|Why Study Theology
|Experience the Drama (of Theology)
an interview with Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer, Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity
Divinity School in Deerfield, IL.
From the Spring 2006 issue of Trinity Magazine:
|Who Needs Theology
by Stanley Grenz & Roger E. Olson
A great short book on this subject and still in
|No Place for Truth
by David Wells
A book on the disappearance of theology in even conservative and evangelical
churches and a plea for Christians to reverse this trend.
|The Fabric of Theology
by Richard Lints
A good book on how to do theology.
|To Know and Love God
by David K. Clark
A more in-depth book on foundations for theology.
Why Study Theology?
by Kevin Vanhoozer
(a class hand-out from 1994)
Education is the most important investment many of us ever make. In terms of time, money, and lifelong significance, few decisions matter as much as what we study and train to be. Theology has historically been a demanding course of study.
In Medieval universities, students had to complete their studies in the liberal arts before they could even begin studying theology. Even today, it takes about as long to achieve the necessary qualifications for the ordained ministry as it
does to become a doctor or lawyer. We only have one life to live: why spend it studying theology?
William James measured the "cash value" of a belief in terms of the concrete difference it makes in one's life. Truth, said James, is what it pays to pursue. Today, of course, many believe that only cash has cash value. According
to its critics, theology has neither monetary nor redeeming social value.
Can the study of theology make a difference to people living in the late twentieth century? Is theology up to the challenges posed by, say, genetics or artificial intelligence? Does it still pay to think about Christian doctrine? I believe
it does. We live in an era where ideas matter. The way we view the world makes a difference to the way in which we view ourselves and relate to others. For example: Christians reject the suggestion that adultery is simply the "effect"
of a genetic disposition to sow one's own DNA as far and wide as possible. Love is more than a matter of biochemistry. Hamlet was right: there are more things on earth, not to mention heaven, than are dreamt of in philosophy - or in sociobiology.
Defining Theology: the nature of the investment
Theology is the study of God and his relations to human beings and the world. Theology makes sense of the whole - of life, the universe, and everything - an ambition that in earlier times earned theology the rank of "queen
of the sciences". Today, theology is more modest, yet it continues to reflect on the Word (i.e., the person and work of Christ as attested in the canon) and how this Word bears on the rest of what we know. It is "faith seeking understanding",
as Anselm described it. Theology becomes "systematic" when it begins to reflect on how doctrines fit together. Anyone who thinks about or prays to God has a developing systematic theology, whether they admit to it or not. The only
alternative is to hold to beliefs that are unsystematic; but as a rule, inconsistency doesn't pay.
Theological education: making the investment
Every student of theology should reflect on two pressing questions about the nature of theological education. First, what is theological education primarily about: theoretical knowledge, vocational training or spiritual
formation? Second, how can he or she study theology in a secular university that serves the Church yet is part of a larger pluralistic society?
Theology as theoretical science, practical training and spiritual formation
Theology resembles other academic disciplines: it has subject matter (topics, such as God or faith) and a methodology for studying these subjects (e.g., biblical studies and philosophy). On the other hand, it is unlike other academic disciplines
because its object is not part of the furniture of the cosmos. God is the object of theology only because God makes himself known through revelation. Theology's task as traditionally conceived is to formulate true claims, based on divine
revelation, about God's activity in the world. In response to Enlightenment critiques of revelation, Schleiermacher redefined theology as "the science of Christian faith". From this perspective, the theologian becomes a historian
of Christian ideas and experience. Theology still yields a body of knowledge, not that knowledge is not of God but of "the Christian thing" - a set of human beliefs and human practices.
Whereas the "science" model of theological education emphasizes theoretical knowledge of God or of faith as its goal, the "professional" model, by contrast, stresses the development of practical skills. When this model
is followed, the purpose of theological education is similar to that of medical or law schools: to train leaders for a particular profession.
Finally, the "monastery" model, probably the least represented of the three approaches to contemporary theological education, focuses on education as a process of spiritual formation. Its goal is neither right knowledge nor right
practice so much as right worship.
Theological education: between fact and value?
Spiritual formation seems out of place in a secular university. To what extent can theology be a legitimate academic subject, if universities deal with knowledge rather than faith and with public facts rather than private values?
Among those who believe that religion is a matter of values rather than facts, many tend to favor a "religious studies" model of theological education. In a pluralistic society, they say, a neutral comparative approach must be free
of value judgements. Consequently, many departments of theology have recently become departments of religious studies. Courses that used to focus on christology or the Trinity have been replaced by classes in comparative religion or by courses
that present religion as a social or psychological phenomenon. Within this religious studies model, theology, far from being an instance of "faith seeking understanding", becomes instead the study of religious ideas in their social
and cultural contexts - a study of humanity rather than divinity.
The idea that Christian theology is a biased worldview based on personal preferences and private values is a modernist myth that cries out for demythologizing. "Reason" is not some neutral view from nowhere. Everyone - including
the modern secularist - has commitments. The academically responsible strategy is to identify and discuss these commitments rather than to pretend they do not exist. There is no reason, then, why one cannot come to the university with Christian
rather than Enlightenment presuppositions. This is not to say that one can believe just anything. The point is rather that rationality is more a matter of testing the beliefs one already holds instead of withholding belief until a belief
is indubitably justified.
Absolute openness is neither possible nor desirable. A mind that is open to anything is a mind that knows nothing. Every academic discipline, however, begins with particular assumptions. Psychology, for instance, presupposes rather than proves
a more than material basis for human behavior - the mind. Physicists have to assume that the cosmos tomorrow will adhere to the same laws as it does today. Even natural scientists, then, begin with certain commitments - with "faith".
