if so, is it a speculative science?

Anonymous said...

Hi Guys.

Greetings from sunny Cephallonia! A departing teenager has just given me his hotel computer card, so I thought I'd check out the baseball scores - and F&T (in that order, I confess!).

Brilliant start, Ben. I can already see this series in a booklet format. And don't worry about not being "for beginners" enough. As William Sloane Coffin said, "Say things as simply as possible - but no simpler."

A few of quick comments.

I appreciate your modesty, Ben, about the theological enterprise - but I wonder if you are being too modest. You say that "The true aim of theology is to make itself redundant - just as the true aim of a school teacher is to become redundant and superfluous." However, is it not rather the case that the aim of a school teacher is to turn students into colleagues? To wit - your bibliographies: Will these scholars ever become "redundant and superfluous"? Webster learns from Barth: Can we imagine a time when Webster will have had enough of his mentor and sell off his Church Dogmatics? I don't think so. That is why there are no dead theologians.

I am suggesting that this side of the eschaton theology is "intrinsically necessary" - and precisely for the sake of the necessary "expression of faith in worship, confession and witness." Barth once said that if he weren't a theologian, he would be a policeman - which is not surprising because that is the major function of theology - to police the church's proclamation and praise - if you like, to keep the peace, to forestall any descent into ther disorder of idolatry.

Or look at it like this: it is rather like being in love (your first two paragraphs could be about about being in love). Of course, in a sense, love is the one thing necessary in a partnership. But love seeks to express itself to the beloved, not contingenty but necessarily. If I stop telling my wife I love her, for all the inadequacy of my love-talk, I suspect that that my love would quickly go off and the relationship fracture. So too, I am suggesting with God, faith and theology.

To rephrase Kant: Theology without faith is empty (with you, contra Ogden!) - but faith without theology is blind.

I hope this isn't the ouzo talking! Got to run. Catching a plane later. Catch you all later too.

Binx said...

"Faith depends only on one thing, and that is God."

"And just because faith really is relatedness to God, it never depends on any kind of doctrinal articulation."

I submit that your statements must be false. They are both question begging. And therefore, presume doctrinal formulation. As soon as one admits the first statement above one aks "What is God?". And right on its heals will necessarily be "What is the Trinity?" and "Who is Jesus?". And you are inextricably plunged into doctrine. In other words Revelation precedes faith. Knowledge precedes Faith.

If there has been no Revelation, there can be no Faith (And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?). One of the great flaws in non-Catholic communions is that there is no legitimately established authority to decide on even the most fundamental issues (who are you to tell me what to believe!?). The individual is the final arbiter of Truth. You are your own pope.

Faith is the assurance of THINGS hoped for, the conviction of THINGS not seen. The 'things' involved are the 'content' of faith and must necessarily be part of the structure of faith.

One can easily see the twofold structure of faith (faith as the 'act of holding as true' along with 'what is held as true') related here by asking the question: What is it that delineates Christian Faith from non-Christian faith? All religions believe in God, Arius claimed to believe in the Trinity, Nestorius claimed to believe in the Incarnation, etc. But none of them had Christian Faith. And the reason being that the object (content) of their faith was not Christian.

Ben, your construal of faith disagrees with almost the whole history of Christianity. The truth is One. The truth is universal. The truth is catholic (i.e. according to the whole). Is it really plausible that Irenaus, Origen, Augustine, Anselm, Dante, Aquinas, Maximus, Pascal, on down to the present day are wrong here and you are right?

Anonymous said...

Hi Tarwater.

Before I disagree with you, I want to make sure I understand you.

You seem to suggest that Revelation = Knowledge = Doctrine. Do I read you rightly? It all sounds like a very gnostic, or at least a very propositional understanding of revelation - and therefore, ironically, very (Protestant) fundamentalist!

And you seem to say that "true" Christians are known by a kind of monolithic doctrinal correctness, and, further, that the Roman communion alone possesses this essential knowldege. Are you saying that?

For example, is the Eastern Church not "truly" Christian because, say, it rejects the Western church's (including Protestant churches'!) addition of filioque clause to the creed? And if there is some latitude on trinitarian doctrine, what about doctrinal pluralism in other dogmatic loci? The pre-Reformation medieval church was reknown for its doctrinal pluralism. Was that an aberration now rectified? Is there a minimum and a maximum deposit of faith-knowledge? Are there boxes to tick to assure folk that they are "sound"? And can I be saved without being sound?

And while I know you will agree, with Newman, that, historically, doctrine can develop, can it also be "corrected" as Augustine taught? Were Ambrose and Augustine, Bernard and Aquinas "wrong" and Duns Scotus "right" about what is now the dogma of the immaculate conception?

And speaking of Augustine, while you seem to be articulating Vincent of Lérins' standard of authority about what has been believed "ubique, semper, ab omnibus", how does that square with the fact that Vincent, a semi-Pelagian, originally directed his teaching against Augustine's doctrine of grace?

One could go on. For example, can general councils of the church err? Can the pope? The Council of Constance decreed (on April 6th 1415) that anyone who disobeys the teaching of general councils of the church, even the pope, is guilty of schism. A pope whose name I can't remember (you will know the one) was subsequently declared a heretic. Is it now impossible for that to happen again? And you favourably mention Origen. Wasn't he a heretic?

You are certainly right about there being a fides quae creditur as well as a fides qua creditur - and I am sure Ben, having started with the former, will come to the latter - but I think that the knowledge of faith, let alone the relation between faith and knowledge, is more complicated than you suggest.

Sincerely, Tarwater, I don't mean to be captious, but it seems to me that your post open up a can of worms.

Anonymous said...

Correction: "Ben, having started with the latter, will come to the former"

Ben Myers said...

Apolonio, sorry for the slow reply. You asked: "Do you believe theology is a science and if so, is it a speculative science?"

Yes, I think theology is a "science", i.e., it's an academic discipline with its own distinct object and methods. I doubt that the scholastic distinction between "practical" and "speculative" sciences is of much value anymore. But if I had to choose, I'd say that theology is a "practical" science, i.e., it exists for a specific purpose, and not just for its own sake. For me, theology exists for the sake of the Christian community's gospel-speaking -- and in medieval terms, this would make it a "practical" science. (As far as I recall, that was the basic point of the practical/speculative distinction: whether a science exists for its own sake, or to serve some other purpose.)

Anonymous said...

Hello, I have just started reading this blog!
You keep speaking about Theology as a subject which articulates faith, but particularly the Christian faith - but is it only confined to that?

Post a Comment


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.