Pragmatism and the Practice of Theology

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By Joshua Heavin

Numerous decades ago, missiologist Lesslie Newbigin wrote about our impulse towards pragmatism in the post-Christendom West:

In discussions about the modern mission of the Church it is generally stated that the Church ought to address itself to the genuine concerns which people today are asking. That is to misunderstand the mission of Jesus and the mission of the Church. The world’s concerns are not the concerns which lead to life. What truly wants to be stated is that exactly where the Church is faithful to the Lord, there the powers of the kingdom are present and people today commence to ask the concerns to which the gospel is the answer. And that, I suppose, is why the letters of St. Paul include so numerous exhortations to faithfulness but no exhortations to be active in mission.

Newbigin’s contact to prioritize fidelity more than expediency remains a timely and tough word for the church these days. To be fair to these of us striving to answer the world’s concerns, we surely should really aim to really like our neighbor by removing avoidable stumbling blocks that lead to Christianity to appear weirder than essential to our neighbors who are indifferent or hostile to the faith.

Nonetheless, pragmatism can exert a sort of Babylonian captivity on our churches, manifest in marketing and advertising our churches as religious goods, solutions, and experiences to a consumeristic society such as online churches and faux-spontaneous baptisms. My concern right here is not mostly with these a lot more apparent and dismissible examples, but rather of equivalent trends that are significantly less readily detectable.

Even amongst our churches that try to take discipleship and instruction somewhat a lot more seriously, such discipleship and instruction can simply be practiced in a nonetheless pragmatic mode. For instance, a somewhat frequent refrain in North American churches is the assertion that “everybody is a theologian.” That phrase does not intend to communicate that every person wears tweed jackets, reads multi-volume books, or writes dry prose about obscure matters.

Rather, it is utilised to encourage skeptical or otherwise uninterested listeners to worth Christian doctrine and recognize that every person holds basic convictions about God, regardless of whether or not these convictions have been deliberately formed or acquired unawares. To the credit of this slogan, I have utilised it on various occasions and will likely do so once again in the future in order to encourage non-Christians and Christians alike to come to be lifelong learners as disciples of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, it is worth pausing to think about what occurs in the well-known imagination of the church when everyone – and therefore, no one in specific – is a theologian.

In the end, in our efforts to market theological mastering in the church, we need to stay clear of pursuing this commendable aim in a manner that betrays the topic matter in query. Theology, in other words, is not a hobby.

In the fourth century, amidst a conflict with the Eunomians, St. Gregory of Nazianzus lamented his predicament in which theology had come to be a widespread, trifling matter indistinguishable from sports banter or theater gossip. Notably, in the 1st of Gregory’s 5 theological orations on God and Christ, that would prove to be of tremendous historical value for the doctrine of the Trinity, Gregory writes:

But, in truth, they have undermined every single strategy to correct religion by their full obsession with setting and solving conundrums. They are like the promoters of wrestling-bouts in the theaters, and not even the sort of bouts that are performed in accordance with the guidelines of the sport and lead to the victory of one particular of the antagonists, but the sort which are stage-managed to give the uncritical spectators visual sensations and compel their applause. Each and every square in the city has to buzz with their arguments, every single celebration need to be created tedious by their boring nonsense. No feast, no funeral is totally free from them: their wranglings bring gloom and misery to the feasters, and console the mourners with the instance of an affliction graver than death. Even females in the drawing area, that sanctuary of innocence, are assailed, and the flower of modesty is despoiled by their rushing into controversy. Such is the predicament: this infection is unchecked and intolerable “the wonderful mystery” (1 Tim three:16) of our faith is in danger of becoming a mere social accomplishment.

In our personal context, “the wonderful mystery” of the Christian faith continues to be in danger of equivalent ailments, and not merely mainly because of an indifferent or hostile secularism in the West. Arguably, as in Gregory’s day, this challenge can be due to an ethos that we can unintentionally cultivate inside the church, and that is why we can find out from Gregory’s extraordinarily scandalous claim:

And you need to not be astonished if I speak a language which is strange to you and contrary to your custom, who profess to know all the things and to teach all the things in a also impetuous and generous manner… not to discomfort you by saying ignorant and rash.

