By Matthew Becker
Some years ago a Lutheran editor of a church newsletter asked me to write a brief essay that would answer the question, “What good is theology?” At the time I thought it a bit strange that a Lutheran who writes about and for Lutherans would ask that question. Don’t Lutheran Christians have the reputation of placing the highest value on theology? Isn’t this what Dr. Luther and his buddy, Philip, the so-called “educator of Germany,” did? Maybe only the Lutherans with whom I interact place a premium on the goodness of theology. I must admit that I am biased about the topic, since I make my living by teaching theology. The goodness of theology has always been apparent to me. Apparently this editor thought otherwise. He was lamenting how much turmoil systematic theology and theological ethics had generated among Lutheran Christians in late-twentieth-century America. Given the messy, almost roiling state of contemporary theology in American Lutheranism, I guess I can sympathize with his frustration. When I consider the kinds of theological claims that have been raised of late within all Lutheran church bodies in the U. S., I too am frustrated. If those claims represent what is meant by the word “theology,” then truly what good is it?
Around the same time that the editor contacted me, a friend of mine also raised questions about the goodness of theology. More specifically, he wondered about the goodness of systematic theology. At the time he was studying for his doctorate in Old Testament at an ELCA seminary. He laid claim to a kind of purity and centrality of place for Bible interpreters that he denied to us troublesome, impure “systematicians.” After all, this Bible student wrote, the church lives and breathes from the Scriptures, and isn’t it true that systematicians tend to distort the original message and meaning of the Scriptures for their contemporary purposes? We would be much better off, this brother asserted, if we kept theology mostly limited to Bible-types like himself.
Needless to say, I took exception to my friend’s position. A central problem in churches today is not systematic theology per se; rather, the problem is poor systematic theology, problematic theology that has been dependent upon problematic scriptural interpretation and questionable hermeneutics. The problem is compounded by theological hubris that is unwilling to learn from others. If only theologians could balance their proper concern to understand and share the truth of the gospel with a frank humility that they do not fully and clearly possess the mind of God on every subject, not even on every theological subject.
I also took exception to my friend’s judgment because every interpretation of a biblical text is informed by a theological understanding that is more or less systematic. Master Melanchthon points this out in Apology IV. There is no neutral reading of the Bible; one’s reading depends on where one starts and toward what end one is focusing. To use classic language: Is one’s pre-understanding of a biblical text or theological issue grounded in the opinion of the gospel or the opinion of the law? Is one’s pre-understanding sustainable for the present theological task? Is it consistent with the gospel and Christian faith, hope, and love? Is such a pre-understanding open to correction through continued study and use of God’s Holy Word in light of the gospel and our current needs in the contemporary mission of the church? Could it be that the Spirit has yet more items to disclose for us in our present situation that have remained hidden or confused or unneeded for all these years, as confusing as say circumcision or matters of diet were for the Apostles, or as perplexing as any of the issues in the second part of the Augsburg Confession were for many within the late Medieval Western Catholic Church? With regard to these latter examples, a lot of education needed to take place so that the mission could move forward. Is it any different for us today?
All this is simply to say that good theology is necessary for the good of the Christian mission. This means that theology is not merely for those who can master the dogmatic traditions and heritage of a church body. Theology is far more important than that narrow, sectarian distortion. Every baptized is a missionary; every missionary is a theologian. “I am baptized, and so I think theologically.” “I am baptized, and so I am a missionary.” Theology is thus inescapable for such a person. He or she has to do theology as he or she carries out the Christian mission. The question then becomes: what kind of theology is informing your mission?
In some respects this wider focus on the missionizing of the baptized is evident in what my teacher, David Tracy, has said about the public character of Christian theology. Tracy claims that Christian theology properly has three audiences or three publics to whom it is accountable and for whom it does theology: the church, the academy, and society. For the sake of brevity, I would simply like to address two of them, allude to the third, and suggest a fourth to his three. Theology is “good” when it faithfully and adequately addresses each of these publics with the good news of Jesus Christ.
