How To Think Theologically

Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke, How To Think Theologically, 3rd edition. Fortress Press, 2006.

The intriguing title of this book perhaps begs a question or two.  Some readers might very well ask:  Why should one think theologically?  Or: who should do so, or, when or under what circumstances should one think theologically? And: do we already know what it means, or what it “looks like,” to think theologically (as opposed to “how to”)?  Is it just a matter of mentioning God a lot?

My own interest would be to begin with the “when and under what circumstances,” or more specifically, to historicize the question. The authors insist that it is every Christian’s right and duty to think theologically (although of course one might doubt whether that actually takes place). Thus, by implication, the church as a whole is or should be characterized by theological thinking.

To draw a contrast with the world of the Old Testament: some scholars insist that the practice of theology was not really a part of life in ancient Israel. That community was defined instead by practice.  To be in that community, there were things that you did and things that you did not do; practice, not theology, was the focus.

When did that focus change? One answer: theology, an intellectual discipline analyzing the concepts and categories of God and of faith, was generated when the gospel moved from Israel into the Hellenistic world, and thinkers like Justin Martyr (Christian) and Philo of Alexandria (Jewish) tried to explain it to a Platonically educated pagan audience in terms that the latter could understand.

Then, over the next centuries, theology really got going when a series of seven great ecumenical councils, seen to represent the entire Christian church, and sometimes presided over by the Roman Emperor himself (from Constantine onward), gathered to hammer out the precisely correct understanding of who Jesus was, and what was his relationship to God, eventually summarized as Trinitarian orthodoxy in the Nicene creed and its later clarifications.

The culture of the Greek-speaking, Byzantine and later Eastern Orthodox world raised public interest in theology to a pitch unmatched before or since. One example is Gregory of Nyssa’s widely quoted account of the mood in Constantinople at the time of the second ecumenical council.

The whole city is full of it, the squares, the market places, the cross-roads, the alleyways; old-clothes men, money changers, food sellers: they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask “Is my bath ready?” the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing.

On the Deity of the Son;  quoted in Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 35.

These debates about the Trinity, its persons, natures and processions, are often seen as quintessentially theological, and are still today capable of provoking passionate argument. Just this past summer, this was demonstrated within the Reformed corner of the internet, with a series of heated essays, blog posts and countless tweets arguing about the notion of the Eternal Generation and/or Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son.

However: this type of thinking theologically may not be exactly what Stone and Duke have in mind.  They are not addressing those who are already committed to thinking theologically out of personal interest or conviction.  Rather, they are addressing all members of the church, many of whom may be skeptical about the importance or value of thinking theologically, and aim to convince them of the importance of this task.

Toward the beginning of the book, they explicitly address a list of objections or excuses given by ordinary church members who do not see the value or interest of thinking theologically in their own lives.Against these doubters, Stone and Duke argue that thinking theologically is a way to deeper and better understand the meaning of Christian faith and its implications for all aspects of life.  

In this respect, I read this book as an outsider, since I was already convinced of the value of theological thinking. They didn’t need to sell me on it. Nevertheless, as far as I can tell, they made a good case. Especially in their brief, stylized case studies drawn from typical everyday situations in the life of a church, they gently show how important questions and decisions can be approached not merely according to habit or personal preference, but by thinking theologically and learning from that.

Although the authors make a commendable effort to address the different branches of Christianity ecumenically, the predominant perspective in the book is that of liberal Protestantism.  This is underscored by the fact that one of the co-authors is formally trained and credentialed in psychology (as opposed to academic theology), and the other co-author is an authority on Schleiermacher. As a theologian, Schleiermacher is widely known for making an effort to modernize Christianity by removing every aspect of Christian dogma that would be unpleasant or objectionable for post-Kantian, post-Humean idealists and deists, and famously concluding that the essence of Christianity is nothing other than a “feeling of absolute dependence.”

In other words, Stone and Duke’s perspective is strongly shaped by the de facto priority of human subjective experience. While human subjective experience is important, I am not convinced that it deserves quite as much deference as it is given by the academic field of psychology, or by Schleiermacher and his liberal heirs.  In fairness to the authors, they do an excellent job of acknowledging the wide range of Christian views on such subjects, as for example in the discussion of the four main ‘resources’ or ‘sources’ for theology as listed in the ‘Methodist quadrilateral’: scripture, tradition, reason and experience (pp. 48-57).

The problem with their perspective is that it is backwards. God speaks. God acts. These words and actions challenge, correct, or reshape our human subjective experience, and theology tries to make sense of what God has said and done, and of who God is. Any broad review of Christian testimony, from the Bible onwards, would find a consistent witness that first God calls, God chooses, God speaks, and then we respond. In my view, this book doesn’t quite acknowledge the incommensurability and priority of God to humanity, as strongly as it should have. 

One symptom of this shortcoming is that the name of Karl Barth does not appear in the book, and almost all of the works listed for further reading appear to be generally liberal Protestant in nature (although interestingly, Duke has co-edited an anthology on Barth and Schleiermacher, hopefully subtitled Beyond the Impasse?)

Does this methodological choice — God first, or human experience first — have any concrete implications? One such implication might be: if and when God speaks or acts in a way that is challenging or difficult for one to understand or accept, that could be an indication that this ‘god’ is not merely a projection of one’s own personal views and preferences, which is a major risk in thinking theologically (so Feuerbach).  

For example, the God to which the Bible testifies is not only a god of total compassion and mercy, who loves and accepts everyone and everything unconditionally, nor only a god of holiness, wrath and justice, who rewards the good people and punishes the sinners. Most humanly projected ‘gods,’ i.e. the results of theology done on the basis of human experience, incline toward one or the other of these sides of this false dichotomy, according to the different temperaments of human beings (including human theologians). But the God of the Bible is not really like either of the two ‘gods’ of that false dichotomy.

Another implication might concern the context of doing theology. The authors seem to emphasize thinking theologically in the context of daily life. To be sure, this is important, and to be sure, they acknowledge a broader context than this.  However, in my view, thinking theologically can only be done on the basis of knowing God, and knowing God can only occur within the context of prayer, worship, scripture study, and a life within the church of loving one’s neighbor and doing good works.  

That is, maybe the doing and the knowing can or must come before the thinking (as the example of Old Testament Israel would suggest, discussed above). “Thinking theologically,” in the abstract, may not be successful if this needed substrate is not present in the life of the thinker. Working too hard on thinking theologically (as the authors suggest) wouldn’t succeed, if that meant neglecting the doing and the knowing. Prayer, worship, scripture reading, etc. are absolute, unconditional prerequisites for thinking theologically, and I don’t think that the authors hammer on this hard enough.


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