Discussion of theology is not for every person, I inform you, not for every person – it is no such economical or effortless pursuit. Nor, I would add, is it for every single occasion, or every single audience neither are all its elements open to inquiry. It need to be reserved for specific occasions, for specific audiences, and specific limits need to be observed. It is not for all people today, but only for these who have been tested and have identified a sound footing in study, and, a lot more importantly, have undergone, or at the incredibly least are undergoing, purification of physique and soul. For one particular who is not pure to lay hold of pure issues is hazardous, just as it is for weak eyes to appear at the sun’s brightness.

What is the ideal time? Anytime we are totally free from the mire and noise without having, and our commanding faculty is not confused by illusory, wandering pictures, major us, as it had been, to mix fine script with ugly scrawling, or sweet-smelling scent with slime. We will need essentially “to be still” in order to know God, and when we obtain the chance, “to judge uprightly” in theology. Who should really listen to discussions of theology? These for whom it is a severe undertaking, not just an additional topic like any other for entertaining smaller-speak, just after the races, the theater, songs, meals, and sex: for there are people today who count chatter on theology and clever deployment of arguments as one particular of their amusements.

Gregory’s personal prescribed remedy cuts against our liberal democratic sensibilities it also cuts against the populist skepticism and suspicion of elites and experience lately detailed in Tom Nichols’ “The Death of Experience: The Campaign against Established Information and Why it Matters,” whereby ignorance can strangely come to be a virtue in numerous locations of contemporary life. As Alan Jacobs observes on equivalent instincts in evangelicalism:

These tendencies — activism and indifference to common public opinion — are not usually undesirable. Certainly, at occasions they have served the evangelical movement effectively, by maintaining it on mission. But an unconditional emphasis on activism can simply come to be anti-intellectual, which can restrain people today from considering about matters they truly will need to consider about. Following all, efficient activism will be informed activism.

Similarly, if you do not care what any person else thinks about you, you can simply obtain your self locked in an echo-chamber. It can come to be what C. S. Lewis known as an “Inner Ring,” a self-congratulating, self-justifying circle of people today who are “in the ideal.” So general, I consider conservative evangelicals have paid a hefty price tag for becoming unreflective and self-enclosed — also hefty a price tag.

To be absolutely clear, I’m not right here criticizing churches for hosting conversations for theological education with inquirers in a coffeehouse or pub – let alone undertaking theology in prisons, nurseries, nursing houses, slums, favelas, hospices, workplace break rooms, soccer fields, trailer houses, refugee camps, and illegal meetings held in secret. By no implies!

But what is deserving of the complete force of Gregory’s criticism is exactly where theology is regarded as a quaint, sentimental pastime for polite society, or an intuitive, populist recreation akin to podcasting that needs no rigorous instruction, and in each becomes practically nothing a lot more than an avenue for self-promotion.

Initially, the content material of our theology and the future viability of formal theological education is impacted when theology is broadly regarded in the church as a self-evident enterprise. For instance, one particular may possibly ask: “with all the pressing wants our neighborhood and church are facing, why do we will need to concentrate our restricted sources on institutions devoted to theological education, or equip people to study ancient languages and texts for the goal of theological inquiry, when ‘theology’ is some thing that every person currently does, and I can do fairly straightforwardly with my Bible, Wikipedia.com, sermon audio, and a handful of well-known books?”

Even though not every person is known as to formal, academic study, we will need to stay clear of intentionally or unintentionally generating the impression that such instruction is a superfluous luxury with minimal bearing on the church’s well being or life. Inevitably, the discussions occurring in academic theology these days influence the church’s confession and preparedness for ethical reasoning tomorrow, either for improved or worse. Critical theological inquiry necessitates rigorous instruction in biblical and other historical languages, cautious study of main biblical and historical texts, and wide reading in the church’s tradition, let alone some grasp of our modern predicament into which the church will testify to Jesus as Lord.

