Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What is "Good" Theology?

Both in my work as a minister and as a professor I encounter thinking from time to time that's, shall we say, a little off bullseye.  It's commonplace to describe this kind of thinking as "bad theology," but this begs the question:  What makes theology "bad," and further, what does "good" theology look like?  This question reminds me of an exchange I had with a good friend and mentor several years ago.  He said, "You know, I think my greatest strength--and weakness--as a theologian is that whenever I get a new book I'm just like a kid at Christmas.  I just love it."  (If you knew my friend this would make perfect sense to you--the guy is a remarkable combination of devotion, brilliance, and curiosity.)  I thought for a second and responded:  "That's really cool--and I'm not there at all.  I do this because bad theology hurts people."  That conversation has stuck with me for more than a decade now, and I think it suggests a good way to tackle our question.

If we dig back into the history of Christianity we find that periodically ideas pop up that are denounced as incompatible with the non-negotiables of the faith.  If we dig a bit deeper we find that the most common reasons for these denunciations are pastoral.  Docetism (Jesus was divine but not human), Ebionism (Jesus was human but not divine), Arianism (Jesus was neither human nor divine), and a number of other heretical "-isms"are denounced because their teaching has implications that obscure Christ's mediation between God and humanity.  In other words, these doctrines are false because they point their adherents' eyes away from the Jesus of the Bible to a different Jesus, one built on human speculation rather than divine revelation.  The consequences of believing a false Gospel are catastrophic if we listen to the New Testament (and we must do that listening if identifying ourselves as "Christians" is to mean anything substantive).  Bad theology is bad most fundamentally because it is bad for the soul.  It points hope toward things that ultimately disappoint (which is what happens when we try to make gods for ourselves out of anything other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) or it crushes hope altogether.  False hope and no hope are both bad for the soul.

So far, so good, but what does this suggest about how we should go about doing good theology?  Let me make a suggestion:  Good theology is good for the same reason that bad theology is bad.  Both have to do with how they function in pointing us to God.  Bad theology is bad because it mis-portrays God and thus hinders our growing closer to Him as He really is.  When our relationship to God is stunted by bad theology we suffer from soul starvation--an impoverished theology leads to an impoverished spiritual life.  Now let's consider the flip-side of that statement.  Good theology is good because it points us to God as He truly is (or, more properly, "Is").  Good theology facilitates transformative encounter with God and fosters ongoing, life-giving relationship with Him.

At this point some of you may be asking, "Yeah, okay, but what about objective truth?"  That is a valid question, so let's address it.  Theology that points us to God as He truly is will necessarily demand submission to the central reality that He is God and His account of things is the definitive one.  What this does not mean, however, is that the objective reality of God's Lordship can be deduced or demonstrated.  Even if it could that sort of demonstration would carry us only as far as those who (if I can borrow a turn of phrase from James) "believe--and tremble."

Every so often someone comes along who claims to have figured out everything and rendered the concept of mystery irrelevant by hiding it behind highly technical but thoroughly mundane-sounding terminology.  I have to say that how I respond internally to these sorts of triumphal claims varies from day to day.  Some days I mourn for the person who is still trying to build a box around God. It really is heart-breaking.  Other days I hear a tiny finite being puffing out its chest and pontificating about things that exceed its intellectual capacity and pay-grade.  Those days just give me the chuckles.  At times like this I feel the profundity in Saint Augustine's statement:  "If you have come to understand God, what you have come to understand is not God."

Instead of thinking of good theology as being "sensible," "logical," or "accurate," let me suggest a different idea.  Good theology is theology that is good for the soul.  In other words, theology that points us to the God of the Bible, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is good theology.  Theology that drives us to wrestle with God like Jacob and teaches us to say, "I will not let you go until you bless me" is good theology.  Theology that drives us to the true God, the One who alone can give us life in abundance, is good theology.

Does this mean that truth doesn't matter anymore?  Absolutely not!  What it means is that we cannot use truth to hunt God down.  What we need most is not truth but God Himself.  Really what we need is not to be misled by untruth.  At most, though, we can only ever say that we have seen what God has let us see.  This means that logic is not our most important tool for this job--it cannot be when we will never be able to see the whole picture.  Instead, let me suggest this:  good theology begins with careful attention, proceeds to reverential reflection, and describes its findings out of deep humility.  Being a theologian means going to meet with God, knowing that He expects us to bear witness about Him afterwards.  At this point the immensity of the responsibility should be apparent.  It drives me to think seriously and carefully about my own ideas, and to be vigilant in seeking to meet God as He is rather than some fiction of Him as I would like Him to be.  It drives me to ask for God's help in speaking well about Him to my neighbor because I want my words most of all to be good for my neighbor's soul.  "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord."

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