Here on Theological Telemetry, our own Blake Deal recently posted an article titled “Why the Church should maintain theological distinctions,” in which he argues against the tendency to view theological precision as merely divisive and wasteful. He cautions that such a view can lead to intellectual lethargy, which eventually metastasizes into indifference about one’s faith and an aversion to biblical teaching. He points to some Protestant denominations as an example of how this false understanding of theology leads the Church to dissolve differences and emphasize sameness with those lost individuals that they consequently tacitly condemn by failing to bring them the offense of the Gospel of Christ. Ultimately then, those who reject the value of theological distinctions and disagreement end up espousing a watered down faith which represents a ‘bare minimum’ that everyone can basically agree on. Deal believes that theological distinctions do still have value, and that Christians ought to continue to engage in rigorous dialogue, but to do so with a spirit of love that avoids hatred and rivalry.
His article made a connection in my mind back to the section in Karl Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics where Barth addresses why the science of dogmatics is so essential to the Church’s life (ch. 1, §3). Barth defines dogmatics as the, “scientific reflection on the Word of God which is spoken by God in revelation, which is recorded in the holy Scripture of the apostles and prophets, and which now both is and should be proclaimed and heard in Christian preaching. (p. 3)” The Christian who denigrates theological inquiry spurns this dogmatic project of reflecting on the Word in order to proclaim it faithfully. A rejection of the importance of theology then is an endorsement of unreflective and erratic theological proclamations. I in turn put this question to the one who views theology as essentially divisive and detrimental to the Church’s life: who is the Church and what does she do? I would contend that marginalizing the process of theology actually teaches a false ecclesiology. Rather than confessing that the Church exists to engage in the task of listening to the Word and proclaiming it, they instead reduce the Church to group therapy or a glorified Rotary Club. If the dogmatic project of guarding how we talk about God fundamentally impoverishes the Church, in what does the nature of the Church consist? Is she nothing more than a gathering of those who think and act similarly?
If we wish to reject the notion that the Church can essentially be described as a community of like-minded individuals who either submit to or possess only as much authority as each individual imputes to it, we must locate the being of the Church in her relationship of subservience to her God which she possesses by virtue of her union with her subservient Lord Christ. As the very body of Christ himself, his bride participates in his life and is united to the God-Man reigning from the throne of heaven at this very moment. The Church is a community of people, yes, but one that palpitates with the rhythmic heartbeat of the Spirit of Christ. This rhythmic heartbeat finds itself expressed in the Church’s continual service of God, for just as her Lord in his time here on earth said that to do the will of his Father was his food, so too the body of Christ must take up this confession as her own. She finds her be all and end all in the eternal dance of serving, loving, and praising her Redeemer, Lover, and God.
In what does her service consist? Just as in human master-servant relationships, listening must always precede action. The Church and her service must be constituted by the twofold movement of listening to the Word of God and then faithfully proclaiming that Word. As she faithfully proclaims this Word that she has intently listened to, God affects His healing and restoration as well as His judgment and destruction. This community filled with the Spirit of their God has had His Words put in their mouths and consequently they must pour these Words forth. This means that the Church has no choice but to speak. Her very nature demands that she speak about her Lord. Just like the Prophet Jeremiah before her, if the Church keeps silent about her God, her bones will catch fire within her.
For the sake of clarity, I want to elucidate what I mean by “the Church speaking” before I proceed further. The sort of Church proclamation we ought to have in mind can be found in the last clause of Barth’s definition of dogmatics. “The Word of God… which now both is and should be proclaimed in Christian preaching.” He later goes on to broaden it even further to include any speech about God, and even our own private speaking to our hearts, however, he still views preaching as primary and all other forms of God talk are thus derivative from preaching. When considered from this angle, we begin to see just how much we talk about God. Not only when we hear our pastor’s preaching on Sunday, but also the teaching of an elder, the exhortation of one Christian to another, sharing the Gospel, writing a blog post, and even when we lay in bed at night and silently converse with God. Indeed, is not the Spoken Word at the heart of the Christian religion? John Webster hits the nail on the head when he describes the Church as a “creature of the Word.” She is beholden to the Word of her God and is filled with life by God’s continual blowing of the Spirit into her lungs through His Word. The human proclamation of this Word finds its culmination in preaching, but even this preaching is dependent for its power and authority on its faithfulness to the revelation of Christ and the Spirit through Scripture.
In her calling to speak about God the Church finds her motivation for conducting rigorous theological inquiry. If we denigrate theological inquiry in order to unite the Church, we will achieve the opposite for we have denigrated the project of attempting to proclaim God’s Word faithfully rather than on the basis of our emotions, experience, or simple error. This unswerving devotion must include a posture of heart and mind which submits her God talk to the norming force of God’s talk about Himself in His Word. Indeed, God’s talk about Himself can be the only basis for the Church to speak about her Lord. Barth makes this point explicitly when he defines preaching thus,
“Christian preachers dare to speak about God. The permission and requirement to do so can only rest on their adoption of the witness of the prophets and apostles that underlie the Church, the witness which is to the effect that God Himself has spoken and that for this reason, and with this reference, they too must speak about God. (p. 45)”
As the Church reflects on and is challenged by this living Word of God she will inevitably find herself doing theology. This means that Christians, academics and lay people alike, cannot refuse the task of speaking about their Lord, but they must examine their motivations for why they disagree with their brother or sister’s speech about their common Lord. Are they arguing from bitterness or rivalry? Are they filled with zeal for their Lord? Are they hurt? Are they protecting themselves? Is it a combination of these or myriads of other motivations? In the end, we have to accept that even our theologizing is in desperate need of sanctification. But since when does the process of sanctification warrant surrender? If it is the Lord who has given us His Word and filled us with His Spirit, why would we throw up our hands in defeat? Why would we expect our efforts to talk about God to be so different from the rest of the Christian experience which requires daily repentance and is filled with stumbling? We walk this life as sojourners, filled with the Spirit of God, dying to ourselves, being renewed day by day, and being prepared for our home in the restored creation which all our being cries out for. Why would the broken and imperfect community of the Church be any different from the individuals from whom she is composed? The Church, just like the Christians who are grafted into her, must continually be sanctified and must flower into the fullness of what she was made to be, that is, the perfect and holy community of God’s people living in perfect fellowship with Him and each other. Theology is not detrimental or secondary to this task. We do theology whenever we open our mouths to praise God or whenever we quietly preach the Gospel to our own hearts. As His people, we cannot be silent about Him. Therefore, if we must speak, we must speak well.