fr. john behr on theology

 The question of the proper starting point, the “first principles” of theology is one to which those engaged in its discipline must continually return; however, their continual temptation is to do otherwise. Without being firmly grounded on its proper foundation, the vast body of reflection developed in theology risks collapsing into dust. It is not simply that the first principles are elementary stages, to be transcended by higher realms of more elevated reflection, but that they provide the necessary perspective within which the more abstract discussion takes place and is to be understood. The proper order, the taxis, of theology must be maintained if it is to retain its proper coherence. … Christian theology developed first and foremost as faith in the lordship and divinity of the crucified and exalted Christ, as proclaimed by the apostles according to the Scriptures. The Passion of Christ stands as the definitive moment in the revelation of God, the eschatological apocalypse which unlocks the Scriptures, and so enables Christians, retrospectively, to view the work of God from the beginning and, prospectively, by the continued contemplation of the exalted Christ who is still the coming one, to participate in this work, embodying or incarnating the presence of God in this world through their own witness or martyria. …

John Behr. The Nicene Faith. Part One, True God of True God. Crestwood, N.Y.:  St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004. 1-2.

(HT: Sister Macrina)

I’ve been working on a general prolegomena (or, maybe, an introductory footnote) to the series I mentioned last week under the general heading “What is Theology?” My goal is to reclaim this word for use in NI Churches of Christ.

I’m quickly nearing the end of the semester so there’s not much time to put it all together right now, but I offer you this quote as a starting point. No matter what you might think about Orthodox theology, it would seem axiomatic that all of our thinking in Churches of Christ begins from our notions of “first principles.” (I hasten to emphasize that an Orthodox conception of “first principles” will be different in some respects from that enunciated in Church of Christ circles.

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10 responses to “fr. john behr on theology

  1. I think you’ll find an ingrained aversion to the word “theology” among many primitivist disciples, including me. Though I suppose it may not be wrong in and of itself, it just has too much baggage associated with it (pride, double speak, speculation, etc.) to be embraced by those of us who want to get back to basics.

  2. Point taken about the aversion to “theology.” I suppose, though, that we end up unnecessarily impoverishing our language when we abandon terms because of their abuse in certain circles. It seem to me that most Christian vocabulary is subject to this kind of abuse. Words like “grace,” “baptism,” “atonement,” and “worship” come to mind as examples of words that have been horribly misdefined or misused. But what would we do without them?

    Now, the objection might be raised that a greater premium should be placed on those words because they actually appear in the Bible. A. Campbell himself said that he sought to call Bible things by Bible names. In general, I think that’s a noble goal and one that we should strive for in our own day. But the fact remains that some of our most important words and phrases do not appear in the Bible (although they might describe concepts that do). Words like “atonement” (as a noun), “Trinity,” “represent” (in reference to the Lord’s Supper), and “inference” come to mind in this category.

    It seems to me that “theology” is one of those words. It describes something that we do all the time (whether we intend to or not) and it makes it more difficult for us to converse intelligibly without it.

    I hope to post on this more fully in the next couple of weeks.

  3. I guess simple NT Christians’ adversion to theology explains why simple NT Christians are impoverished theologically. I’m reminded of Chris’ review of someone’s book on the Lord’s Supper a couple of years ago. While I’m sure there may be some non-institutional theologians out there, do they get any respect?

    While I’m sure there have been prideful theologians, I’m hard pressed to understand how the “study of God” itself leads to such pridefulness. After all, wasn’t St. Thomas Aquinas the “Dumb Ox”? Also one would be hard pressed to find a humbler man than Josef Ratzinger yet certainly he is one of the top theologians of our time. And I suspect that those men, as well as many other notable theologians, had prayer lives that far surpassed many a primitivist disciple’s prayer lives.

    At its most basic I think theology is simply good teaching. Yet sometimes the deep things of God require sophisticated answers to those who ask the hard questions. But that’s the point, not many people ask the hard questions. It seems that most people are satisfied with simple faith, which there is great virtue (read the first chapter of Imitation of Christ, good solid CoC manifesto if there ever was one).

  4. What is the subject of theology, and who or what are theologians?

    Jesus was not a theologian.

    Nor were the Illuminated Saints Yogis and Mystics from whatever Tradition; Catholic, Orthodox, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.

    Nor were the various people who wrote the books of the Bible, or any of the Sacred texts of the Great Tradition of Humankind.

    The “God” spoken about by theologians is an object in a universe of brain created language games. To pursue religious truth by the effort to create a whole theology is really to pursue or create a circle around oneself. For the “I” is the God of language. “I” create the universe of thought, and thus “God” is never more than one of many things within it.

    God as Reality and Truth is the indivisible integrity, substance, source, and condition of all things, even of ones self.

    And so language or any objective and thus objectifying mode is no way to Him.

    Only conscious surrender, prior to the thinking minds self-justifying intentions and delusions, IS the Way to Him.

  5. Poverty isn’t always a bad thing according to Matthew 5:3 and Matthew 11:25, 26. The greatness of some of those mentioned who are recognized for their prayer, humility and deep thought came from those qualities and not for high sounding titles they took upon themselves.

