Sunday, August 12, 2018

Theory and reality. . .

Several months ago on another forum I read a post that has haunted me ever since.  Theology is an academic exercise. It needs to be separated from the faith that saves us.  I think it is one of the saddest and most shocking statements I have ever heard someone make.  Sadly, I am sure that, from the perspective of the one who said it, it is true.  They have made the often fatal error of attempting to distinguish the doing of theology from the preaching of the Church and the faith of the hearers.  It was nearly fatal for the Missouri Synod a few generations ago and it has gutted many of the schools once noted for being schools of preachers and places of learning.  Too many of them have become schools of religion in which faith is not only distant from their task but distant from the people who teach and those who come to learn.  It has been replaced both by a skepticism toward Biblical statement and truth and suspicion toward the events told therein.  It has become captive to modern ideas and perspectives and an agency of modern ideals and agendas until the connection between the preaching of the cross and what happens in the classrooms of these schools is as far as the east is from the west.  It is no wonder then, that in some parts of Christianity people are surprised when they hear talk of sin and forgiveness, death and resurrection from pulpits and in church classrooms.

I was taught that all theology must be doxology, it must function within the realm of the Church's praise and thanksgiving.  I was taught that all theology must sing (Martin Franzmann, noted theologian, Biblical scholar, AND hymnwriter).  I was taught that the people are not only thoroughly capable of getting theology (both the faithful kind that is born from Scripture and the false kind that picks at the Word of God like a vulture at a dead carcass).  Looking back over nearly 40 years as a pastor, I see the wisdom of what I was taught and the truth of it.  Things that go wrong in churches and church bodies often begin when it is presumed that theology is an academic exercise rather than something directly related to the preaching and teaching task.  Things go wrong when academic theologians do what they do oblivious to the preaching and teaching within the life of the parish or when the presumption is made that the ordinary parish pastor and his people cannot understand the theological work reserved for the academic elites.  Things go wrong when we treat theology as if it were a discussion without answers and merely theories and guesses into the darkness that has remained dark in most areas of the church's life (even where the Word is preached and taught).

The truth is I learned long ago not to pay too much attention to Biblical commentaries simply because all too often they began at a different place than I did -- without confidence in the Word!  Many of them did absolutely nothing to help the preacher in his task of speaking the Word to God's people or addressing the world outside with the life-giving Word of God.  While it is not true of all commentaries, it is true of too many.  They pick at the small stuff while missing the Word of Life.  They are more concerned with finding out what some folks thought was in the text rather than seeing Christ in the text.  As I say, that is not true of all but it is surely true of too many Biblical commentaries and it is also true of too many theological works.  There is a reason why names come and go and why theologians move in and out of fashion the way hemlines do -- they have nothing concrete to offer but merely their own biases and their own guesses into a subject wherein the most the important thing is Thus saith the Lord.  I shelves of books from the 1970s that are more useful as doorstops than as theological works.  From Bultmann to Barth, from Tillich to Pannenberg, the names are fading from memory because they did little to advance the truth and much to add confusion to the cause of the Gospel.

We cannot dare to reserve theology to the skeptical academics who are unsure of what God says any more than we can leave liturgical theology to the university where it is theory and not weekly practice around Word, Font, and Table.  Where this happens, the Church suffers.  But there is another side of this.  That is the tendency today to forget theology at all and concentrate on practice -- in other words, what works!  Just as it is self-destructive to the church to leave theology to the university, it is just as destructive to concentrate on the sociology of the church and forget that our life together flows from and back to the Word of God.  "How to books" are all the rage among those who are not interested in the faith but looking for success in building an earthly kingdom.  Statistics are not unimportant but when they drive us to forget who we are and whose we are in pursuit of an enterprise that is effective and efficient in filling an auditorium, building a grand facility, and financing a business, the Church suffers (even by association).  The fact that people are taken in by goofballs who think $54 Million jets are the work of the kingdom is one thing but the fact that too many of us secretly yearn for a small slice of their success is the soft underbelly of those who cast aside theology for the social mechanics that will deliver results.

The Church is where the Word is faithfully preached and where the Sacraments are faithfully administered.  This does not disdain denominational structures or academic settings but reminds us all neither can be allowed to become too distant from the place where the baptized regularly gather and from which most of the work of witness and service proceeds.  If the academics among us and our jurisdictional officers are doing their faithful work, they will also remind us not to put our trust in techniques or methods or programs but in the Word of the Lord which endures forever -- lest we become so consumed with survival as a church in but not of the world we surrender our souls to results.  This tension is not a bad one but a good one.  All theology is doxology (or should be) and all theology must sing.  This is what the Church needs to remember on all levels.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Martin Franzmann said that it was a bad habit to read books about
the New Testament rather than the New Testament itself. He meant to
say that pastors can be enslaved to the latest theological fad rather
than reading the Word of God itself.