WHY LEARN THEOLOGY?
Doctrines are, for the most part, our attempts to explain a reality we are too shallow and limited to explain. Jesus didn't heal the sick and rescue the lost sheep by way of a doctrine. Rather, doctrines arose so that we could better understand the freeing, the healing, and the rescuing. Doctrine teaches. It enables us to identify the real from the fake, to understand which way to turn on the many matters of our life that Jesus did not speak on, and to prevent us from simply meandering away from our Shepherd. It frees us to spend our time living the faith instead of pondering the meaning of every little trifle. It gives us confidence to know we can go in a certain direction and not lose our love for God. Most of all, it is a way for each generation of Christians to pass along the most important parts of what they and their forebears learned about the faith over the course of 2000 years of living in it.
But doctrine itself gives no life at all. What gives life is that which the doctrine is about. For instance, what saves you is not a solid doctrine regarding how you were saved, but the actual work of Christ on the cross, from which any solid doctrine of salvation arises. If you get the doctrine right but don't put your life behind it, what good is the doctrine? The Reformers termed that frigida opinio, cold opinion, with which a person may agree with to the last detail but not have it touch them inside. It doesn't put them into action, fire up their passion, or change their behaviors or their attitude toward life. It is very much a dead letter, a cold corpse. Doctrines are signs for the journey of faith, marking directions, distances, intersections, caution areas, identifying roads, and such. Try to drive around without them, and you'll get lost. Or into accidents -- sometimes fatal to yourself and others. But they are neither the road nor the destination nor the vehicle nor the reason for traveling. And there is always a way back.
Truth is not just something said or communicated or taught. Truth can also be in the doing, flowing out from a specific event in time and space. Truth can be discovered in what happens, and can be supported by other things that happen. Truth can be found not just in thought, but in deeds; not just in doctrine but in action, like the Spirit is in action. This is what happened at Pentecost -- the Spirit made an event of it, things happened, supported by fire and language miracles, and people took action. Through that 'happening' and those actions the truth of Christ was spread. We worship, we serve, we evangelize: we do the truth. When the Spirit is in us, so is Christ; Christ is truth, and so then collectively we embody something of that truth. This is one of the ways the Spirit relates life in Christ to our own lives.
If all that is true, then what of theology? Theology cannot be drawn purely from experience. It's one step removed from that, even at its closest. In theology, and especially in a spirit-theology or pneumatology, people try to understand God's doings among humans and in creation as a whole, so as to better follow Christ. Thus it's not direct, but 'processed' through our minds.
We go about theology with lots of resources -- only one definitive resource (Scripture), but with an array of non-definitive or less-definitive resources such as tradition, relationships (including the fellowship of other Christians around us), the work of opening up yourself throught spiritual disciplines, taking full part in Christian worship, in the sacrament of Communion with the gathered believers, the life of prayer, etc etc. And according to any honest spirit-theology, you, too, are a resource. Hasn't God been at work in you? Haven't you seen God at work in the lives around you? Don't you bear God's image? Your faith experiences and your thoughts are rightly and justly a part of the picture of theology! Yet, you are a limited, broken, corrupted, and often-deceived resource, one among many in a vast world of other resources. Thus, your experiences are only a part of a bigger picture, important but not the whole story, a part whose meaning cannot be found, except :
(3) within the tapestry woven in Scripture;
(2) in the good news that stands at Scripture's core;
(1) most of all, in the Christ that made the good news happen.
These are the tools of spiritual discernment, the Spirit's way of cross-checking us against the results of the distortions of sin.
By the way, if I substituted the word 'reason' for 'experience' in what I just wrote above, the same would apply. The mistake of many theologians, scholars and thinkers over the years has been that they trivialize the rest of the resources, or worse, make them bow the knee to the great god Reason. The mistake of many believers today (especially new believers, people who have had very powerful experiences, and some
pentecostalists) is that the other resources are made slave to 'experiences'.
Back to index
"As a foolish church presupposes his presence and action in its own existence, in its offices and sacraments, ordinations, consecrations, and absolutions, so a foolish theology presupposes the Holy Spirit.... Only where the Spirit is sighed, cried, and prayed for does he become present and newly active."
God-Talk Can Disconnect From Life
Scholastics and others who stress theology and doctrine do something important for Christians. They teach us that belief has a content to it, without which it is wrong belief and perhaps even evil belief. However, in mainstream circles at least, the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought an extreme tipping of the balance, treating theological formulation and inquiry as being more important than the development of such things as trust, faith, love of neighbor, and amendment of life. Eventually, thinkers think their way into explaining how the bad is really good, and creating all sorts of excuses for what is, on the face of it, sin.
Not that there was no precedent for it: Luther railed against the dogmatism of the Catholic Church of his day, but Lutherans themselves only a few generations later lapsed into a scholasticism which nearly severed the ties between that which is to be believed and the person's life of faith in Christ. The change could even happen within a lifetime, as with Calvin and the early Calvinists, and the way they ran the city of Geneva. Pietists such as the Wesleys, Otterbein, Spener, Hauge, and the founders of the Evangelical Covenant in the US and the Inner Missions in Europe, set about to restore the vitality of the relationship between the believer and God, a relationship that is itself a work of the Holy Spirit. (That some pietist churches eventually made themselves slaves to their behavioral codes is a matter of history, but it didn't have to happen that way.)
