A Right Approach to Theology

At SBL’s Annual Conference (the Society of Biblical Literature) in November I always pick up another edition or two of the Popular Patristics Series published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.  This year I picked up St Gregory of Nazianzus’ On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, which date from the late 4th century.  The first of the five orations is where Gregory sets out the methodology of approaching “theology” (the doctrines of the Holy Trinity) as opposed to “economy” (the study of the world).  He writes the following:

Discussion of theology is not for everyone, I tell you, not for everyone–it is no such inexpensive or effortless pursuit.  Nor, I would add, is it for every occasion, or every audience; neither are all its aspects open to inquiry.  It must be reserved for certain occasions, for certain audiences, and certain limits must be observed.  It is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul.  For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is or weak eyes to look at the sun’s brightness. . . . We need actually ‘to be still’ in order to know God, and we when we receive the opportunity, ‘to judge rightly’ in theology. (Oration 27.3)

Several moves in history have taken the contemporary church far away from this view of theology.  In ancient times some aspects of  the teaching of the church were reserved only for those willing to commit themselves to the church–those pursuing catechism or those already baptized.  That changed when Christianity became the official religion of the empire, which is roughly the context in which Gregory’s comment above is situated.  Later with the rise of the university, theology became (just) another topic of study, which unseated its centrality, but it also began to frame the way people can approach the topic.  The Reformation with all it’s benefits also in way watered down the study of theology.  No longer was theology limited to the clerical ranks (which was a good thing), but the democratized handling and interpreting the text meant that people at their own will and frame of mind (i.e., sole competency) will interpret the text without the need for a proper approach or interpretive community.  Some may approach it with Spirit-inspired eyes, but others may approach it with carnality.

With the Enlightenment this approach was further democratized and secularized.  We can “read the Bible like any other book.”  That means that the Bible is not to be given preference as a holy word from God, and the methods we use are the same ones we would use for Homer or Plato or Augustine.  To understand these texts in their historical context (to go behind the text), we don’t have to be holy or come with eyes of faith.  We just have to have the right methods.  Now, I’m not saying these methods were inherently wrong, any more than the idea of sole competency was a bad thing.  However, when the baby is thrown out with the bath water, or the pendulum swings from one direction to the other–resolving a perceived problem but thus creating another–then we recognize the problems it creates.

Paul, when speaking to the Corinthians, speaks of a knowledge only that the “Spiritual” have–those empowered by the cross of Christ and transformed by the Spirit (1 Cor 2-3).  There is knowledge that only comes to those who are in line with the Spirit, who are praying and reading with eyes of faith.  So, let us not fool ourselves into thinking that we have understood a text when we are living in disobedience to its commands.  Or as Gregory commends, be cautious even before you approach theology–to think and speak about God.  A couple of days after I read this text in Gregory, I was about to read further in his discussion of the Holy Trinity, but because of the actions I had done earlier and the frame of mind I was in, I heeded Gregory’s advice and put off the reading.  I didn’t want my thinking framed by unfaithfulness to lead me to form unholy views of God.  There is a time for God to speak to us in our brokenness, but there are other times when we need to be purified before reaching into the deeper things of God. “For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous.”

2 responses

  1. I think one of the dangers of the democratizing of theological study is that there is a loss of respect for those who have given more time and effort, prayer and meditation to the study of theology than others. In this iTunes generation some think a class or two is all that is needed. People who give their lives to study are not respected for it. This is something that should concern us.

    I’ve discussed this statement on my blog as well: http://nearemmaus.com/2010/02/26/the-discussion-of-theology-is-not-for-everyone/

  2. It seems an underlying current here is theology as truth. A right understanding of theology in many respects is a right understanding of truth. This exposes a second underlying current – one denominations truth based on their understanding of theology as espoused by their learned theologians can find itself directly in “conflict” with another denominations truth based on “their” understanding of theology as espoused by their learned theologians.

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