Today we continue the discuss on the hallmarks of religion and theology. If you missed previous posts, see:

Chapter 2: The hallmarks of science
Chapter 2: The hallmarks of science (continued)
Chapter 3 The hallmarks of religion and theology (part 1)

The hallmarks of theology

Playing a simple word game equates theology (theos = God + logos = word or discourse), with “discourse about God.”[1] If only it were that simple. In practice, theology is a vast discipline with multiple fields including philosophical, historical, practical, systematic, and narrative theology, amongst others. All are important to understanding what we believe about God and many will surface at some point in this book.

Philosophical theology has as its focus the “essence of Christianity” and deals with substance, persons, and words that end in -eth. It’s enjoyable when written by C.S. Lewis and painful when written by anyone else.[2] Historical theology makes use of Church history and the formation of doctrine. It’s also the theological field that Christians are likely to know the least about. Systematic theology tends to be academic and dry[3] and is primarily concerned with providing a coherent ordering of theological doctrines. Organization is based on a historical presentation like the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed or method as seen in the long-winded prolegomenon[4] that usually initiates the systematic theology.[5] Practical theology is concerned with the “techniques” of church leadership and practice of the Christian community.[6] It is most relevant for pastoral training and, as you may expect, the most common type of theology heard from the pulpit. Narrative theology is the most recent of the types of theology mentioned here and was developed in response to the liberal theology movement within Protestantism during the 20th century. In it, Christianity is framed as the overarching story of Jesus and his followers; in other words, Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so (but on steroids).

There are obvious connections between the type of theology preferred and the model that one uses to explain the role of doctrine to a religious community. As you might expect, philosophical, historical, and systematic theology are likely to be most important to those that favor the cognitive-propositional model of religion and theological discourse, while narrative theology is the theology of choice in the cultural-linguistic model. Multiple models = many different theologies and we have only scratched the surface in these few paragraphs.[7] But you may be asking, why should I care? Acknowledgement of the range of perspectives within the Christian tradition is essential if we truly seek dialogue.[8] More specific to this book, the way people view religion and the type of theology they favor directly impacts how they relate science and religion.

With all of that said, it is not surprising that there are differing opinions amongst theologians on the importance ascribed to the Bible. All view it as key source material and no Christian theology can be said to be non-Biblical no matter how much someone wants to hurl that accusation at his/her opponent. The difference lies in whether the Bible is considered to be primary, secondary, tertiary, or quaternary compared to tradition, reason, and experience. Evangelicals and conservative Protestants view the Bible as primary source material, with experience and tradition secondary or tertiary depending upon the particular denomination. Compare this with liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics who view experience and tradition as primary, respectively. These are categorizations, however, and certainly the specifics of theologians within each tradition are much more complex and interesting than I am suggesting. To argue the merits of tradition, reason, and experience, or the necessity of Biblical interpretation is pointless as all Christian groups are dependent on these sources for theology.[9]

Nevertheless, even though all Christians use reason, tradition, experience, and the Bible in theological construction, there are clear differences between Christians in the theology they produce. As but one example, Nancey Murphy has argued that the liberal-conservative divide within Protestantism (much more of a Grand Canyon than a crack on the sidewalk) is a direct product of modern philosophy and its focus on foundationalism.[10] Briefly, in modern philosophy all ideas require an intellectual foundation. If you look at the options Protestants have chosen, it appears that the only options for the foundation are the Bible and personal experience. And you only get one vote. As you would expect, just like foundations impact the structural integrities of homes[11], foundations affect how Christians talk about God and how they view God’s interaction with the world.

Because conservative Christians have founded their theological knowledge on the Bible, religious language for them is necessarily cognitive-propositional. As such, they emphasize the importance of inerrancy or something like it. If salvation requires proper knowledge of God, and understanding of God is to be solely based on the foundations of the Bible, then those foundations better sure as shoot be rock solid. To conservatives, the concept of inerrancy is without fault (pun intended) and proper hermeneutics is job one for the theologian. By contrast, liberal Christians have founded their theological knowledge on experience, which necessitates religious language to be experiential-expressive. They will have difficult understanding why inerrancy even matters let alone the specific variations of this concept.