I. The First Public: Theology is by and for the Whole Church
Ad Fontes! Back to the sources! Good theology takes us back to the basics, to the sources, to learn from them, to re-learn them, to discuss them, to test them, to use them in this messy world. No issues are totally and completely settled in Christian theology. Or if we are convinced they are settled, something is not right with our mission if we are not encountering people who think we are wrong. That bears repeating: something is wrong with our mission if we are not encountering and engaging people who think we are wrong. Continually we need to hone our critical faculties vis-a-vis the faith of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic, and sinful church, of whose many families the LCMS is but one, and then confess the faith that has been given us by living and doing our theology in the specific vocations that God has given us.
For too long there has been very little room in the LCMS for the kind of “give-and-take” dialoging about theological issues that are not entirely settled within the Synod itself. The approach cannot be simply to repeat the all-too-human questions and answers printed in the back of the Schwan catechism. That wouldn’t settle anything (though I do think some memorizing of Bible verses is an essential aspect of confirmation instruction these days, when so few young people know any of the basic Bible stories). Nor is the answer to assert that only a certain group of men—and ultimately only one man—serves as the magisterial teacher(s) and catechetical answerer(s) for the whole church body. Rather, all the baptized are missionaries and to that extent they are also all theologians. Every baptized is a missionary theologian. All theological claims need to be tested and probed and discussed by each of the baptized. When that happens, a church body is healthy.
Frankly, dissent is also helpful to the health of a church body. Dissent ought not be squelched. Rather, when dissent occurs, the participants ought to strive for consensus on the basis of repeated readings of the Holy Scriptures and reasoned, humble discourse about their meaning and application. We ought not try to do theology time and time again by means of knee-jerk, politicized convention votes.
Perhaps it is time that we rethink what the word “Synod” means. We all know that most define this as “walking together,” “walking with one another.” Some years ago we were confronted with a Synod video that showed a bunch of people goose-stepping, I mean, “walking together.” Such an understanding of the word “synodos” is one possible meaning, but I would like to suggest another. A “Synod” literally can also mean the place where more than one road meets with another road, an “intersection,” a cross-roads. In the early church a synod was a gathering where people walked from different parts of the world and met at a cross-roads, at an intersection. They attempted to hammer out a consensus of the minds, to work toward agreement. That took time: weeks, months, even years. Later synods were needed to test what had been decided at previous “intersections.” Yes, there were political and even criminal shenanigans that took place at many of these synods, even the occasional murder, but on the whole, the goal was to establish consensus at the cross-roads, under the cross of Christ, under the apostolic witness. Such synods never entailed perfect agreement on all theological and practical issues. Doubts and disagreements persisted, and thus there was the continued need for further cross-roads meetings. If left ignored or denied, then these disagreements led to complete fractures.
There is thus the need for the whole church to participate in meaningful conversation about any necessary and proper changes that will strengthen the mission of the whole church. This is particularly important in areas where there continue to be major theological disagreements and outright divisions within the Synod. The fact of the matter is, unhealthy institutions don’t change without confrontation, sometimes heated dialogue and, when needed, even protest. Such challenges are not inevitably disloyalty. Rocking the boat is often necessary. There is the need for an “indispensable opposition,” the need for a “cross-roads” understanding of the word “synod.”
Theology, thus, involves critique—critique of the church for the sake of the church’s mission. Good theology continually asks, what is the minimum, core content of the faith without which the faith is no longer the faith of the Christian church? In other words, good theology continually tests for the present situation of the church “the mandatory content of the church’s preaching” (Elert). This required content is not identical to the content of Scripture, since Scripture contains material that is inessential to the church’s contemporary preaching (for example, the Mosaic law, Jude 9; biblical cosmology), nor is it the result of a coercive understanding of “faith” (faith as a set of beliefs that must be believed). Rather, this mandatory content, the sine qua non element in the church’s preaching, is that which must be present in the church’s message in order to make it Christian proclamation. A major task of theology, then, is to find that point within the substantive content of Scripture at which it “confronts contemporary human beings most immediately with the reality of its subject matter” (Elert). Going beyond Schleiermacher’s pragmatic goal of “training church leaders,” Christian theology must also keep one eye critically focused on the church’s received dogmas and practices and one eye focused on the contemporary person who is “by nature without faith.” While Christian theology ought not demolish the content of the church’s proclamation, as perhaps occurred in Strauss’s Glaubenslehre, it must at all times “place the church into a position of being questioned,” that is, it must question both the church’s own received teachings and practices and engage the questions which arise from an unbelieving world. Along the way, theology serves the church by differentiating between what is important and what is unimportant, between what is essential for the Christian proclamation of faith and what is non-essential. By doing so, theology best serves the mission of the church.
