As an aspiring Biblical scholar who a) dabbles in theology and philosophy and b) considers the confessional and pedagogical importance of norming our theology to the Scriptural witness, I am often left frustrated with performing the task of theology. This is not the usual banter and and riposte, if not sometimes hostility, expressed between Biblical scholars and theologians. I love theologians (and Christian philosophers!) and their ways of reflecting on matters of Christian faith and I think they are integral to performing the intellectual tasks of the Christian Church. Nor am I implying that Christian theologians don’t consider Scripture normative; many, though not all, do. Rather, the critique stems from how I from my angle would prefer the field of theology to be categorically structured and taught.
If you were to open up a systematic theology, you would find it structured by thematic topics the nature of God, Christology, soteriology, eschatology, etc. In this way of dividing up the theological task, one construes theology being divided up into specific content determined by a singular theme. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, it allows for clarity in one’s theological reflection to know you are talking about a specific topic and to focus one’s cognitive powers towards that singular theme. Just like specialization pays off dividends in economics, it is also useful in the task of thinking. Secondly, when it comes to matters of protecting orthodox Christian faith, it is very useful when dealing with heretical or heterodox doctrines as it allows identification of specific problems in teachings; you can identify the specific topic they have deviated from with relative ease. Thirdly, from a more pastoral angle, if a
However, for these benefits, there are also costs. For one, I think it is lead to the idea that theology is normatively about ideas centered around singular themes in content. For instance, when we try to understand and develop a comprehension of Christology, we don’t necessarily think Christology also implies Pneumatology. Some theological thinkers recognize that Christology and Pneumatology go together, but I am not aware of recognizing the way we categorize theology is a contributor to this (some may have observed this; as I am not an expert in theology, I can not testify to the lack of awareness on this point but only my lack of familiarity on this point).
Secondly, by organizing theology around a single theme, we engage more so in what Jerome Bruner refers to as paradigmatic thinking, at the neglect of
Thirdly, separating theology into a singular theme leads to what I refer to as the balkanization of theological reasoning within the life of the Church. If we are wanting to propose a way forward on a specific topic, we are inclined to justify our view by the virtues of an argument we draw from theology from a specific domain. For instance, in my United Methodist denomination, we were considering a shift to an ecclesiology that would shape our denomination by convictions on matters of marriage and ordination to the local and annual conference levels.1 Arguments made in favor of such an ecclesiology commonly appealed to a notion of what you might refer to as a “Wesleyan tolerance.” Wesley’s theological views were reduced down to a singular idea on a specific topic, forcefully appropriated from the context it ignored, to be offered in favor on the view. Or, arguments in favor of change views on marriage commonly stem from appeals to a singular theme as a hermeneutical theological level by making observations of how the Bible has been used to justify oppression in the past. The logic here was could be in some ways be boiled down to this: If you can find an argument from one domain of theology, one had justified reasons for one’s own stance that others should change their views on (And not merely a warrant that was still highly defeasible). Rather than considering a change in denominational structure based upon a more comprehensive theological analysis, arguments in favor were reduced to a singular theme. Meanwhile, traditionalists had a relatively well developed theological meaning system, which while not expressed in every instance, generally has a comprehensive structure to it. The point I am drawing here is that while the division of theology into separate categories is useful for protecting theological integrity, it is also useful for tearing down the whole; in other words, what protects theological integrity also threatens it.
Which leads me to a hypothesis for another reason why theology is structured as it is: it has been formed based upon the theological conflicts of the past based upon specific topoi. This very way of structuring theology has conflict and contention at the center of it; it subtly reinforces an antagonistic dialectic where people focus on the specific questions and topics in direct contention. Decisions between conflict ideas are hard to settle between various, complex systems of thinking; we thus pragmatically reduce conflicting proposals down to its most salient and significant themes, setting the way future theological disagreements will come down. For instance, the emergence of Christology has an independent category of intellectual, theological analysis emerges after Nicea, witnessed by the later Nestorian controversy then digging even further into the topic of Christology. Or consider how Arminian theology emerges from contention along the specific topic of predestination from the Belgic Confession and Heidelburg Catechism, both of which was arranging on a similar, thematic division on the content of the topics the addressed.
Allow me to clarify my thoughts on this matter, however: the problem as I see it isn’t that such divisions into separate categories as is commonly done. Rather, it is how the defining understanding of Christian faith is construed through such a division. When such a manner of dividing theological topics permeates down to the confessional level as it did in the Belgic and Heidelburg Catechism, treating theology as the exposition and answers to specific themes and ideas, we have encoded into Christian theology into a convention that was inculcated by
So what would I propose instead the whole of theology submitted to the ideas of this aspiring Biblical scholar? It wouldn’t entail the rejection of the division of theology according to thematic content, but it would more consciously place it at a later part of theology. Rather, my ideas stem more so from how I believe Paul understood the faith, spiritual, ethical, and intellectual development of Christians as represented in 1 Corinthians 2.1-3.4, where there are three broad phases of development: matters of faith, matters of ethics, then matters of (intellectual) wisdom.
At the core for Paul was the most fundamental confession of the early
Then, after that, there is the task of Biblical theology, but of a specific sort. Rather than a stereotypical Biblical theology sorted by specific topics that one mines the various texts and collates together to give specific views on specific topics, it is a Biblical theology that explores the various themes that branch off from the fundamental kerygma. What is the significance of Jesus becoming Lord? How does one understand the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead in
One key point that this Biblical theology would point towards then is the branch of Christian ethics. However, my understanding of Christian ethics would not simply be reflective but also pedagogical. Not only does it address the question “how is it we should live in light of the redemption in Christ?” but also the questions of “how it is that God accomplishes this redemption?” and “how it is that we learn and live out this redemption?” However, at this point, the ethical frameworks used for analysis should be considered consistent with the fundamental understanding and significance of the Gospel of Jesus as contained in the kerygma.
Then, emerging from that would be questions about theological epistemology in the more formal reflections on how is it that we come to know about God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit? From the start, this question is situated within the kerygma and why and how it is that Christians
Finally, we get into the branch of thematic theology, which addresses the various points of contention that emerge throughout history on different matters. It is here where we get into metaphysics, ontological, and more in-depth eschatological considerations, etc., etc. In other words, this is where much of the tasks done in more academic theology operate and function.
Two things to note about this schematization of theology. Firstly,
Secondly, in this form theology takes on greater concerns for coherence in theology. The one real “foundational” element is the kerygma and the OT Scriptures that provide the significance to the kerygma, but this element cannot be readily broken into analyzable cognitive “parts” which serve as foundations for theological inferences; rather inferences emerge more creatively from apprehension of the whole of the kerygma and then tested against the kerygma. Thus, a greater role for creativity is had in theology, but
To be clear, this is only a sketch on a relatively inchoate idea. However, it is a different way of doing theology, which if done, could make the various parts of the theological task more focused and possibly even less susceptible to protracted conflicts. In addition, it provides a place for theology frameworks that don’t have the systematic approach of thematic theology, such as Wesleyan theology, which operates in my mind somewhere between ethical and epistemic concerns (but definitely shading more towards ethics).