Theology for Theology’s Sake

A friend of mine recently told me that he makes over $100,000 a year. Looking at his lifestyle, I believe him. I went to high school with this guy. It’s mind-blowing. I was beyond jealous. Of course, he works for it. He got exactly what he bargained for — he went to college for a certain degree, in order to get a certain job, in order to make a certain amount of money. There were no surprises along that journey. He had a goal, people offered a way to attain it, and he attained it.

How Theology Can Be Deceptive

Theological programs can deceive people. Most of the people I know who go to seminary or bible college, they go for a very religious reason: they want to grow in their relationship with God, and help the church do the same.

  • They enroll in credits of exegesis, theology, and philosophy
  • they pay tens of thousands of dollars
  • they spend years of their life in a program
  • they tell their wives it’s their calling
  • they put their kids in different schools
  • they spend tens of hours per week looking at books
  • they move thousands of miles across the country
  • they leave their community

… all originally for the purpose of spiritual growth. They definitely appeal to theology to justify their move. I have done this, for sure.

For a while, seminary will tolerate the “spiritual growth” attitude. “Yes, prayer and personal Bible study is important.” And then, those categories become formalized and sectioned off from theology by department—that’s practical theology, and now we’re going to study Greek, and Hebrew, and then systematic theology, and biblical theology. That’s wonderful. Actually, I think that all of these studies can radically enrich one’s spiritual life. Of course, seminary-form education can challenge one’s faith with its formality, but seminary is not the enemy.

The enemy peeps its head out of a dark corner of seminary when, eventually, your spiritual motivation for coming to seminary is given a label: “Pietism.” Oh, dang. You’ve been historically situated. Boom. You’ve been explained. You’ve been theologically diagnosed. It’s not a judgment. But you have now been classified.

The Deception’s Common Form

More than that—and more dangerously, now that the enemy more than peeps; he rears—all the theology you’ve learned so far, it’s basically ignorant unless you know the broader contexts which frame and inform them.

  • Oh, you like the Trinity?
    • Do you believe the East/West distinction is legitimate?
    • What analytic investigations of Thomistic rejection of the three as true “persons” have you found valid or invalid?
    • Do you take McCormick’s or Hunsinger’s approach to Barth?
  • Theology has been helpful for your preaching?
    • Are you more sympathetic to a continental or analytic approach?
    • Have you read anything on ressourcement?
    • Do you agree or disagree with Milbank’s proposal?
  • You’d like to do counseling?
    • Have you read the 5 views book?
    • Do you think the metaphysics of a Spiritual psychology model are legitimate?

Name dropping. Gate keeping. Theology joke making. It’s tiring. I recently read a theologian make the claim that Thomas’s doctrine of subsisting relations was practical. If it weren’t in a published book, I would have thought it was a joke.

Behind The Theologian’s Curtain

Academic theology can be practical. Theology worthy of its name — speech of God that appeals to Scripture — can always be made practical (nothing is necessarily practical, until it has been made perceptibly relevant to a certain audience). But here are things that I find repulsively impractical:

  • Theology for theology’s sake
  • Talking about talking about theology
  • Experimental theology (often analytic theology)

These enterprises are touted by academics (also seminary professors…) with growing platforms as relevant and practical, and the burden is put on the church for being insufficiently academic. Lay readers are becoming confused: “Should I be able to know this stuff?” Seminary students are becoming confused: “Should I be able to know this stuff?” Well? … My answer is no. My answer is also refutable. But it seems obvious to me. Third-, fourth-, fifth-tier theology is increasingly making me sick to my stomach. It’s lazy, because it’s self-referential. It may be rigorous, and academic, and impressive, and sophisticated, and nuanced, and well-researched, but it’s lazy.

When I was in my M.Div., a professor of mind said, “Whenever you sense something is ambiguously off, there is one way to find clarity: follow the money.” Look at theology. How are these upper-tier enterprises funded? Their salary is paid for with the tuition money of students who just want to be pastors, or counselors, or grow in their knowledge of the Bible. And they are given 70% “academic conversation” information. They are given a class on Scripture, or the atonement, or the Trinity, and they do not walk away any more able to explain or preach or help a congregation practically understand these doctrines, or their relevance for life.

It’s a lie. It’s not my friend’s story—who went to school, got a degree, got a job, and was given exactly what he wanted: money. That’s not wrong. He’s a believer. He just didn’t go to seminary. But if he did go to seminary, and he went out of a desire to be prepared for ministry, and was eventually told that he must learn theology for theology’s sake in order to be prepared for the pulpit, or the counseling chair, he would have been lied to. Theology for theology’s sake is equivalent to a Question card in Trivial Pursuit—it is purely and merely trivia.