On the other hand, the stress for every single academic to continually justify their existence below the mantra of ‘publish or perish’ prevents numerous from becoming capable to devote severe time and power to cross-disciplinary reading and reflection though juggling teaching, grading, and an abundance of meetings. Understandably, there are handful of grants prepared to fund undirected believed and reading. Nonetheless, the most useful, inventive, and generative theological function generally emerges from periods of deep reflection upon a sustained curiosity, whose genuine worth and contribution may possibly not be totally perceptible or marketable at its inception.

Therefore, despite the fact that the venerable practice of catechesis is sadly not at an all time higher in the modern Western church, we will need to encourage every single Christian to come to be oriented towards pursuing understanding of God (e.g. John 17:three), without having simultaneously undermining the worth of either rigorous theological instruction or the formation of educated theologians who will build the books, articles, hymns, and agendas of the church in decades come.

Second, existentially, we will do ourselves and our churches a disservice — and fairly possibly wonderful harm to ourselves and other folks — exactly where theology is practiced without having any accountability and without having reverent contemplation of the higher and holy God who has created himself lowly in Christ, just before and in whom we speak by the Holy Spirit. St. Athanasius of Alexandria concluded his masterpiece On the Incarnation, one particular of the a lot more stunning and doctrinally substantial treatises in Christian history, with the following admonition:

But in addition to the study and correct understanding of the scriptures, there is required a great life and a pure soul and the virtue which is according to Christ, so that the thoughts, guided by it, may perhaps be capable to attain and comprehend what it desires, as far as it is achievable for human nature to find out about God the Word. With out a pure thoughts and a life modeled on the saints, no one particular can comprehend the words of the saints.

For just as if, if a person would want to see the light of the sun, he would surely wipe and clear his eyes, purifying himself to be pretty much like that which he desires, so that as the eye as a result becomes light it may perhaps see the light of the sun or just as if a person would want to see a city or a nation, he would surely go to that spot for the sight in the very same way, one particular wishing to comprehend the thoughts of the theologians need to 1st wash and cleanse his soul by his manner of life, and strategy the saints themselves by imitation of their performs, so that becoming with them in the conduct of a widespread life, he may perhaps fully grasp also the issues revealed to them, and thenceforth, as joined to them, may perhaps escape the peril of the sinners and their fire on the day of judgment, but may perhaps obtain what has been laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven, “which eye has not noticed, nor ear heard, nor have they entered into the heart of man” (1 Cor two.9), whatsoever issues have been ready for these who reside a virtuous life and really like the God and Father, in Christ Jesus our Lord, by means of whom and with whom, to the Father with the Son himself in the Holy Spirit, be honor and energy and glory to the ages of ages. Amen.

When non-Christian scholars carry out academic inquiry into Christian theology it is a demanding intellectual challenge akin to other academic disciplines. But when a lady or man in Christ strives to participate in the function of faith in search of understanding, the entirety of one’s self is summoned just before the holy, searing presence of God, whose manifold wisdom is now becoming created recognized to the rulers and authorities by means of the frailty of the church’s testimony (Eph three:9–10). In Christ God was reconciling the globe to himself, and has entrusted the reconciled neighborhood with a word that confronts each us and the globe to not only be reconciled to God but to accordingly share in the ministry of reconciliation (two Cor five:15–21).

Since opportunism is an ever-present temptation in the function of theology, each in the content material of our theologizing and in the character of our lives, the accountability of creeds, confessions, and an ecclesial neighborhood can be of tremendous generative worth. We need to be watchful, as the Apostle Paul place it, “lest just after preaching to other folks I myself should really be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27) “we are not – like so numerous – peddlers of God’s word, but as guys of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (two Cor four:17).

Lastly, politically, if our Christian confession is never ever impractical or an offense to the powers of our globe, it is most likely the case that we have ceased to testify faithfully to an identifiably Christian faith. Though Christian disciples will sacrificially really like their neighbors and enemies, seek the widespread great, and participate in civil society (Rom 12–13), the testimony that “Our Globe Belongs to God” and shall be inherited by “the meek” (Matt five:five) will usually unsettle or provoke these who think otherwise. What Michael Gorman calls “uncivil worship and witness: following the lamb into the New Creation” is heresy to the cult of civil religion and an offense that need to be eliminated to the beastly powers.