  6. O.K. It looks like this thread has taken on new life over the weekend.

    A few thoughts come to mind:

    Ken:

    I think you’re right to say that pride and theology are not inseparable. In many respects, I greatly admire Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), especially his writings on pluralism and secularization in Europe, which are right on target. He is possessed of an extraordinary mind. This comes through in his writings, without any trace of pride. I would, however, be uncomfortable playing off one person’s prayer life against another.

    You closed by saying:

    “At its most basic I think theology is simply good teaching. Yet sometimes the deep things of God require sophisticated answers to those who ask the hard questions. But that’s the point, not many people ask the hard questions. It seems that most people are satisfied with simple faith, which there is great virtue (read the first chapter of The Imitation of Christ, a good solid CofC manifesto if there ever was one).”

    A lot of my own interest in the things I discuss here comes out of the fact that I have been in a university setting for most of the past decade. Confronted by the things that I was confronted by, I quickly realized the inadequacy of the apologetics I had learned at an earlier age. I learned very quickly that the way I explained my faith would have to be reformulated on different terms if it was to be intelligible to those around me.

    That said, I would not want to deny for a second the validity of the simple faith or the “poverty” (to use Gardner’s term) of the Christians (including my own grandparents) that I was raised among. As I will flesh out below, some harm may have been done to that simple faith by bad theology, but even simple faith itself rests upon theology.

    John:

    I thought that I followed you at first, but parts of your post left me a bit confused (especially in light of some of the other comments you left on other posts).

    I agree that Jesus was not a theologian, certainly not in the same sense that anyone else is. Rather, He was/is/will always be theology (logos theou, John 1).

    I think that we confuse the issue because we come at theology with differing definitions of what theology is. If we all agreed that theology was simply something done by ivory-tower academics who have no meaningful faith commitments, then I (and Ken and Gardner, I presume) would all reject that sort of “theology.”

    But the fact is that all of us in the Church are theologians (whether or not we have fancy degrees). Every sermon, every bulletin article, every prayer, every talk at the Lord’s Table is to some degree an exercise in theology. Why? Because in those settings we are making statements or claims about God (based upon our understanding of Scripture, our observation of the world around us, etc.), or about his Church, his plan for the redemption of humanity, his love for us, etc., etc. In this sense, it is perfectly fair to call Paul or John a theologian (granted they had much more direct access to the source than we do!). Likewise, Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, David Lipscomb, Roy Cogdill, and every preacher alive and in the pulpit today is a theologian.

    What we need to be talking about is whether we are engaging in good theology or bad theology.

    But I’m hearing something else from you, John. Toward the end you seem to deny the possibility of saying anything at all about God. You said, “The ‘God’ spoken about by theologians is an object in a universe of brain-created language games. To pursue religious truth by the effort to create a whole theology is really to pursue or create a circle around oneself.” Sounds like someone has been reading a lot of Feuerbach! 🙂

    While I would agree that Christians often evince more certainty about the mysteries of God than we have a right to, I firmly believe that God has revealed himself to us in Christ and that the writers of the New Testament have handed on to us the traditions they received from the Jesus (and, in some cases, the Apostles) in a reliable form. Do you deny the validity of revelation, I suppose is what I’m asking?

  7. Who are the recognized NI theologians? Even if the term isn’t used.

    “But the fact is that all of us in the Church are theologians (whether or not we have fancy degrees). Every sermon, every bulletin article, every prayer, every talk at the Lord’s Table is to some degree an exercise in theology. ”

    I agree. At least I recall the former preacher at my wife’s church, Steve Dewhirst, preach several times on the “church local” and “church universal”. While I may not agree with his teaching, it certainly appeared to be a form of theology.

    Ken

  8. My last post on this! As I said in my original one on this topic, there may not be anything wrong with the word “theology” in and of itself, and several of you have shown some rather innocuous uses of it. My problem is the baggage often associated with it. I would compare it to the word “reverend,” a word that has some legitimate uses (especially in the old KJV vernacular), but one so misused that I will probably only barely use it.

    Ken, it’s interesting that you mentioned Steve Dewhirst because he’s going to be here in NJ this weekend.

  9. Gardner,

    Well what a coincidence. I wouldn’t be suprise if he has planned at least one lesson on the church local and church universal . He is a very good speaker and preacher.

    I will agree that some theology goes off into speculation or seems to rely on reason outside of revelation. Certainly St. Thomas Aquinas and Scholasticism was accused of it.

    I think Chris has a point about everyone being a theologian. Even the statement to ” get back to basics” is loaded, from a theological standpoint.

    Ken

  10. You’re right, Gardner. Let’s move on to something else.

    To sum up, we all seem to recognize the value of theology (at least a certain kind of theology) even if we disagree about the propriety of the term “theology.”

    I would recommend to all of you Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson’ s Who Needs Theology?, especially the first couple of chapters. They are really good, and really simply put, on this point. You can find it on Google Books.

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