This is a most important point. There are no compelling reasons at present, for instance, for a Christian thinker to accept a wholly naturalistic view of human being. The notion that human beings may be fully explained without reference to
God - in terms, say, of their sociobiology or biochemistry - remains, despite the explanatory potential of these views, an article of faith. The materialism that naturalistic scientific theories presuppose is nothing less than an ideology,
and perhaps a religious one at that.
For acadamy, society, and church: reaping the dividends
Theology, of course, is not an end in itself. Systematics is justified only when we can show what concrete difference it makes to academia and to society. Theological education should aim, first, to understand God truly.
My own hermeneutical model of theology stresses understanding God through interpreting his Word and world. Such a concept, I believe, integrates and builds on the strengths of the other models. A faith that seeks understanding calls for more
than intellectual comprehension. To understand God truly means not only information and certain skills but good judgement - knowing how to act in a given situation. Theological competence ultimately means knowing how to live to the glory
of God: it means having right knowledge, right practice and right worship alike.
Theology pays dividends, first, in the academy. It does so by bringing a unique perspective not contained within other disciplines. As God is the index of humanity's incompleteness, so theology is the index of the incompleteness of the humanities.
Without theology, the other academic disciplines ultimately diminish our understanding of what it is to be human. Whereas the natural sciences focus on the material context of human being and the human sciences on culture and politics, theology
is interested in all aspects of human beings and in how they can be understood in the light of the claim that Jesus Christ represents hrue humanity. Moreover, from the perspective of theology, truth is not a present possession, but lies in
the future. Theology will therefore regard any claims to possess truth as premature and presumptuous. Seen in this light, theology is an invaluable instrument for critiquing ideology.
In short, theology's role is to guarantee the unity of the university without letting any one discipline reduce the richness of reality (or humanity) by idolizing one dimension or approach. Theology serves the university by challenging the
false gods of our time.
Secondly, theology benefits society. It articulates the kind of individual and corporate life that best fits God's created order. Dostoyevsky's haunting maxim - "without God everything is permitted" - is a clue to theology's indispensable
role. Theology offers a unique perspective on life that makes it meaningful and that enables faith, hope and love. The Christian view of what it is to be human leads to specific human conduct. A Christian understanding of the world give constructive
suggestions for transforming secular culture in ways that are more conducive to human flourishing, ways that approximate the kingdom of God. Christian faith seeks understanding not only of God's Word but of God's world. The theologian's task
includes interpreting films, books, and cultural trends. He or she serves society by suggesting how freedom, justice, and peace should be cultivated through culture.
Finally, theological education serves the church. Indeed, it best fulfills its role in the academy and in society when it produces faithful disciples. For understanding God involves rendering his Word both theoretically intelligible and practically
visible. The competent theologian is a disciple: a person who can follow the biblical story, follow theological arguments and follow the way of Christ.
Theology is ultimately a habitus: a way of life that forms habits of the head and habits of the heart. It involves a cognitive disposition, practical skills and an orientation of the soul. A theologically educated person should be trained
as a minister of the Word: both hearer and doer, knower and agent. In this respect, we can regard theology as a mission. Theological competence is a matter of knowing how to render the Word of God in and for the contemporary world through
one's speech, thought and life. When the theologian faithfully and creatively witnesses to the Word of God, theology renders an effective service to the academy, to society and to the church.
Worldly wisdom: making profits or prophets?
"For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life"
You need not become a professional clergyman in order to get something out of theology. "Vocation" can mean one's paid occupation, but it can also refer to a more profound calling. The vocation for which theology prepares a person
is not just a particular profession but the greater task of being human.
Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of "self", Calvin observed. Naturalistic humanism is, therfore, a non-starter. Like the scientist, the theologian constructs models for understanding the world and ourselves in light
of the reality of God. Two criteria are particularly important for developing and evaluating these models: (1) Is it Christianly faithful? (2) Is it humanly fruitful?
Theology, like philosophy, is a problem-solving enterprise that seeks answers to the question of how to live well in the world. Systematic theology is disciplined speech and thought that seeks to portray God, and ourselves, truly and faithfully.
Barth said that theology existed for the sake of Christian preaching. It is not only speech, however, but the self, that theology seeks to discipline, to conform to Christ. Christian preaching and practice alike are the objects of theological
reflection. As an academic, practical and spiritual discipline, systematic theology trains people to correspond, intellectually and actively, to the Word of God. It is the discipline that produces disciples. Theology, far from being an abstract
science for armchair intellectuals, is rather critical reflection on Christian discipleship.
Systematic theology is best understood, therefore, as an applied science. It deals with how to preach and how to practice the presence of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and attested in Scripture. Studying theology trains us to be witnesses
to God's Word wherever and whatever we are, and so helps us fulfill our true vocation as human creatures called to live to the glory of God.
Theology may not always pay earthly dividends. But given the widespread moral and spiritual bankruptcy of our era, we should be thinking in terms not of cash but of ultimate value. We must think in terms of prophets rather than profits. Measured
by this exacting standard, theology is of immeasurable value; for theology yields wisdom, and wisdom is more precious than jewels. Wisdom is more than the trivial pursuit for fragments of specialized knowledge; it is the practical understanding
that enables us to respond to our vocation as human creatures and live as we ought.
Witnesses who speak and act so that their lives become dynamic prophetic words often become martyrs. Studying theology may eventually cost us our lives, or more probably, our illusions. But the pay-off is the getting of wisdom and the truth
that sets us free. That is profit enough.
"Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gets understanding, for the gain from it is better than gain from silver and its profit better than gold."