The Truth About Theology

Don’t hear me ranting as someone sick of my own discipline. I’m studying systematic theology. I love it. I love my program, and I love all the programs I’ve been in. I love the topic and the content of my discipline. But I fight against the discipline’s tendency to be self-referential, and it is hard to do so, especially when so many others within this very discipline find so much satisfaction mimicking the academic form, and even crossing the boundary between, seminary theology and philosophical/religious studies. One of the seminaries at which I have taken classes had a faculty meeting, where they voted on whether they were properly a “seminary” or a “graduate school”— that is, preparing their students for the church or the academy — … and the faculty was split. But marketing wasn’t split. Marketing was clear: “We’re training pastors.”

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about me” (John 5:39). This passage is often used as a proof text against academic theology. In my reading, it is just the opposite—it justifies theology. Jesus is not saying that the law doesn’t have life. He’s pointing out an inconsistency in the Pharisees’ thinking. They search the Scriptures, because they think that in them they have eternal life. And it does carry eternal life, because it testifies about Christ. That’s what makes their refusal of Christ such a tragic confusion.

Any theology that is not an exercise of this — searching the Scriptures because we think that in them we will find life, insofar as we can find Christ, and accurately testify about him — is worth no more than Monopoly money; it’s fun to play with, but when you close the book and put the cards back in the box, it’s tissue paper. And yet, how much seminary curricula exceeds the scope of this enterprise? For those who love trivial theology, great.

Greek and Hebrew? Study them hard. Systematic and biblical theology? Read the books. They very well can prepare you. And even those who love trivial theology, good for you. But give the qualification that theological fun facts are qualitatively different than theology that helps pastors. In-house, self-propelling, insulated theological dialogue that seeks to trickle down to the church on the momentum of its own pretension? Kill it. It’s a lie, that this stuff is anything more than Trivial Pursuit. Theology for theology’s sake is impractical, and theology worth its name must be shown to be relevant by the theologian—it is part and parcel of the task to revere the words of life by testifying to Christ.

5 Comments

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  1. This article resonates with me. I am currently in an M.Div program at Western Seminary, and this is a constant battle I face each day.

    Throughout my time there, I have been labeled the “local church guru”. It’s silly, but I think it illustrates your point. I am constantly asking professors and classmates, how does this relate to the local church. My favorite professors always have an answer, and a great one.

    I find that some classmates grow tired of the questioning, but I challenge them on their purposes behind them being in the program. Ultimately, it seems to be one of two things. First, they think it will unlock some sort of path to being a celebrity pastor. That, or they think it is about some sort of intellectual ascent.

    In the end, I think you make some really great points in this article. A good reminder for seminary students to read and keep in mind as we read thousands of pages, listen to hour after hour of lecture, and write page after page of papers.

  2. Thanks for the article; it was like a breath of fresh air. I have attended private Christian school my entire life. I found myself slipping into Trivial Pursuit theology. Unfortunately, I knew a whole lot about theology, but I realized I forgot about the person of Christ. Thanks again and keep up the good work!

  3. So what changes are in order? How do we ensure that those taking this journey leave equipped to do the work God has prepared for them? Theological trivia is not only appealing to the academic, it is also more conveniently packaged into a course of study than the actual practice of walking with God- that’s messy learning that’s much harder to fit into a syllabus.

  4. Hi Paul,

    WOW. This is a great article—thank you. I have two follow-up questions:

    1. How do you actively avoid “practicing” theology for theology’s sake (I mean, you personally. I recognize that it could look differently, depending on the person…just wondering how you combat this, as I assume you’ve been to seminary.)? How did you first recognize it in yourself/others?

    2. What is experimental theology? I don’t think I’ve heard that term in this context before.

    I’ve just recently started following you off of DG…you have a lot of good things to say. Thanks for saying them. I particularly have appreciated your honesty as you struggle with the topics that you’ve written about. Thanks for that, too.

    Laurel

  5. This is great for a several reasons:
    1. It made me laugh out loud. “Name dropping. Gate keeping. Theology joke making. It’s tiring.” Vivid memories are popping up in my head of moments this actually happens in class. In those memories, I’m rolling my eyes with my attitude while trying to maintain a gracious demeanor… struggle.
    2. You avoided extremism. Well done.
    3. It encourages academic diligence while discouraging intellectual arrogance and pretense. It is so much more helpful to take high concepts and make them accessible than to live life floating in the clouds of intellectualism. Your writing marries intellectualism and practicality very well. It’s refreshing. Hopefully that doesn’t make you arrogant or this response is counterproductive.

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