What is Theology?

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I have recently taken part in several conversations about theology that revolve around its nature and processes. Meanwhile, in the Pentecostal academy of today it is becoming more and more acceptable to lean towards a philosophical theology that does not require nor provide much Scriptural support. The argument for this type of theology usually revolves around one of a few points: 1) Pentecostal theology is about hearing what the Spirit is saying to the Church today. 2) Such theology should be acceptable because it has some precedent in the history of theology, even if the precedent is from a theology that has been declared and/or considered anathema. 3) Such theology should be acceptable because it agrees with at least one aspect of the biblical story or nature of God, etc. For these reasons, I have decided to attempt to offer some clarity within this milieu.

(Before I begin, I want to offer a bit of a disclaimer because I have often been erroneously accused of several things, one of which is being against philosophy and/or using philosophy for theology. I am not against using or remaining in conversation with philosophy in the development of theology. I am also not arguing a biblicist position, as historic biblicists were strict literalists that rejected historical research of the biblical text.)

I have chosen to offer this in sort of a copy and paste form from works that I have had to concentrate on for PhD studies. I think that these works that I have covered are invaluable for understanding the task of theology. Furthermore, I believe that these contributions will show the problematic nature of the philosophical theology that has become so popular in Pentecostal circles today. I will begin with a bit of Western history regarding biblical understanding and its interaction with philosophy. I will then cover some works that speak more directly to the issue of theology and study of the biblical text.

Western History Through the Lens of Philosophy and the Bible

From the beginning of what is now known as “Europe,” there was a tension between historical and philosophical streams of thought, one flowing from Greece and Rome and the other from Israel. The biblical story contradicted the thoughts of the great Greek philosophers like Philo and Aristotle. The intellectual leaders of the early European tribes were taught to think in Greek and Latin. In addition, Greek rationality excluded the possibility of finding truth in the biblical story. This meant that Christians had to take on the intellectual task of relating the story of the Bible to classical thought. Christians sought to convey the fact that God had acted in a way that, if believed, must thereafter determine all ways of thinking. This new radical reality is that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1.14). The problem for Christians trying to communicate this fact was that it required a radically new way of thinking.

Acceptance of the Christian message about Jesus meant rejection of two basic dualisms of classical thought: material and spiritual, and being and becoming. However, the new Christian paradigm also provided a new starting point for a whole new chapter in human thought and action that would shape what we now call Europe. Reality was no longer unknowable – it was made available in the person of Jesus Christ. One of the profound advancements came as a result of the theology of Cappadocians in the late fourth century. Their four guiding principles, based on faith in biblical revelation and developed in discussion with the science of their day, provided the foundation for the development of science in Europe. This new way of thinking broke with the classical tradition by rejecting the idea of the subject-object model and purporting a new way to obtain knowledge that could only come about through relationship. The idea is perhaps best represented by Augustine’s now famous phrase “I believe in order to know.” The message of the Christians was spread across the rural tribes of Europe by the monastic movement. As a result of the spread of Christian teaching, the biblical story became the one story that shaped the understanding of who Europeans were, where they came from, and where they were going. The biblical story was the story that shaped their mental framework and the barbarian tribes into the cultural and spiritual entity that separated Europe from Asia. Unfortunately, the European mindset would be challenged again by Greek philosophy in the form of doubt.

While the biblical way to knowledge reigned in European thought, Greek philosophy was going through a kind of ‘rediscovery’ in the East. In fact, Islam had incorporated Aristotelian philosophy into the heart of its theology. Before long, Muslim theologians began to have an impact upon the thinking of Europe. This began in Spain with people like Averroes and spread into Europe. The result was a movement called skepticism that was based upon reason and Greek philosophy.  

The Enlightenment

Enter Rene Descartes, who was originally commissioned to battle the skeptics but ended up adopting their system and promoting methodological doubt. In Proper Confidence Lesslie Newbigin aptly points out how methodological doubt came to permeate the search for understanding.  Through the work of Descartes understanding was limited to what a thinking mind could discover as truth through the process of continual skepticism. In his initial effort to challenge the skepticism of his day, he actually rejected the Augustinian paradigm based upon faith for a foundation built upon skepticism. Knowledge based upon authority, tradition, or belief was tossed aside and only that which could be logically ascertained or deduced was preserved. In effect, doubt replaced belief and all beliefs were to be doubted. Descartes effectively dichotomized philosophy from theology and proclaimed philosophy as superior. He believed that reason alone could provide certain knowledge. Descartes’ goal was to build a structure of knowledge that had the clarity and indubitability of mathematics.

