On Being an Open but Grounded Christian Thinker

Theological theology, a phrase that theologian John Webster recently entitled an essay he wrote for the Journal of Analytic Theology. The phrase in and of itself is pregnant; it sounds pretty academic, and indeed the way Webster develops it is pretty academic, but it is still highly practical and pertinent for the body life and growth of the church of Jesus Christ.

Instead of elaborating on what exactly Webster developed in this essay of his I want to simply riff on his phrase Theological theology. Embedded in Webster’s intent, I think, is the point of emphasizing what in fact drives theology; or what is theology’s proper object? He argues that in order for theology to be truly theological that what serves ultimately determinative must be theology’s primal object: God. This seems simple and straightforward enough; I think most theologians would affirm this one way or the other.

Here’s my riff and application of this: If theology’s genuine endeavor is an attempt to know God and make him known for the people of God in various contexts (socio-cultural, demographical, etc.) then it behooves the Christian to finally get beyond the theologians that they learn from and ultimately look to Jesus. If this is the case I would contend that the best theologians among us (trained or untrained) are those who offer ways towards thinking about God that genuinely start with and after God. This seems like a good and helpful principle for being able to engage broadly with multiple theologians across various traditions of theological engagement. The Principle: When trying to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ (or be a Christian theologian) it is best to engage with the teachings of various theologians from the regulating idea that Jesus is the center and not my favorite pet theologian.

What am I really getting at? Increasingly I am becoming disillusioned with the idea that I have to be identified with this camp or that tradition or that particular theologian in a lock-step way. For example: it is no secret that Karl Barth, Thomas F. Torrance, and John Calvin have been significant shapers of the way that I think theologically; as such (especially because of my online forays) I think that I have become tied to these theologians in absolute types of ways. Meaning that I simply affirm everything that these particular guys have written. The idea being that just because I am highly sympathetic and impacted by them that I have so bought into their “systems” of thought that I must simply parrot every idea and every thought they ever articulated.

But this really isn’t the case. I appreciate Barth and Torrance in particular because they among any other theologian I have ever encountered offer a prolegomena or theological method that fits with the ‘principle’ I mentioned above. It is this that I have adopted from them in rather stringent ways; the idea that Jesus is the ‘key’ the ‘regulator’ and ‘center’ of all theological endeavor. But this doesn’t then mean that I can’t constructively learn from various other theologians, theologians who I might not agree with or who might be in the cross-hairs of Barth and Torrance for example.

At the end of the day Christian theology is much bigger than any one thinker or trajectory of thought (inclusive of Barth or Torrance). Even if particular theologians have tapped into a trajectory that I think better gets at the center of doing theology theologically and Christianly better than other approaches, this should not be taken in a reductionistic type of way. Jesus is bigger than Barth (shocking, I’m sure!), Jesus is bigger than Torrance, Calvin, the Pope, Mother Theresa or anyone else. If Jesus is the Great Teacher of his church, then we need to be able to learn from various quarters within his catholic body.

I am struggling to say what I want to say at this point, but hopefully you catch my drift.

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2 Responses to On Being an Open but Grounded Christian Thinker

  1. Drift caught. Greater Boston has a dozen or so seminaries with as many theological traditions. Tom Wright– relevant here for his omnivorous erudition– once advised a lunch table of Anglican div students at Harvard to master some ‘body of divinity’ thoroughly before setting forth to navigate the rest of that ocean. Calvin, Barth, Torrance (his picks as well as yours) work much better as such a corpus than, say… St Maximus, Hartshorne, Gutierrez. The first triumvirate is a seminar of complementary perspectives on common loci that point outward to others; the second triumvirate is a course of great books that, putting it mildly, do not have common loci. There is a time for wide-ranging surveys, but thorough knowledge of a coherent body of divinity enables exploration in greater depth.

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  2. I understand what you are saying. I borrow much from the Death of God theologians, but my own interpretation of the “Death of God” is different than the philosophies of any one of them. I consider myself a Hegelian—arguably a theothanatologist—but I do not follow his theology word-for-word, nor his philosophy for that matter.

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