II. The Second Public: Theology is for the University
Martin Luther was a university professor. I think some Lutheran Christians have forgotten this. Thankfully, our Lutheran tradition has rightly stressed that the pursuit of higher education is complemented by a faith that seeks understanding. Christian theology also belongs in the public that is the university. Faith becomes more vital as one seeks to relate faith and learning. (This relationship has traditionally been described metaphorically as the crossroads of “Jerusalem” and “Athens,” although today we probably need to add other symbolic cities to the crossing, such as Beijing and Tokyo and Nairobi.) There are, of course, many ways of doing that relational work, but within the Lutheran tradition such a way of scholarly, faithful, free inquiry is dialogical, paradoxical, provisional, charitable. Such a way explores the integral connection among the intellectual, the moral, and the spiritual dimensions of human life and experience for the sake of serving and edifying others. Such a way acknowledges that Christian theology does not have all the answers for all the disciplines and that each scholarly discipline has its own integrity. In this context, theology gives as much as it receives. It listens more than it speaks. It celebrates the liberating arts, defends academic excellence and free inquiry, and pays close attention to the results of the disciplines, especially as those results shed light on the human condition and matters that overlap with theological concerns. As you can imagine, in this public, theologizing is also a messy, even risky business.
One example will suffice. One of the more controversial matters among Christians today is the relation of Christian faith in the triune God to scientific knowledge of the natural world. Disagreements about this relationship have led to conflicts within many church bodies, including the LCMS. In my work as an LCMS theologian I have tried to encourage open, frank, and yet humble conversation about this relationship in order to seek consensus on the topic and to strengthen the Synod’s mission and outreach in modern cultures. I have tried to argue that Lutheran Christians should not reject commonly held scientific views about nature and the universe in favor of a reading of Scripture (say, for example, Genesis 1-11) that ignores or simply rejects legitimate scientific knowledge. While affirming the central authority of Scripture because of its witness to God’s action of justifying sinners, I have tried to defend the notion that educated Christians cannot avoid the persuasive knowledge that arises from the natural sciences, especially when that knowledge has a direct bearing on the interpretation of Scripture and the formulation of theological knowledge today. There is the need to interpret Scriptural truth in light of the natural knowledge of the cosmos and in light of current philosophical accounts of what constitutes “nature” and “truth.” Where there appears to be conflict between Christian faith and scientific knowledge there is the need for humility on all sides and the cultivation of respectful, open, informed conversation.
I have held that a basic understanding of and sensitivity to scientific knowledge is essential for the future of the church’s mission to people in a scientifically-informed culture. We must strive to understand that point-of-contact with the natural knowledge that scienfically-informed human beings have. How will Christian voices gain a hearing from scientifically-informed people on matters of real significance (e.g., in the area of bio-ethics and genetics research) if those Christians are ignorant of or even hostile toward the most basic of conclusions and insights in biology, anthropology, and the other sciences? Scientists and scientifically-informed individuals will be inclined to dismiss anything such Christians might say as being uninformed and unpersuasive.
To be sure, there are limits to human reasoning and serious challenges to be met when one tries to make sense of the Scriptures in light of commonly-held understandings of nature today, and these need to be forthrightly acknowledged and examined. One need not be a college student to be granted salvation by faith alone! Nor am I suggesting an overhauling of the most treasured essentials of Christian faith. My underlying concern is a pastoral one. Too many people in and outside of the Christian church have thought that they must choose between a life based solely on scientific knowledge apart from God and a life based solely on a Christian faith that must ignore or even oppose legitimate, consensual scientific knowledge. Too many people in our world have thought they had to make such a choice and thus have needlessly rejected legitimate scientific knowledge or have needlessly rejected faith in God. The need to make such a choice has been intensified by church bodies, including the LCMS, that take general positions against commonly-held scientific conclusions (e.g., against all theories of evolution, the theory of the Big Bang, global warming due to increased carbon emissions, etc.) and by scientists who make statements critical of religious belief, including Christian faith. There can be no question that the wrong-headed, anti-science positions that the LCMS has publicly taken over the past century have directly led some to give up on the Christian faith altogether or never give it a second thought. This is truly sad and unfortunate. The Synod ought to consider rescinding such convention resolutions that are ill-informed and unsupportable from both a scientific and a theological perspective.
