Good Theology Comes from Good Questions

I am reading the book “Who Needs Theology?” by Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson. I am almost half-way through and it is a good read so far. I have seen some mixed reviews so possibly their complaints will hold more weight in the second half. Smooth sailing so far.

Grenz and Olson note several reasons that Christians often push back against theology.

  • Killjoy Objection. Theology ruins everything in the Christian experience.
  • Divisiveness Charge. As they worded it, “Jesus Unites, Theology Divides.”
  • Speculation Accusation. Theology is too impractical and focuses on things that were were never meant to understand.
  • Stalemate Indictment. Theology is stuck, unable to progress because ultimately it is just a bunch of people saying to each other, “Well no… YOU are the ones who are WRONG!”

This is a good list, and the authors do a good job undermining these objections to theology. I can think of one more that it worth bringing up although it probably doesn’t belong on the list.

I will call it “The Switcheroo.” In my faith tradition, theology is often not really taken very seriously. However, most commonly it is not because they do not speak unfavorably about theology. They will often talk about how important theology is, but when one delves into the issue, what one finds is that what is meant is “Dogma and Defense” or “Indoctrination and Transmission.”

Grenz and Olson see the fourth objection to be the strongest. If theology gets to a point where nothing changes— people form trenches on the battlefield of theology and the lines never move— the point can be made that it is essentially a dead exercise.

Grenz and Olson state that if one feels that progress is only evidenced if there is a unanimous change of opinion, then indeed, theology will NEVER progress. Unanimity is to high of a standard, however, for pretty much any field of study. They do give an example that they view as real progress.

It has to do with the issue of the Impassibility of God. God, in this view, does not feel pain or pleasure from others. God lacks emotions— at least in ways that we can relate to. Some have struggled with passages that clearly show God responding emotionally in the Bible, in apparent response to the behavior of His creation. Others have tried to come up with a way of saying, as St. John did, that “God is Love” while still seeing God as impassible. Still others have wrestled with the presentation of Jesus, “fully God, fully man,” as a fully emotional being.

But in the 20th century a strong movement came along that went against “Dogma and Defense” and said that maybe the reason we are having trouble defending the Impassibility of God is because God clearly revealed Himself to us as Passible— able to suffer and feel emotions. Perhaps the classical understanding of the God of Abraham was imagined (in this area at least) through Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus— The One… The Unmoved Mover…. Perfect in Unchangingness, rather than through God’s one self-revelation.

While there are still defenders of the Impassibility of God, the change of the battle lines has been dramatic enough to say that there has been real progress.

I agree with this, but Theology also shows progress in its correlation to contemporary needs. Progress, then, is not always demonstrated by the moving of the trenches, but also in the finding of new battlefields.

The growth of human population and of industrialization, has forced us to explore theologically the issues of ecology and creation care. I have known many people who don’t see the relevance of these because the Bible doesn’t spend much time on these issues (at least at first glance). However, the Bible is not a theological work, primarily, but a revelatory work. Theology uses God’s revelation to explore new, and old, questions in the present context. The present context (over population and pollution) did not exist two to three thousand years ago, but that doesn’t mean we have no insight from God in this matter.

Another question has to do with inter-religious dialogue, and living in a pluralistic society. In this one, we do have insights of theologians in the past— particularly during the Roman Empire in the West, and n the Caliphates in the East. We even have wisdom to draw from in the Old Testament from writings during the Exile, and in the majority (arguably all) of the New Testament. However, an awful lot of theology has been developed over the centuries in the context of monocultural Christendom.

These questions (on ecology and multiculturalism) are in themselves evidence of progress as theologians (lay theologians, ministerial theologians, and professional theologians) wrestle with these.

The risk is that the loudest voices will be the least sound theologically. It may end up like in the 19th century when often the loudest so-called theologians addressed the important contemporary issue of slavery and abolition with the trite statement, “Well, some people had slaves in the Bible.” Theologians needed rather to explore “What does God say about slavery as it is expressed in our situation today, and in the structures of today?” The similar things must be done in terms of ecology, multiculturalism, nuclear threat, and so much more.

If we don’t ask these questions seriously about our present setting, then YES, theology is stalemated, and (effectively) dead.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s