Volume 16 - Issue 2

What is theology for?

By Christopher J.H. Wright

Servant-leadership is no joke. But it was fuel for many a joke at the theological college in India where I used to teach. That was because we took it very seriously. And humour is a safety-valve from the pressure of things we are most earnest about. The college in question was in the throes of the kind of introspective self-flagellation that only a full curriculum review can produce. We were not in business, we told ourselves stoutly, to turn out theological tadpoles—with heads stuffed full of academic theology but no preparation for practical ministry. We were looked to by the churches, we liked to believe, to train fresh generations of leaders. But, and this was our battle-cry, in the Bible true leadership was found in servanthood. Hence our goal and vision: design a curriculum of theological training which would motivate and equip our students to be servant-leaders. The idea saturated our time, our committees and our conversations until, as I said, humour relieved it without diminishing the seriousness of the intention.

Cross-cultural sensitivity is no joke either. But at the college where I currently teach, it is the theme of many a student skit and much ‘in-house’ humour. Again, this is because we take it very seriously. Partly because we have to. As a close-knit community of students from some thirty different countries, the smooth functioning of everyday life hangs on sensitivity and respect for diverse cultural backgrounds and viewpoints. But we take it seriously theologically also. The force of Galatians 3:28 or Ephesians 2 and 3 must be felt not merely exegetically but existentially. We can experience in microcosm some fraction of the global truth about the Christian gospel and the world-wide nature of the Christian church. We are confronted with the shock that some of what we once considered to be definitional of Christianity itself may owe more to our cultural history than to biblical revelation and so begin the painful process of constantly seeking to disentangle the two. This is hard in any culture. For white westerners it can be quite revolutionary. In the words of Rev Dr H.D. Beeby, reflecting on his missionary experience outside Europe: ‘There was the slow realization that God was an Asian man who went to Africa but never Europe, that the Word of God was almost all Asian and that early theology was mostly African, and that most of “my” Europe was the gift of people from Jerusalem and Alexandria and Nicea and Carthage.’1 So the jokes and skits are the froth on the surface, the evidence of a powerful propeller beneath driving us on in commitment to an understanding and a communication of the gospel which genuinely interacts with and challenges the kaleidoscope of human cultures.

What both these examples have in common (apart from your editor’s presence) is an awareness that the study of theology ought to be ‘for’ something. If the word means the study of God then it must surely share something of the living heartbeat of God’s ceaseless passion to change people, to change history, to change the world (provided of course that one believes in such a God and not, as the man replied when asked if he believed in a God who acted in history, ‘No, just the ordinary one’). Unfortunately the word has often served as a caricature for pointless and irrelevant cerebral activity. I think it was former British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who once remarked, ‘Forget the theology’, when presented with a lot of theory about something on which he wanted a more pragmatic answer. The word ‘academic’, of course, has already suffered that fate. So ‘academic theology’ is a double-barrelled turn-off for any committed person with activist tendencies. But should it be? What has produced this myth of the ivory tower?

Mediaeval scholasticism was not renowned for its integration with practical realities, so one can hardly lay all the blame for the marginalization of theology on the acids of post-Enlightenment scepticism about all things metaphysical. Nevertheless it is certainly true that once the western intellectual tradition removed God, religion and ethics from the realm of objectivity and what could really be known and relegated them to the subjective realm of values, opinions and beliefs, theology’s place as ‘Queen of the sciences’ was vulnerable to a palace coup. The danger has always been that theology would preserve its respectability by maintaining academic distance, as part of the liberal education ideal of learning for learning’s sake. The personal faith stance of the student was at best irrelevant and at worst a hindrance to genuine theological enquiry. A concern with ‘end product’—i.e. what kind of person with what kind of knowledge, skills and commitments would emerge at the end of the course—was somehow almost mercenary.

The achievements of this whole western theological tradition have been immense, of course, and as one who has been nurtured by it I am not lightly belittling that heritage. Nevertheless it is right to point out that it comes under fire from at least two directions. On the one hand, and familiar for several decades now, there is the trenchant critique that comes from those in other parts of the world whose theology is born out of costly engagement with the suffering and injustices that afflict the majority of humanity. For such theologians, the ivory tower is not even a luxury, but a liability. Theology (as one of our contributors in this issue points out) comes to life at the cutting edge of mission, and mission means involvement not detachment, praxis as well as reflection. This is the perspective of liberation theology. There are now so many varieties of this around the world that it is impossible to speak of a single common content, but what is common is the methodological criticism of an allegedly detached, cool, academically objective, pursuit of theology which, in their view, actually captivates the very dynamic core of theology itself. ‘Theology can be a coat of mail which crushes us and in which we freeze to death’—the words, not of a Latin American liberation theologian, but the renowned German systematic theologian, Helmut Thieliecke.2

On the other hand, there is a serious debate within the secular educational establishment itself between the claims of autonomous, liberal education and the view that education should be vocational training—i.e. a preparation for some skill, profession or service. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, but a preference for either will have marked effects on curriculum design. This is as true of theological and religious studies courses as any other. It has been a secular, national accrediting agency that forced our college to define and clarify the educational objectives of two new courses we submitted for validation. What kind of student will you admit? What kind of student will emerge? How do you propose to effect the change? Does your course have coherence as an educational experience? What is its motivation and rationale? What are your learner-teacher contract objectives? In the end it all comes back to the basic question—what is this course of theology for?

As we hammered out our curriculum, the goals we had in mind included these: to produce students who not only have biblical knowledge, but know how to use the Bible missiologically; who have not just learned other people’s theology, but know how to think theologically; who have not merely learned some facts of the history of the church, but can discern the lessons of history and their relevance in the present; who in their commitment to the church can think globally and act locally (to coin a phrase); whose zeal for Christ is deepened and not diminished by their study; whose discipleship means that learning is not left behind at the library door but becomes a life-long attitude and adventure. Doubtless you could add others.

Perhaps such goals are not at all implicit in the course of theological or religious studies you are engaged in. But they can still be adopted as a personal agenda. A useful exercise would be to sit down and write out your personal objectives in relation to your course—in as specific and measurable terms as possible. Then you will have a more active and self-directed engagement with it, rather than simply allowing its curriculum to hijack your critical (or spiritual) faculties. The benefit of such an exercise, of course, is not confined to students! All of us engaged in the theological task at any level can gain much by asking the disturbingly childlike question: what is all this for?

1 D.H. Beeby, ‘On having been a missionary’, in The Gospel and our Culture, Newsletter no. 7, Autumn 1990.

2 In a booklet still worth reading often, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Eerdmans, 1962), p. 36.

Christopher J.H. Wright

Principal, All Nations Christian College, Ware