Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Ten propositions on being a theologian

by Kim Fabricius

1. Actually, there is no such thing as a theologian, anymore than there is such a thing as a Christian. Theologians are not solitary creatures. Theology is the outcome of good conversation, the conversation of friends. Though – the rabies theologorum – you could be forgiven for thinking the opposite! Which is why, in the interest of world peace, it is probably wise that theological conferences are held infrequently. Theologians are like horse manure: all in one place and they stink to high heaven; they are best spread around.

2. “Theology is not free speech but holy speech” (John Webster). The theologian is a servant of the word: in multi-logue with other theologians, she thinks about what God has told us in the Bible. Thus – but only thus – is she also a servant of the church, creatura verbi Divini. The theologian tests the church’s preaching and teaching, and the work of other theologians, to keep them honest, i.e. to ensure that they are about the love and grace of God.

3. The theologian, therefore, is not an academic but an ecclesiodemic. He may work in a university but he is not of the university. He must be multilingual, but he must remember that his hometown is Jerusalem, not Athens. So he must hang loose to criteria of academic respectability. Submission, for example, to the idea that theology must never be homiletical, or that a theologian should not begin a lecture with prayer, suggests a Babylonian captivity. To switch biblical geography, the theologian must not hanker after the fleshpots of Nile College.

4. Can a theologian be an unbeliever? Don’t be ridiculous! Theology is fides quaerens intellectum: no fides, no intellectum. Furthermore, one can speak about God only as one speaks to God. Prayer is the epistemological precondition of theology, which to issue in pietas must begin with invocation. A prayerless theologian is an oxymoron; indeed a prayerless theologian is a moron – which is not to say that God cannot use the braying of Balaam’s ass.

5. Since the 12th century the notion has been around that the theologian is a speculator in ideas, and since the Enlightenment that he is a specialist in certain distinct areas of enquiry. We must lament “the disappearance of the ‘complete’ theologian, the theologian who is also a saint” (Hans Urs von Balthasar), and insist that theologians are “[none] the better for our conviction of the truths of the great doctrines of the gospel unless we find the power of the truths abiding in our hearts” (John Owen). And the notion that the theologian can be biblical, historical, dogmatic, pastoral without all these disciplines encroaching on each other is a cloven fiction indeed.

6. Theology (with Aquinas, Calvin, Barth) is thus a very spiritual matter, and a very practical, very ethical matter. In fact the theologian, as a student of the humanity of God, is the quintessential humanist. She will have in her sights not only God but also the good, God in his perfections and humanity in its perfectibility, i.e. she will be concerned with human flourishing. And as humans can only flourish in community – in the polis – a question that one should always ask about a theologian is: How does her theology politic?

7. All good theology is always contextual theology. Which is not to say that the context sets the agenda of the theologian, because contexts never come neat, they are not self-interpreting: the theologian must be an exegete not only of the text but also of the context. Rather it is to say that the theologian works at the interface of text and context, and seeks to address specific text to specific context. The letters of Paul – all occasional, none systematic – are the paradigm for the theologian.

8. The theologian will be a person who, off his knees, can think on his feet. He will be a bricoleur, engaged in ad hoc “selective retrieval and eclectic reconfiguration” (Jeffrey Stout). If the Holy Spirit is a dove, the theologian is a cuckoo, free to squat in any nest – and steal the eggs. Incorrigibly kleptomaniacal, while the theologian may not long for Egypt, he may certainly rip off the Egyptians.

9. Strictly speaking, all believers are theologians, because all believers, willy-nilly, think about God. The only question is whether we think well or poorly. It is not the theologian’s job to think about God for us, it is the theologian’s job to help us think about God better, so that we may believe, pray, live and die better. Dorothy Sayers said that “Christians would rather die than think – and most of them do.” The theologian is out to make Ms Sayers a liar.

10. Ultimately, of course, theologians do not know what they are talking about. So they should exercise meticulous word-care – and not talk too much. I often think that books of theology should contain occasional blank pages, to signal the reader to pause, in silence and wonder. There will be no theology in the eschaton. Before the divine doxa, we will confess, with St Thomas, “All my work is like straw.” Karl Barth famously said that when he gets to heaven he will seek out Mozart before Calvin. Quite right – and presumably he spoke to Calvin only to compare errors. Me – I’ll be heading for the choir of angels, to find Sandy Koufax, to see how he made the baseball sing.


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