It was an argument a third-year seminarian could not win. The professor, the sainted Henry Reimann, was teaching an elective called “The Nature and Function of Theology.” What is “theology” anyway? He suggested that in the history of the church, especially the Lutheran church, theology was the “critique of teaching and preaching.” In other words, theology, with its grounding in the Gospel, was the measure by which all preaching, teaching, and writing might be judged. Thus, theology was a repository of truth, which, because of the Gospel, was foundational for all of the church’s work. The sub-text was, “since you fellows are going to be theologians, you should get it right.”
“But what about St. Paul, wasn’t he a theologian?” Sure, he critiqued the preaching of the Judaizers and the party spirit in Corinth, but he was foremost a missionary. Why should theology be a “critique of preaching? Why shouldn’t theology ‘be’ preaching, and teaching, and evangelism, and pastoral care, and reflecting on works of love?” asked the seminarian. “Even though theology sometimes must critique, should that be its chief function? If so, is this seminary just going to put out folks who sit around critiquing one another? Will our chief function as theologians be to outgun one another while the church stagnates?” The gracious professor said the seminarian had a point but thought few “theologians” would agree.
Some time after that conversation people started to talk about “doing theology.” It seemed particularly relevant when it was necessary to reflect on how to speak and live out the Gospel in a new setting. I listened to an experienced African missionary change the baptismal liturgy. He began by saying, “Now, many of you believe that, if a child is baptized, she will not get whooping cough. I am afraid to tell you that even if she is baptized, she still could get whooping cough. Baptism is for another sickness.” He then continued to spell out the meaning of baptism and the Gospel. In that society of animism and juju he was “doing theology.”
Many exciting developments in theology have come from Christians seeking to relate the Christian message to people in different cultures. As a Japanese missionary to Thailand, Kosume Koyama did “Water Buffalo Theology.” Choan-Seng Song related to the Chinese setting and John Mbiti to the African. Dayanand Bharati does Christian theology in a Hindu setting, and a journal is devoted to “First People’s Theology.” In doing theology, these Christians have sought to address people of differing cultures and values with the Christian message. Some have made the Gospel relevant and appropriate to diverse people. Others have been criticized for losing the Gospel in the process of that acculturation.
Our Christian Callings
If Christians can “do” theologies relating the Christian message to people in other parts of the world, what about doing it in the Christian callings in which we find ourselves? Much of the ethical teachings of the letters of Paul and Peter revolved not around the Ten Commandments but around Christian vocations. Not only did this reflect the reality of the living Christ in their lives; it also was much more easily applicable to people of different cultures. Even though Gentiles might have had different definitions of theft and coveting, nearly everyone found himself or herself living as husbands or wives, parents or children, masters or servants, citizens and church folks.
Confronted with an exaggerated view of the righteousness of church vocations, celibacy and obedience to ecclesiastical authority, Luther stressed the holiness of all vocations. He wrote that when the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, she was probably scrubbing the floor, because God loves those who do common work such as that. Some have even traced the German work ethic and the supposed superiority of German automobiles to Luther’s emphasis on the righteousness of people working in every vocation.
Vocations, however, have changed significantly since Paul wrote Ephesians and Luther penned the Table of Duties in the Small Catechism. Then not many slaves or serfs would rise to be lords and masters; citizens usually could not run for public office. In today’s work-a-day world most people can expect to change jobs four or more times before they retire. Now in every profession there are numerous specialties. As jobs are exported overseas and people live longer, questions arise about vocation as people become unemployed or retired. In the debris of broken marriages children wonder which parents to obey, and second spouses wonder how to treat their new children.
Christian vocations in the modern world may depend much more on education, experience, diligence and creativity than on any “God-given” place where people find themselves. Now Luther’s emphasis on Christian vocations needs to be coupled to Luther’s championing of Christian liberty. Now the question becomes, “How can I be a little Christ in my home, work, church and society?”
Doing Theology in Our Christian Callings
Perhaps the chief task in doing theology in our callings is to ask, “What in the world am I doing here?” Sure, God has put me here for a purpose, but what should I be doing with my experience, education, gifts and interests? In a family we might ask, “How can we do this better?” On the job we might inquire if this is where we are going to stay, or is this a stepping stone to a different responsibility elsewhere. As church people we might ask, “What can I do to help my church become more involved in proclaiming Christ’s kingdom and bringing about its blessings?” In society the challenge may be to find a way to right the wrongs that we see around us.
Doing theology on a deeper level, we might ask, “What is the problem here? How is it related to our sins, our unbelief and our alienation from a loving God?” If the problem simply seems to be someone else’s fault, we may not be looking hard enough or closely enough. Doing theology is not just criticizing someone else so that we look good. That’s politics, not theology. Christian theology begins with the insight of Luther on his death bed when he said, “We are all beggars.” But that is only the beginning.
Doing theology in our callings means proclaiming what Christ is doing about the problem. More often than not we see Jesus in the very heart of the problem, staggering under the cross we gave him to carry: the angry words in the family, the corruption at work, the deaths on the battlefield and hatred in the church. From that cross he prays, “Father, forgive,” and he looks at us, all of us.
Shamed and forgiven, we look for hope in a living Lord. He generously promises a coming kingdom and a Holy Spirit. Moved by his example and his Spirit, we look less to the powerful to change the situation but more to the weak and the meek. Children can help with family problems; co-workers can come up with job solutions. Though societal problems look enormous, a young woman was once inspired to sing, “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”
With regard to church problems the Lord will also go with “Daystar beggars” who have a glimmer of what the Gospel is all about. In the coming weeks and months we are inviting fellow stars to do theology in their callings according to their experience, their education, their positions, their creativity and their passions. We look forward to what the Spirit will do with our humble offerings.