There is a story about Karl Barth, the great 20th-century Swiss theologian. A student approached him and said, “Dr. Barth, I don’t believe in God.” Barth replied, “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in.” The student went on to describe God as vengeful, judgmental and moralistic. Barth said, “I don’t believe in that God either!” Then he went on to speak about the God of mercy and grace who was revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
What people think about God does make a difference. “Theology” simply means “talk about God” or “the study of God” or, as theologian Douglas John Hall puts it, “thinking the faith.” Many people, both inside and outside the church, dismiss theology as an academic exercise in which theologians pointlessly try to explain the mysteries of the faith (for example, how God can be “three in one”). It can be consumed with debates over such absurd and irrelevant things as how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, which is something Protestants accused medieval theologians of doing. Theology is often identified with unfamiliar and seemingly impenetrable terms, such as “eschatology” and “hermeneutical lens.”
It’s no wonder that some have wondered what purpose theology serves at all. Wouldn’t it be better to simply read the Bible together and have seminaries limit themselves to teaching practical skills such as how to preach, lead worship, offer pastoral care, provide administration and lead congregations in their mission?
I hope to show that theology is neither an unimportant matter for the church nor a distraction from more important matters. Rather, it’s indispensable to the church’s identity and mission.
First, theology is something all Christians do whether we realize it or not. If we have any convictions about God, even if we don’t know where we got them, we have a theology. And if you have ever thought through some idea about God, you have done some theology. Who has not wondered about things, such as why did Jesus die? Why does evil exist? What does it really mean to be “saved”?
In fact, most of us have not only wondered about these things, we have an “embedded theology,” answers to these questions that we may have learned from pastors and Sunday school teachers or picked up from friends, books and popular culture (from How to Think Theologically; Fortress, 2013). This can be seen in the Barth anecdote.
Theology not only addresses our questions and ideas, but strives to give sensible answers to current questions on the basis of changeless truths. Theology strives to “make sense” of the Christian story in light of the questions people ask today.
Nearly everyone has some ideas about God and recognize that they either offer direction to our lives or, perhaps, fail to give good direction. Christians, and in particular Lutherans, need to ask further questions, such as: Do my ideas about God agree with the Bible’s? Why is it important they do? And what direction can biblical, creedal and confessional thoughts about God give to my life?
Second, the proper primary goal of seminary education is to prepare pastoral and other ministerial leaders to think deliberatively about the faith and to guide worshipers in doing the same. Such “deliberative theology” develops from a process of carefully reflecting on one’s embedded theology, and on the faith of the church that has been handed down through Scripture and tradition (from How to Think Theologically).
In a study of those who call themselves “spiritual, but not religious,” the most cited reason of those who have left organized religion behind is that their theological questions weren’t taken seriously or they were answered in overly simplistic ways. Most claimed they weren’t given the chance to learn and discuss theological concerns (from Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious; Oxford, 2014).
Theology not only addresses our questions and ideas, but strives to give sensible answers to current questions on the basis of changeless truths. Theology strives to “make sense” of the Christian story in light of the questions people ask today. As Hall puts it, theology is where our stories meet God’s story.
While all who “think the faith” are in some sense theologians, the church sets apart specific people to lead the church in its theological reflection. The ELCA’s constitution (sections 7.22 and 7.52) specifies that its pastors and deacons shall be people who not only exhibit a commitment to Christ and soundness in the faith, but also an aptness to preach and teach the faith of the church, and to guide the faithful in thinking the faith. To have rostered ministers to teach and guide us, we need teaching theologians at our seminaries to train and guide them in thinking the faith. That is, we need to train them to be faithful theologians.