WRITING THE SPIRIT BACK IN
Critics of the charismatic movement have often charged the charismatic renewal with a "unitarianism of the Spirit". In a way, it's unfair; they are as attentive to Jesus as mainstream church people are. But some of them are rather 'binarian'. I've been to Pentecostalist services where God the Father is mentioned only a few times, usually in the Lord's Prayer and in the blessing when leaving. The bold, mighty First Person of the Trinity is often reduced to a petty persnickety judge, or even worse, a warm fuzzy teddy bear.
Charismatics would counter that the church has, for many centuries, written the Holy Spirit out of the Trinity. That too is not entirely fair. The Eastern Orthodox have a rather lively sense of the Holy Spirit as God. The Lutherans have leaned rather heavily on the Spirit's arrival in Baptism to explain their theology of justification and sanctification. The Methodists and Anabaptists, each in their own way, highlighted the Spirit's work in reshaping one's way of living. But even in those churches, and more certainly in others, the overall scope of the Spirit's work was generally ignored, and the very specific work of the Spirit in giving gifts was even denied. While the Spirit can work through process, the Spirit does not automatically work in processes nor do those in the process automatically hear the Spirit. Since they did not seek the Spirit with any sort of earnestness, the Spirit was in practice written out of the decision-making process of most church structures. Until the later years of Karl Barth among theologians, and the influence of the Azusa Street movements in the grass roots, the Holy Spirit was reduced to something we zipped past in the creeds, something which the more educated folks were hoping Christians would outgrow. Or, occasionally someone who advocated a particular change would say "The Spirit's doing this!", no matter how out of whack it may be with Scripture or common sense.
Luther was well aware that his emphasis on grace could lead us away from living a new life, and onto the path of having no standard of sin and little sense of hazard or consequence for what we do (the belief called 'antinomianism'). He saw the work of the Holy Spirit as being the link that gives us Christ, and thus Christ's tough
"Antinomians fail to see that they are preaching Christ without and against the Holy Spirit because they propose to let the people continue in their old ways and still pronounce them saved. And yet logic, too, implies that a Christian should either have the Holy Spirit and lead a new life, or know that he has no Christ."
(from *On the Councils and the Church*, Luthers Works [Pelikan/Lehmann ed.], vol. 41, p.115.)
what the long word 'pneumatology' means.
KNOWING AND DOING
In the Gospel of John (7:14-18), those at the temple where Jesus was preaching wondered about how Jesus could know so much without being schooled by the rabbis. Jesus replied that his teachings were not his, but God's, and then said that those who do what God wants will know where the teaching comes from. Jesus thus linked the knowing to the doing -- not as much to the content of knowledge as to the purpose of it.
Back to index
A GORY GLORY
Many leading Pentecostalist preachers speak endlessly of glory, of the 'chosen' and the 'elect', of claiming victory. It is, to them, more than a mere accent within the faith; it is the whole secret to living in the faith. It doesn't take very long for one to notice something wrong here: it seems clinical, automatic, easy, whitewashed. Nothing is said about how to get there; it's something to be just simply claimed and enjoyed. Even their struggles get stripped down and neatly filed into the past. To me, that sounds like a promotional keg of beer, or a one-night stand; one doesn't ask where the cost lies as long as it's not extracted right now. Yet it's proving to be as popular as the beer.
A more truly Christian view of glory flows out from the risen Christ of Easter and from the Spirit's arrival at Pentecost, but to take part in that glory, you have to take it up Jesus' own road -- by first taking it through the death and the resurrection of Christ (Matt 10:38-39). This turning to the Cross (just like turning to our baptism) is a constant thing, showing itself in new ways with each new moment. If this turning is not happening, the glory is not of God. These particular preachers don't take the cross anything near seriously enough. Christians have something to celebrate, but they also are called on to take up their crosses and follow. That's messy, painful. Perhaps even bloody. Need I say you're not going to feel glorious doing it? Many theologians of the cross have too often short-ended the glory part of it, relentlessly critiquing any talk of victory even where victory has already started showing itself. God's resurrected life and God's glory are every bit as real as God's death. The Kingdom is not just coming, but has already begun. If and only if we share in Jesus' death, then we share in the new life, and only because of that we can share in the glory.
BOTH CROSS AND EMPTY TOMB
A stress on the theology of the cross can become twisted up by dwelling on the down side of everything: a lot of thinking and talking about weakness, poverty, suffering, helplessness, alienation, or inner conflict. The Catholic orders of the Middle Ages stressed 'servitude' so much that many of their monks and nuns developed a sense of self so weak that they were left unable to love or serve with all the effectiveness and possibilities at their disposal. It's not just our anger that the sun shouldn't set on. It's also our wallowing in fear or self-pity, our navel-gazing, or our nit-picking at ourselves. (The phrase 'let go and let God' comes to mind.) Then, there's the tendency to make our struggles seem gargantuan, in order to give ourselves excuses for failure or to produce oohs and aahhhs from other people. But Christ is much bigger than our puny "great big" struggles, and his work on the cross is much mightier and much tougher than any obstacle we might face. His victory is the biggest win ever.
Within our lives, the theology of the cross is shown in the crucified self, and the theology of the empty tomb is shown in the believer's newness of life.
Back to index
"All my life as a theologian I’ve been aware that it is very difficult for us…to get the balance right between cross and resurrection. I think the only way you can really do it is by making sure that whenever you talk about the cross you remind yourself that we’re talking about the cross of the one who was subsequently raised from the dead."
N. T. Wright on the Newsworthy with Norsworthy Podcast