What is the Task of Theology in the Church?
Something that seems rarely discussed in the classroom is how theology actually changes the faith of people who do not spend time and money pursuing theological education. I have had a lot of conversations with strangers regarding faith, but I have never nailed down just what theology can do for everyone not interested in being a theologian.
Some answers are fairly obvious. Orthodox theology can respond to paradigms different than that of Christianity. Whether it is a certain branding of atheism or secularism, theologians are often conversation partners with the milieus of culture. Just as obvious is theology’s ability to interact with other religious beliefs, and of course, Christian heresy as well. But if theology is primarily for the church, what kind of work is it doing? How does it bolster the faith of those who do not read academic works, study scripture, or immerse themselves in these conversations? What is theology actually doing?
My first thought was that orthodox theology somehow sheds light on the complexity and nuances of simple theological assertions made by the church. This was certainly how I encountered it when I first began a more rigorous study of Christian thought. But does more complexity result in a better theology? I am not so sure. It strikes me that few saints are academics of any kind, and even fewer have PhDs. And there is always the variable of time. How long are Sunday school sessions or small groups? Is there enough time to tackle some of these big questions? Is that even the point of these groups?
Perhaps, then, theology for the church is really about helping nail down those central ideas that best cultivate what the Christian faith is all about. Maybe it is about priorities.
Here is a helpful illustration. You have a jar, and outside of it are three large rocks, a pile of pebbles, and a bunch of sand. That task is to fit everything inside the jar.
You probably see where this is going.
The large rocks represent the central tenants of the faith—those things that are fundamental to the Christian life; the pebbles represent important themes that are not quite as fundamental, while the sand is those smaller, less noticed particulars. What theology helps the church do is order which theological assertions are the big rocks, the pebbles, and the sand—then it helps you fit everything inside the jar.
You put the big rocks in first, the pebbles on top, and then pour in the sand so that it can fall through all the crevices and into the empty space.
Thinking of the issue of complexity in light of this analogy, theology does not necessarily have to make things more complicated; rather, it needs to fortify those central ideas the church has that are healthy, and redirect those that are not. Sure, the method of doing this may well be to add some depth to an idea, but providing new perspectives is going to look different than providing data that is difficult to sift through. To talk about the Trinity in the church does not require an explication of medieval Trinitarian ontology, nor does one need to deal with every soteriological theme in the New Testament to talk about Christ’s work on the cross. It is the role of the theologian, rather, to help find the kernels of these ideas most central to orthodoxy and worship, and navigate ways to present them to the church from the pulpit or otherwise.
As an aspiring theologian, the things I read have a huge impact on my faith. Though I think some of these themes really need to be brought up in the church, I cannot pretend that I am in some way superior to other congregants because I can wax eloquent on a topic or two. Sure, I can foster dialogue and push certain boundaries when it is pertinent to do so, but I am in need of those fundamental theological affirmations as much as anyone, if not even more so than others because I am too easily wrapped up in the smaller stuff. I tend to put the sand in first and ignore the large rocks. Perhaps being a theologian for the church will inherently reciprocate what I am trying to do; in my attempt to help keep the church grounded through my academic training, the church turns around and keeps me centered on Christ and his word.
Not so ironically, Christ and his word are certainly two of the big rocks.
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