In the foreword to Camden Bucey’s recent contribution to the Great Thinkers series (on Karl Rahner), Chris Castaldo offers a description of faithful theologizing in service to the church and for the glory of God:

A responsible theologian exhibits faith that seeks understanding, guided by the illumination of the Spirit—a faith that demonstrates the interrelationship of all truth. Without allowing doctrine to sit in abstract isolation from the whole, the good theologian is called to set his ideas within the full body of Christian thought, examining their veracity against the ultimate source of authority, the inspired text of Scripture. Furthermore, theology must never be an entrepreneurial endeavor; rather, it is undertaken on the shoulders of the two-millennia-strong Christian community. Finally, the theologian always understands his calling as worship.

I’d like to point out some key components of this marvelous description.

Begin with Faith

The journey starts with faith. Faith is not the end of the theologian’s work, but the beginning—the foundation and first principle upon which the search for further understanding can take place.

Trust the Spirit

The theologian’s undertaking is not a singular search. The illuminating guidance of the Spirit matters as we pore over the sacred Scriptures. We look to him for wisdom.

Acknowledge All Truth

The theologian integrates the revealed truth of Scripture with the truths we discover in the world. The categories of general revelation and special revelation matter here: we take God’s special revelation as the basis for further reflection while acknowledging that “all truth is God’s truth,” and thus we are open to whatever we might discover in nature and society as a result of common grace.

Keep the Big Picture in Mind

Castaldo warns against theologizing that abstracts doctrine from the Story in which it makes sense. It’s not merely the championing of a doctrine that makes a faithful theologian, but the ability to incorporate a doctrine into the larger body of theology, recognizing its place, understanding its importance, but ever and always connected to the rest of the story.

Respect Tradition

Our ultimate source of authority is the inspired and inerrant Word of God. The reformational understanding of sola scriptura is not that Scripture is the only authority we consider, but that it’s the supreme authority by which all lesser authorities must be judged.

For this reason, we do not despise or reject “little t” tradition, nor do we take lightly the creeds and confessions we’ve inherited. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Even if the Scriptures remain the ultimate source of authority and thus stand over the Christian tradition, we adopt a posture of respect and deference to our forefathers and mothers in the faith.

Don’t Look for Novelty

Theology is not “an entrepreneurial endeavor.” Instead, we should resemble Thomas Oden, who once said he wanted his tombstone to read, “He made no new contribution to theology.” Perhaps that’s an overstatement, as faithful theologians often uncover insights that feel fresh and new as we deepen our understanding of the treasures of the gospel and restate and apply old truths in new settings. Still, Oden’s general posture is the right one: don’t be swayed by novelty or the desire to tear down the work of others and build your own in its place, but dig deeper into whatever has stood the test of time.

Read Widely

Castaldo encourages theologians to avoid the “echo chamber” that often makes it impossible to hear anything other than a single voice.

When our faith seeks understanding in the same predictable and finite place (the same authors, journals, and conversation partners) without ever listening to outside voices, we unwittingly find ourselves in a doctrinal echo chamber—the kind of “bubble trouble” that impoverishes theological reflection.

Read and reflect outside your tradition so you learn to celebrate truth wherever it may be found, to carefully discern truth from falsehood in even our most beloved heroes, and to follow truth wherever it leads.

Make Worship the Goal

The most important aspect of this definition comes at the end: the theologian must always understand the task of theology as worship. We do our work to the glory of God and we serve the church in order that others might glorify him also. Faithful theologizing is doxological through and through.

It’s why, in of his most theologically profound letters, the apostle Paul breaks out into worshipful adoration of God for salvation. It’s why Augustine’s theological treatises are issued from the heart of the one who wrote Confessions, a chronicle of life and theological reflection offered up as a prayer to the Almighty. It’s why Anselm’s most profound works include prayers like these:

O my God, teach my heart where and how to seek you, where and how to find you. . . . Teach me to seek you. I cannot seek you unless you teach me or find you unless you show yourself to me. Let me seek you in my desire, let me desire you in my seeking. Let me find you by loving you, let me love you when I find you.

There’s an unquenchable thirst, an insatiable longing, at the heart of great theology—a desire for union with God. Perhaps this is one reason that one of today’s oft-neglected books (Song of Songs) was commonly seen as the capstone of the Old Testament by many of our forebears—not because of its picture of human marriage but because of its pointing to something divine.

In this sense, one of the greatest contributions of the theologian is to awaken the senses of his readers, to make what is unfamiliar understandable and what is familiar strangely fresh. And keeping in mind the worshipful goal of theology means we should seek to cultivate virtue and obedience so that our lives reflect the holiness of which we speak. In all of this, may the Spirit guide us into truth so that at the end of all our theologizing, we hear the words of our Savior, “Well done.”

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