Similar to Descartes, the Enlightenment removed any idea of authority and placed reason in the position of absolute power. The Enlightenment had a drastic affect upon understanding and how humanity sought to obtain knowledge and explain the world around them. In fact, reason came to be regarded as a natural faculty of humanity – a basic human ability or skill. “Reason simply is; it is humankind in its intellectual nature.” Therefore, reason also came to be considered transcendent. It was an intellectual legislator that was answerable to none but itself.In the Enlightenment, the primary means of attaining knowledge through reason was the scientific method. It was believed that only the scientific method could produce objective truth. Only scientific knowledge that could be acquired through the use of mathematics was viewed as true knowledge. It was believed that through science the researcher could objectively study and come to understanding. Thus science was seen as superior knowledge due to its claim to complete objectivity–it was free from all uncertainty.

It was only a matter of time before the elevation of reason and the use of the scientific method had an effect upon biblical studies. Gradually, scholars began to examine the canon of Scripture by using the methods of science. The profound impact of this had far reaching implications. No longer were the texts of the church to be viewed as the authoritative word of God–they were to be looked at as historical writings that could be subjected to the rigorous testing of the scientific method. Furthermore, tradition and faith were to be discarded as one approached the text with complete scientific objectivity. The Christian Bible, and the God of it, effectively became an object that could be studied by the scholar at a distance using the human capacity for reason to decide truth.

What is Theology and How Should We Do It?

In his book Holiness, John Webster argues that theology is a holy task that is proudly founded upon certain presuppositions or beliefs. It is also a task that is performed within a relationship – a relationship with the Holy Trinity and the community of believers. In fact, theology is a part of the sanctification of reason by the holy God. Webster’s argument is that theology is an exercise of holy reason that “has its context and content in the revelatory presence of the Holy Trinity which is set forth in Holy Scripture.” Furthermore, theology is an endeavor “undertaken in prayerful dependence upon the Holy Spirit.” It is an exercise in the community of God, serving the confession of the Church. Therefore, “it is a work in which holiness is perfected in the fear of God; and its end is the sanctifying of God’s holy name.”

Webster argues that reason must be reconciled to the holy God if it is to work well. This means that the holiness of theology comes in relation to the sanctifying presence of God. Reason is a creation of God that requires reconciliation and sanctification. And holy theology is possible due to the self-communicative character of the God of the Christian faith. God’s self-revelation presents away to know him through relationship. God’s self-presentation is a free act of mercy; it is an act of reconciliation and fellowship. This also means that holy theology is always done in the terrifying presence of God. Holy theology is thus a positive science – it works from and towards the given of God’s communicative presence. “Theology’s content, its object, is always subject….” Theology’s relation to its content is never one of master but servant. For Webster, reason is not an independent master that can summon God but is summoned by God into his presence. God’s presence is encountered through his self-revelation – Holy Scripture. Encountering God through Scripture is one of the basic presuppositions of holy theology. This means that holy reason is exegetical reason, directed by the reading of the texts which are the words of God. Holy theology, or holy reason, thus finds its norm and its limit in the authoritative canon of Scripture.

Webster points out that “as an exercise of holy reason, Christian theology is a venture undertaken in prayerful dependence upon the Holy Spirit.” As aforementioned, reason must be reconciled to God in order to make truthful judgments. God does this through the work of the Holy Spirit. The work of holy reason requires a dying and rising again. By the Holy Spirit and through the cross of Christ, reason is judged and destroyed before being raised again and given new direction. This means that holy reason is always turned towards the knowledge of God. The exercise of holy theology is also inextricably connected to the community of believers. Specifically, holy theology is reason that is designated to serve the community’s confession of the Holy Trinity. Holy reason is thus an ecclesiastical science; it is an activity of the gathered community of the church which is founded and structured by the Word of God as his revelatory presence. In turn, God’s majestic presence perfects holy reason as the theologian is encountered by the hallowed one. Reason can only be holy if it resists its own capacity for idolatry and recognizes its place before God. The end of the work of theology as holy reason is to sanctify God’s holy name. Yet this sanctifying adds nothing to God but is simply an acknowledgement and indication of what is. This means that intellectual activity can and should not be dichotomized from other acts of discipleship. Holy theology, as an aspect of holy reason, is therefore a human communal endeavor that is a means of thinking and speaking about the holy God – it is a form of praise.

Like the philosopher Polanyi, Webster denies the abandonment of tradition, faith, and presuppositions in the process of obtaining knowledge. In fact, it is only armed with these elements that the theologian can do holy theology. Reason cannot banish the presence of God from the sphere of its operation. This means that reason cannot be dichotomized from relationship or elevated as transcendent judge over all. It also means that holy reason, or holy theology, is done within the economy of God’s dealings with his creatures. Reason is thus like all other aspects of creation – it is in need of reconciliation to God. It is not the master but the humble pupil. It is a receptive and not a poetic enterprise. This means that the work of theology can be held responsible – responsible to God and responsible to the community of faith. Theology is then to be done in prayerful dependence upon the work of the Holy Spirit to reconcile the theologian’s reason to God. Of course, these ideas are in direct contradiction with the Enlightenment model of reason as sole arbiter of truth and its relegation of faith and confession to the realm of myth.