Rather than continue merely to dismiss widely-held scientific theories that overlap with matters about which Christian faith also addresses, there is the need for Christian missionaries—all the baptized (!)—to assist people, including especially high school and college youth who might be struggling with issues of faith and science, to sort through these difficult issues. Since students will likely continue to wrestle with these issues their whole lives, Christian leaders have the responsibility to provide a helpful, supportive, evangelical framework in which to think through these issues in a scriptural, faithful, intelligent, God-pleasing manner.
Too often people compartmentalize their faith, that is, they separate their faith from their learning. Faith is placed “over here” and human knowledge is kept “over there.” A good example of such compartmentalizing occurred in the teaching and writing of the later Theodore Graebner. He spoke of a water-tight bulkhead between his “head knowledge” and his “faith knowledge,” and never the twain shall meet. Such compartmentalizing is unpersuasive to many today and it is totally inconsistent with the Lutheran approach to theology.
The public that is the academy is not only a mission field; it is a place where Christian missionaries can become better equipped for their mission in this scientific age. Christian faith is entirely capable of a more capacious understanding of God in light of the expanding knowledge of the universe. A motto I follow is one that Roman Catholic theologian, Bernard Lonergan, developed: “Be attentive, be intelligent, be rational, be responsible, develop, and, if necessary, change.” I would only add: “be evangelical,” that is, be tuned to what is truly at stake in any good theology: the good news of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone.
III. The Third Public: Theology is for the City
We did not need 9/11 to remind us that truly horrific things often happen when religion “goes public.” Martin Marty once wrote an article for the very public Chicago Tribune, in which he summarized some of the terrible, lethal consequences that may occur when religion “goes public.” While religion “can heal and save,” it can also kill. In the name of “religion” there are: attacks on abortion clinics, hate crimes against homosexuals, calls for a racial war by skinheads and Aryan people, violent “tribal” movements in N. Ireland, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Indonesia (just to use places beginning with the letter “I”). Is it any wonder that some are calling for religion to get out of the public square altogether? Religion gets more than bothersome and downright bloody when it goes public, so better to keep it shut up in private: in weekend rituals, local revivals, summer camps, ice-cream socials and potlucks, church conventions. So the common argument goes.
But because Christian faith involves trust in God the Creator of all that is, it is related to all of reality as well. By definition, theology moves toward a wholeness of view. While many within American culture view religious faith as a “private” matter, the Christian, biblical faith relates to all of creaturely life. Religious (and non-religious) faiths of all kinds keep popping up in public, and thus for this reason, too, good theology also goes public.
The temptation for us in the LCMS is to isolate ourselves from the wider public and keep the faith as simply a matter of the heart or merely a matter for private discussion within the walls of a church building. The LCMS exception to the general practice of seeking the safety of retreat into a cultural enclave is, of course, the church body’s public pro-life stance and LCMS presidential pronouncements on a range of public issues. But these exceptions only underscore our diffidence at public participation in a host of other public arenas–and of course not everyone in the church body shares the views of the LCMS president when he speaks out on public matters about which there can be honest disagreement among Christians (e.g., the practice of homosexuality, care at the end-of-life, etc.).
Obviously, the LCMS is in no danger of succumbing to the truly liberal view that the church’s mission is identical with social-political engagement. But either of such moves–either thinking the church is mainly about the practice of social justice or thinking the church must retreat into an enclave–tends to be inconsistent with St. Paul’s vision that the words of God, the message of the law and the good message, are addressed not merely to those who already inhabit the walls of some church building, but also to those who are on the other side of those church building doors. There is a public dimension to the church’s theology and moral voice.
How does good theology relate to the publics that are “society” and “the world?” In other words, is there a viable “public theology” that can claim the adjective “good?” While the constraints of this little essay preclude even a partially-developed understanding of public theology, a few key elements can be highlighted.