In the final century, the Theological Declaration at Barmen responded to the German Christian movement with an impractical confession:

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one particular Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine, as even though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a supply of its proclamation, apart from and in addition to this one particular Word of God, nevertheless other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.

Even though the North American context these days differs in numerous approaches from then, Christian witness that is faithful to Jesus Christ these days will nonetheless be a disruptive word, as Alan Noble describes it, in the distractions of daily light in the malaise of Late Contemporary life. Additionally, the word of life and forgiveness that is Jesus Christ himself will not only be ‘impractical’ to, but a cutting word of judgment against, the demonstrably increasing trends in violence connected with Christian white supremacy.

To return to Newbigin’s concern quoted above, it is correct that we are not known as to make our faith relevant, but demonstrate the relevance of our faith in our encounter with people and the systems of the varying circumstances in which the church finds itself. Wherever achievable, it is great to try to answer the world’s concerns. But hopefully, in calling the globe to die to itself, take up the cross, and comply with a crucified and risen Messiah from Nazareth, we are encouraging non-Christians and Christians alike to find out what sorts of concerns to ask. Since we are made in the image of God but reside below the cosmic powers of Sin and Death, we will obtain varying elements that will need to be affirmed and challenged in every single culture.

As these who have currently noticed the preview of God’s coming victory and liberation of heaven and earth in Jesus’ resurrection, our testimony invites the globe to share in Jesus’ future reign in the present by taking up the cross and following him. Though it can be frustrating — not only initially, but across our lifetimes — to have our concerns left unanswered, it can be liberating to admit that we do not even know what concerns are worth asking. The world’s concerns are by no implies insignificant in truth, at times disinterested or hostile non-Christians are a lot more attuned to recognizing the radical nature of our theology than our Christ-haunted subcultures that can come to be inoculated to or just bored with Christianity. But admitting that we are finite, mortal, consistently prone to selfishness, and in will need of God and other folks to teach us how to find out about God can be an truthful kind of freedom, rather than presuming that I, ideal now, know what is of ultimate significance.

Hence, it is worth pausing to reflect on why so numerous of us reflexively, pretty much automatically, frame our well-known theological teaching as ‘practical.’ Once more, if a group of people today whether or not young or old assume that theology is a total waste of time, we surely should really argue otherwise. Nonetheless, when we feed the impulse to press every single doctrine, from the Trinity to justification to the sacraments, into the service of becoming relevant or sensible, difficulty can speedily creep in. We can tacitly affirm all our existing dispositions, desires, and arbitrary agendas uncritically, whereby theology becomes practically nothing a lot more than a implies for satisfying the ends of my unchallenged preferences and whims. Alternatively, we can finish up undertaking incredibly strange issues with the actual content material of theology itself, as evidenced in current debates on the Trinity in evangelicalism more than the final handful of years.

As Matthew Levering observed more than a decade ago, “when sensible relevance replaces contemplation as the main purpose of Trinitarian theology, the technical precisions of metaphysics come to be noticed as meaningless, rather than as approaches of deepening our contemplative union with the living God revealed in Scripture.” In other words, according to Levering, the shape of our theology can be drastically impacted by the purpose we are pursuing. Is our aim God, and all issues in relation to God, or chiefly ourselves, and God along with all issues in relation to that?

Christian theology is certainly eminently sensible but it is such only as a outcome of contemplating God’s immanent perfections, as John Webster captured:

Christian theology is a function of regenerate intelligence, awakened and illuminated by divine instruction to think about a twofold object. The object is, 1st, God in himself in the unsurpassable perfection of his inner becoming and function as Father, Son and Spirit and in his outer operations, and second and by derivation, all other issues relative to him. Christian divinity is characterized each by the scope of its matter – it aims at a extensive therapy of God and creatures – and by the material order of that therapy, in which theology appropriate precedes and governs economy. All issues have their origin in a single transcendent animating supply a technique of theology is so to be arranged that the supply, the procedure of derivation and the derivatives may perhaps in due order come to be objects of contemplative and sensible interest.

Joshua Heavin is a Phd Candidate at Trinity College Bristol, University of Aberdeen, exactly where he is writing a dissertation on the Apostle Paul and Participation in Christ.

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