Because theology should stand in prayerful relationship to the Holy Spirit, and God has revealed himself as a fellowship creating Trinity, theology should then find its existence in the realm of the church. This is powerful because it means that theology is accountable to the community of the saints. As part of the church, theology partakes of the same judgment that the Word pronounces, receives the same absolution, and is renewed by the same Spirit – it is an integral part of the body of Christ. Theology is thus also responsible to the community of faith. Whereas the Enlightenment model has caused many modern theologians to reject the use of confession and tradition within their theology, Webster gives these aspects a fundamental place of importance. Indeed, it would seem that aberrant theology would be less common if theologians placed a renewed emphasis upon confession and tradition.

Because holy theology is only done in relationship to God, it is bound by the authoritative canon of Scripture as its norm and limit. God has divinely chosen to speak to humanity through the mode of speech-acts. This is not to deny the reality of the incarnation but to affirm that, through the Holy Spirit, God chose to act in history through his word, including the divine Word made flesh. Holy Scripture thus provides theologians and biblical scholars with the divine authoritative means of communicating and understanding God’s self-presentation. Understanding Scripture in this way means that scholars cannot pick and choose which parts of Scripture are historically valid and which are human embellishment, for they are all the work of God to communicate and reveal himself to humanity. This also means that theologians cannot bifurcate certain portions of the biblical text or God’s character from other portions in order to argue their theological points.

The impact of Webster’s work could not be more profound for modern theology and biblical studies. No longer can Scripture be viewed as simply historical documents that can be subjected to scientific analysis. The word of God is authoritative and is the means of his self-revelation. Furthermore, the scholar cannot claim to stand outside of Scripture and relationship with God and
community in order to come to proper interpretation. Contrary to Enlightenment thought, reason is not the judge of all. All reason is part of creation and needs reconciliation to God. Theology and biblical studies are thus done in relationship to God and the community of believers. The study of God’s word is a somber endeavor that requires prayerful dependence upon the Spirit. Therefore, biblical studies and theology are works done in humbleness before the holy God with reverence, fear and praise. These aspects of Webster’s impact are paramount because they invalidate current beliefs and practices held by many biblical scholars concerning Scripture, the task of theology, the relationship of the theologian or biblical scholar to his or her work, the importance of the faith community, and their responsibility before God. Webster actually elevates theology in that he takes it from the limitations of a purely human science restricted by reason to a holy work of praise to God.

Conclusions

As aforementioned, there are serious problems within certain Pentecostal theological circles today. For instance, in his book Spirit Poured Out (that is critiqued on this blog), Amos Yong builds his entire argument around a faulty interpretation of Acts 2. This leads him to argue for a universalistic “renewal of the cosmos.” In other settings, he has argued that just as the NT authors “reinterpreted” the OT in light of Christ, Pentecostal theologians can and should reinterpret the NT in light of what “the Spirit is saying.” He has also gone on to say that Christians should not be surprised to meet a religious other (Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, etc.) and find that they already have the Spirit. Of course, this is more than problematic because those who have the Spirit are always insiders – they are saved through Christ. Matthew Thompson has recently entered this milieu with his work Kingdom Come: Revisioning Pentecostal Eschatology. Essentially, Thompson follows similar paths as those of Yong in arguing for a very positive and inclusive view of the eschaton. He also takes steps to turn the Christocentric nature of biblical eschatology into Pneumacentric and reimagines eternal punishment as some philosophical cessation of existence in reality. The conclusions are nuanced when compared to some of the other current Pentecostal theologians that lean heavily upon philosophy, but much of the methodology and hermeneutic is the same. Christology is replaced with Pneumatology while a very fluffy “renewal of the cosmos” is purported.

In the beginning, I mentioned how the Pentecostal academy of today it is becoming more and more acceptable to lean towards a philosophical theology that does not require nor provide much Scriptural support. The argument for this type of theology usually revolves around one of a few points: 1) Pentecostal theology is about hearing what the Spirit is saying to the Church today. 2) Such theology should be acceptable because it has some precedent in the history of theology, even if the precedent is from a theology that has been declared and/or considered anathema. 3) Such theology should be acceptable because it agrees with at least one aspect of the biblical story or nature of God, etc. As one can see from reading Augustine and others, prior to the Enlightenment or after the Reformation, Scripture was always central to theology. Philosophy was never considered adequate on its own in the development of theology; it was often a contributor but not the norm and limit – the standard. Furthermore, theology is done in relationship through the power of the Spirit who is faithful to Scripture just as Jesus was/is. This means that one cannot rightly claim to receive a theology of the Spirit that is contrary to the Word of God, or to the full story of Scripture and the full nature of God! Lastly, just because one’s theology is not new but has been argued by misguided theologians of the past does not mean that one has a right to rehash it all over again or repackage such misguided attempts in new wrappings – especially if such a theology or theologies has been rejected by the community of believers and is inconsistent with Holy Scripture. Hopefully, we can learn from history and move forward with a Pentecostal theology that is more balanced and biblically based.       

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