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That theology matters is a claim the church has rarely felt the need to defend, much less to argue. Rather, the church has simply done theology, assuming in the very doing of it both that it is worthwhile and that it is self-substantiating (or, at least, that its substantiation is self-evident). In the same way, many of the church’s practices are no less difficult to establish or explain. For example, we might ask “why” Christians worship, or “why” Christians baptize converts or pray for their enemies. To reply that God has commanded these things is no answer to the implicit question of why (God commands that) we do it. As Kim Fabricius notes, we worship because God is to be worshiped. It is a theological tautology. The only path toward understanding worship is to worship—and yet one will quickly realize that the point of worship is not to understand worship, but to worship the God worthy of worship! And so we go.
Given the tautologous (or not-immediately-explainable) character of much of what Christians do, theology in particular has, at various times and in particular streams of the church, come under suspicion, if not outright attack. Certain reasons have been profound and even laudable: distaste for elitist erudition and classist condescension; wariness of trusting “man-made books” over the Good Book; concern for not adding complicated stumbling blocks to the simplicity of the gospel; worry that human theologizing quickly becomes self-projection; and, perhaps most of all, the historical record that when people start talking about God, in that very instant people start dividing. In the face of such robust criticism, how then can theology be justified?
The first and abiding answer to this question only loops us back to the beginning: theology is justified because there is nothing for the church to do but theology. But enough frustrating word games; how truly to unpack this claim? Let us say the following, then go about elaborating it: as theology simply names talking about God (theos-logos, literally “God talk”), it is part and parcel of the mission God has given the church to speak God’s good news for the world. It is the form, content, and audience of this gospel-speaking that the church has to work out in its life and history—not whether to speak at all!
Articulated in this way, theology is crucial—and explicit acceptance of it is so important—precisely because the very act of denying or deemphasizing theology is itself a theological move. We can’t help but theologize: we’re all theologians, every last one of us. To be a Christian, to be the church, is to be called into the lifelong conversation and embodiment of God-talk. There is no way around it.
To be sure, this calling can be blessing or curse, depending on context and on the faithfulness of our practice. Few have been spared the pain of others’ manipulation of God-talk to suit their own ends or wielded as a weapon. And there is no denying that dogmatics and division can seem related as directly as cause and effect. As with all other human affairs God has left to the church’s obedience, the pitfalls and obstacles are gargantuan.
But the difficulty of the task is not, and certainly can never be for God’s people, a reason or excuse for inaction, but only motivation and impetus for renewed faithfulness. Thus, having spoken so far only on the unavoidability of theology, let us take up hereon why and how theology matters for the life, faith, and mission of the church in the 21st century.
Theology matters first and foremost because for Christians, theos and logos have been inextricably united in the person of Israel’s Messiah. That is to say: the Word’s becoming flesh and dwelling among us is no mere philosophical datum—it is the definitive revelation of the true God. We have seen the glory of this God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Moreover, the Incarnation of the Word is not out of step with God’s character or an altogether new connection between theos and logos. From start to finish in Scripture, “God” and “speech” are never far from each other, but uniquely and powerfully intertwined. In the first chapter of Genesis we find God, in the beginning, creating heaven and earth through the agencies of Spirit and Word: the former hovering over the waters, the later spoken into the void—and there is light (vv. 1-4). This same Word, in the first chapter of John, is named in the beginning with God and, indeed, as God (vv. 1-3). It is this One enfleshed on whom the Spirit comes in baptism and whose baptism of others will be with the Holy Spirit (v. 33). The triune relations narrated in just these two passages alone tell us something irreducibly significant about God as Speaker, Spoken, and Spirit, pertaining both to the divine creative act and to the inner life of the Godhead.
To speak God in this way is to place ourselves in the tradition of the church’s language as it has developed over time. Just so, we are participating in a conversation. This conversation is not closed, but neither did it begin recently: it has been going on for millennia, and one of the most important things in joining it is the refusal of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” We are liberated from fads, from the perpetually “new,” from the thankless march of technological innovation, into a history and a people whose language is living but ancient of days.
To attend the grammar school of the church—in which we both submit to the language’s rules and conceive syntax and vocabulary anew—is thereby to prioritize two related tasks: truthfulness and mission. Thus with Robert Jenson we may define theology as
reflection internal to the act of tradition, to the turn from hearing something to speaking it. Theology is an act of interpretation: it begins with a received word and issues in a new word essentially related to the old word. Theology’s question is always: In that we have heard and seen such-and-such discourse as gospel, what shall we now say and do that gospel may again be spoken? (Systematic Theology 1:14)Here the issue is time: the message was truthfully spoken one way at one time; but what is the truthful way for our time? We do not revert to Koine Greek to tell others of the gospel—that is not something Americans understand. What language, then, will faithfully communicate what we have received, given that it was indeed first passed on in Greek?
However, it is more than linguistics and translation that theology is concerned to address. As a missionary people, the church encounters differences of culture, ethics, and religion in the nations to which it has been sent. It is precisely in these encounters that the “good” nature of the “news” that is the gospel must be newly understood and articulated—not in isolation from or only critique against the discovered differences, but also in conversation with them. If for no other reason this is possible and to be expected because there is no area or community in the world untouched by the creative hand of God or outside of the Spirit’s sustaining care; therefore, the first question the church must ask in such encounters is, Given the Spirit’s leading us here, where is the Spirit already present? The work of theology is in a profound sense nothing other than the repeated asking and answering of this question.
In his book Preface to Theology, John Howard Yoder begins his study of the history of theological inquiry with the New Testament—not, as one might presuppose, to lay the “groundwork” for what “later theologians” would expand upon (or distort), but instead to name explicitly that the earliest canonical Christian texts are themselves works of theology. This fact is essential to understand in particular for those in churches begun in the Restoration movement, for with “no creed but Christ” came the institutional distrust of theology and, in its place, a radical trust in the authority of Scripture. At this juncture, though, we ought to affirm the latter and question the former, for as we saw above, a denial of theology is itself an act of theologizing. And what is Scripture itself but Spirit-led God-talk? Not to mention the formation and reception of the canon—the very belief that this and not that collection of books is authoritative is itself the first and primary extra-biblical theological claim. To repeat: there is no getting around it!
The question, to conclude our query, is whether we want to get around it. “It” can name a headache-inducing circularity or the wild adventure of speaking God’s kingdom. It is the basic claim made here that theology is squarely the second option, and that it is indispensable to the church’s mission. If, for example, a crucified Messiah is Lord, and military might is not, what then does that mean for right living in the world? And if God has acted to redeem the cosmos, what then does that say about the created order, about our treatment of it, about God’s relationship to it? If in the end our deepest longings—for justice, for vindication of the oppressed, for an end to the powers of violence and death—are real, and not only real, but participation in and anticipation of the deepest fabric of reality, the infinite love of the triune God: what then?
From Pentecost to Eschaton, if for this question alone—“Given this God, what then?”—theology matters for the church.