by Thomas Haviland-Pabst
In a lieu of a more rigorous theological piece (don’t worry, many more of those will be forthcoming), I feel compelled to write something on the character of Christian theology. Such a piece was in fact in my mind as something that I was concerned to communicate at the outset of my blog in order to set the tone, but, it was ‘put on the back-burner,’ as it were. So, with that, I would like the readers of this blog to consider the Christian character of Christian theology.
Theological inquiry and construction are not merely intellectual exercises. Despite the sometimes heard description of theology as a “sacred science,” which gives the implication that it is a science of sacred (i.e., religious) things, it is far more, although not less than, a “science.” Theological inquiry and construction—or, more briefly, theologizing—is an extension of one’s character. This can have both ill and beneficial consequences for if a person’s character is inclined toward in a less than desirable direction, then so will their theology be.Admittedly, though, this is to put it rather simplistically. Rather, we are, in one very real sense, a mixture of good and evil. If one is apart from or without Christ, one is, at base, evil, yet, even still, as being made in the image of God (Gen 1), there is a reflection of God’s good character. To illustrate my point, there is a code or standard of ethics even among the most heinous of murders or cunning of thieves.
And, indeed, for the one united to Christ, there is a mixture of good and evil, albeit in a far different sense than the prior example for the starting point of such a person is in Christ and therefore the indwelling sin is an aspect of that person which will one day pass away but is currently remaining, awaiting the consummation of redemption at Christ’s return. To put in scholastic terms, the sin in a believer’s life is accidental.
The purpose of this brief foray into Christian anthropology (i.e., the doctrine of humanity) is to the set the stage for our point in this post, namely, that Christian theologizing ought to be an extension of one’s Christian character. This ‘ought’ is an ethical ought. That is to say, it is not true to say that such theologizing is an extension of one’s Christian character for if this were the case than all theologizing would be, of necessity, reflecting of a person’s union with Christ, and, therefore, reflective of Christ. But we know, perhaps all too well, that this is far too often not the case.
Now, the importance of the ethical component of theologizing must not be missed. All truth, in one very real and tangible sense, is ethical in orientation. Truth is, as it were, an ought that should be affirmed and acted upon. Truth stands against lies, falsehood and inaccuracy. Truth, moreover, is deeply personal. Ethics do not stand outside of nor can they be abstracted from persons. Even a code of ethics in a particular profession (say, e.g., the medical professional) is crafted by an individual or group of individuals who have certain principles and situations in mind upon crafting such a code. Therefore, theologizing, which seeks to clear a way for theological accuracy, understanding, and, dare we say, truth is entirely ethical and entirely personal. To divorce theologizing from the ethical and, consequently, the personal dimension is to undermine the very nature of truth.
To put in more positive biblical terms, theologizing must be guided by two great commandments as taught by Christ: “[y]ou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. … [y]ou shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37, 39 ESV). These two commandments summarize the entirety of that which God requires of humanity (cf. Matt 22:40) and hence it encapsulates and envelopes all Christian theologizing, if one grants the assumption that theologizing is necessarily ethical and personal (as I trust we’ve demonstrated, even if incompletely).
Put simply, theologizing has both a Godward and human-ward direction. Expounding on Jesus’ teaching, to love God with one’s entire being is to worship God; to love our neighbor as ourselves is to uphold the value and dignity of human beings, who are made in the image of God, and, therefore, is to worship God by honoring and valuing what he honors and values. Put negatively, to fail to love God in such an all-absorbing way is to fail to worship God, replacing God, in turn, with something less than God: an idol. Given that love for one’s neighbor entails worshiping God, failure to do so “as oneself,” indeed self-sacrificially (cf. Lk 10:30ff; Jn 15:13; Phil 2:1-11), is to lapse into idolatry.
The height and breadth of these two commands should give any theologian, whatever his or her status or rank, some pause. If one grants the correctness of our exposition of these two great commandments, then it naturally follows that, to varying degrees and in varying ways, we are all guilty of and often lapse into idolatry. The bearing of this on theologizing should be clear. Theologizing is a task (or action or endeavor) which is, at bottom, concerned with God; whether it is God in relation to human beings, the entirety of creation, or himself. And, it is also necessarily personal and ethical; indeed, in light of the two great commandments, it is an aspect of worship.
We can all admit that we worship God imperfectly, that is, we vacillate between worship of the true God and false gods, which are in fact not gods. Therefore, we can (or should) also admit that, despite our best efforts, intellectual endowments, traditions, etc., we are, at best imperfect and consistently inaccurate or, to put it bluntly, a perpetrator of lies. For, if the two great commandments envelope theologizing, then, just as we fail to, in the plainest sense, fulfill these commandments, so we fail to fulfill them as they apply to and undergird theologizing.
We will round off our discussion here noting what the apostle Paul says in Gal 6:1: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” As was implied above, theologizing, as worship, is a spiritual activity, whether for God’s glory or for the robbing of the same. Therefore, we ought to help those who are transgressing truth, attempting to restore them (here’s the logic: truth is ethical, lack of truth or suppressing truth is a lie, therefore, theological error can be construed as a transgression), recognizing that we ourselves are in great need, oft-blind to our own moral and spiritual failures, and therefore, we should do so with gentleness. Or, as the apostle says it elsewhere, we must speak “the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). Love, humility, gentleness and worship of God must be the foundation and direction toward which we press in our theological inquires and constructions.
Although much more could be said, we will conclude with a final teaching from Scripture. After noting that “all is vanity” (Eccl 12:8), the author of Ecclesiastes writes, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13). Notice that the two things, “fear God” and “keep … commandments” is taken as one (“this is” or זֶה) rather than two; that is, fearing God by obeying him is our “whole duty” toward him—worship, which includes theologizing, is full-orbed (i.e., in light of the two great commandments). Therefore, failure to treat theologizing as an act of worship of the Triune God—in Christ, by the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father—is to undermine the very task at the outset.