The resulting theologies can be so different that you are forgiven if you wonder whether liberal and conservative theologians are really speaking about the same religion. Here, you try it![12]

“Belief in the deity of Jesus Christ also seems essential to the relationship. After Jesus had asked his disciples what people thought of him, he also asked, “Who do you say I am?” Peter’s response,” You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” met with Jesus’ resounding approval (Matt. 16:13-19). It is not sufficient to have a warm, positive, affirming feeling toward Jesus. One must have correct understanding and belief.”[13]

“Within each tradition of commonly accepted symbols, rituals, and meanings, there is also much disagreement and argument… Indeed, the symbol “God”… itself points to the great mystery of life, the deepest and most profound issues about which we do not know what to say… Although the human spirit has no way of overcoming the mystery of life, it is also true that we are not able simply to live with a blank, empty Void. So humans create pictures, pictures of what they think the world is like, pictures of what they imagine are the ultimate powers or realities with which they must deal; and they create rituals through which they enact their own roles among these realities and powers. We tell ourselves stories which depict the human situation in this world, and in our lives we attempt to act out our own parts in these stories. Great imaginative pictures and stories and rituals of this sort have become collected in the historical traditions of value and meaning and practice which we know as the religions.”[14]

This book is not about conservatism vs. liberalism any more that is about evolution vs. creation, science vs. religion, Simpsons vs. Family Guy, Backstreet Boys vs. NSYNC, or most importantly, Yankees vs. Red Sox.[15] I have no ideological bombs primed for launch. Like Murphy, I too believe that post-modernism provides resources with the potential to not only mind, but also bridge the gap. However, it is important that we are aware of our underlying philosophical commitments, which paradoxically, often go without notice. Taking stock is a must if we actually mean it when we say we want true dialogue. So much of the science and religion conversation is non-productive and simply annoying because people haven’t taken the time to figure out why they believe what they believe. And if they haven’t done that they most certainly haven’t taken the time to figure out why others believe what they believe. Talking past each other is not dialogue, it’s dueling monologues.

[to be continued on Monday]


[1] Alister McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought, 2nd ed. (John Wiley & Sons, 2013), p. 1.

[2] I kid, but other than systematic theology, philosophical theology isn’t something most Christians like to do for fun. I do, but I’m weird according to my wife and kids.

[3] Saltine-level dry. It’s also often in German.

[4] No I am NOT a hypocrite.

[5] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed. (Wiley Blackwell, 2011), p. 105.

[6] Alister McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought, 2nd ed. (John Wiley & Sons, 2013), pp. 3-4.

[7] See natural, feminist, liberation, Black theology, etc., let alone all of the different denominational theologies. A beautiful patchwork indeed!

[8] As a Christian, I would also argue that it’s important to understand all of these perspectives to be faithful to the broader ecumenical community. Christianity’s beauty lies in its diversity and we ignore the magnificent mosaic at our own peril. And you can quote me on that.

[9] Thus, “Theology is an act of interpretation: it begins with a received word and issues in a new word essentially related to the old world.” Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology: Volume 1: The Triune God (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 14.

And, “The slogan sola scriptura, if by that is meant ‘apart form creed, teaching office, or authoritative liturgy,’ is an oxymoron.” Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology: Volume 1: The Triune God (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 27-28.

[10] Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1996).

[11] I recall something about sand or weeds being bad and concrete and bricks being good. See the Bible and the Three Pigs for more information.

[12] They’re both Christian theologians by the way.

[13] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Baker Academic, 1998), p. 30. Italics are my emphasis.

[14] Gordon Kaufman, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 29. As quoted in Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1996), p.50.

[15] Go Cubs!

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