As in the public that is the “university,” so in the public that is “society” good theology underscores the need for educated citizens who can serve both the civic order and the mission of the church. Good theology thus emphasizes the importance of education for the common good of all, both inside and outside the Christian church. Dr. Luther supported public education because it allows people to gain the knowledge and skills necessary for them to use their gifts and talents to serve others in society. One way that the Creator rules is through the specific vocations that a Christian has (e.g., individual believer, parent, work, citizen, etc.) and through social-political institutions that are guided by human reason and experience (even apart from the biblical revelation). Although Luther recognized the limitations of human reason and its pretentions to idolatry, he nevertheless affirmed human reason as a gift of God that is capable of uncovering truths in nature and improving human social conditions by means of intelligent action, technology, and innovation.
Good theology also investigates the murky issues of social ethics, pursues the common good, seeks human justice, and envisions global peace. While such investigation does not exhaust the theological task or fully entail the mission of the church, these are important tasks that are an aspect of the Christian mission. Such social engagement is especially necessary when some claim that theological voices and actions are not welcome in “the public square” (R. J. Neuhaus).
Public theology is especially necessary when a prophetic voice is needed to identify when society is sinning against that most fundamental of the divine commandments and committing idolatry or when it is failing to live up to the most basic of responsibilities outlined in the so-called second Table of the Law (those commands that deal with protecting and serving the neighbor). In this sense, theology has a critical, negative role to play, articulating the divine critique of all human sins of commission and omission.
On the other hand, theology also has the responsibility of speaking a liberating, cross-centered word that frees individuals for loving, responsible service in and for society. Although the pursuit of justice in the world is different from the justification of the sinner before God, the latter nevertheless provides a proper grounding for the former. Just how this is so, is a basic task of Christian theology as well.
IV. The Fourth Public: Theology is for the Birds
Tracy’s three publics are only part of the picture. When he developed his analysis of the social location of contemporary Christian theology, the environmental crisis was just beginning to come to the forefront of peoples’ minds and hearts. Christian action toward alleviating that crisis was just beginning to occur. Now that Christian theology can no longer avoid the immense problems that that crisis is creating for the future of our tiny, fragile planet, such theology must also be “for the birds,” so to speak. Theology has a responsibility to speak to this “global” public as well. The worst kind of theology is one that avoids this set of problems altogether by asserting that the environmental crisis (“if there really is one”) is beyond the responsibility of theology. Such a neglectful theology will only contribute further to the crisis. Even worse would be a theology that would encourage even greater exploitation of God’s creation for the sake of selfish human ends!
Contrary to those who argue otherwise, there is a tremendous need for an evangelical theology that supports God’s on-going care of God’s creation. Thankfully, many evangelical and Roman Catholic students and others recognize the problem, sense the need for responsible Christian action, and are attempting to address the crisis in creative ways. Christian theology is at its best when it offers them and others a hopeful vision of God’s good intention for creation and the responsible place that human beings have as caregivers in that creation. While theology offers analysis of the root cause of the environmental crisis, namely, the power of human sin to exploit God’s creation for selfish ends, this critical task of magnifying the problems of the environmental crisis by uncovering human sin is only a preliminary step. The greater challenge is to uncover the connection between the gospel of Jesus and the responsible care of God’s creation in view of the great environmental challenges that confront us. In other words, the gospel itself is crucial for the task of working toward a sustainable global future. How the new creation in Christ impacts the care of God’s “old” creation will continue to be a major task of theology.
As missionaries, we need to return again and again to our theological groundings. Ad Fontes! To the sources! We are always in need of getting our bearings straighter, though we recognize that our theologizing will always remain a messy business. Theology is for the world and the world is a messy place. One should expect one’s theology to get a little messy in the process of missionizing. We can only hope for the eschaton, God’s “end,” when God will be all in all and there will be no more messes.
Clearly, there is a risk involved in the Christian mission that engages these four publics and perhaps others that I have not identified. Christians will not always agree with one another about how best to fulfill that mission. Cross-road synods are needed for the purpose of seeking consensus in the gospel and its applications today. We ought always be ready to take risks for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such risks are based on a vision that is as wide as God’s mercy and as inclusive as the New Creation that comes with the Resurrected Christ. The good news is that the triune God is already out in front of us, calling us, gathering us, enlightening us, keeping us, and then sending us.
Martin Marty, “When Religion Calls, Healers or Killers May Answer,” Chicago Tribune (August 27, 1993).