- Theology as Science and Spirituality
- The Theological Task
- “Theology may be defined as the study which, through participation in and reflection upon a
religious faith, seeks to express the content of this faith in the clearest and
most coherent language available.”
- John Macquarrie, 1966: 1
The above definition indicates that theology is not confined to Christianity. Due to the exclusive nature of this paper, all references to “theology” should be understood as “Christian theology”.
As the systematic study of (or reflection upon) Christianity, theology deals with a number of issues. It attempts to speak coherently of God, as the fundamental subject matter. As Hans Küng puts it, “Man’s ‘demonstration’ of God’s reality is always based on God’s self-demonstration in reality for man” (1977:85). D. A. Carson points out along the same lines that God “has revealed himself in historical events and in words spoken by historical people” (1982:159). In theological discourse, therefore, it is necessary to pay special attention to Man’s role in receiving such revelation, thus factors such as tradition, context and hermeneutics must be taken into account. Before that, however, the question of theology as a science or spirituality will be addressed, as well as a discussion on the task of theology.
Theology as Science and Spirituality
“For serious theology it is not a question of rewarding simple faith or cementing an ecclesiastical system, but—always and everywhere—of
seeking the whole and entire truth.”
Küng, 1977: 87
Theology is a scientific discipline. According to the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a science may be:
3a A particular branch of knowledge or study
Theology is a discipline that seeks to understand reality (or certain aspects thereof) in a reasoned, coherent, and systematic manner with the use of analytical and combinative concepts. Hendrikus Berkhof highlights this similarity between theology and scientific activity (1979: 35). St Thomas Aquinas asks in his Summa Theologica whether theology is a science and declares that it is (Macquarrie, 1966: 3). However, Macquarrie points out that Aquinas immediately goes on to emphasize that all sciences are not of the same kind. The distinction is made between theology and natural sciences, such as chemistry or biology. The common principle, however—that of bringing coherence, order and insight into reality—is shared by all sciences.
But theology has not always been a scientific discipline. From the first centuries of the Christian movement, theology was taken to be “prayerful reflection” on Scripture (John W. De Gruchy, 1994: 4). In fact, right up into the Middle Ages, theology was understood as a methodology more so than a discipline. Theology was the way (Greek hodos) towards (meta) the goal of knowing God (thus meta-hodos, or methodology). It was seen as a gift of the Holy Spirit, as it was a form of spirituality through which knowledge of the Word of God was obtained and expressed. As a discipline that is based on reason and dialectic, academic theology was established with the foundation of the universities in the Middle Ages in Europe.
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Philippians 4: 8-9 NRSV
Theology can be divided into two major divisions: theological study, and practical theology. It is the task of theological study to support practical theology in its endeavour. “It is a truth which is not merely to be sought and found, but to be pursued, made true, verified and tested in truthfulness. A truth which aims at practice, which calls to the way, which bestows and makes possible a new life.” (Küng, 1977:410)
On the practical nature of theology, De Gruchy elaborates:
Theology is not simply something that one learns about reading textbooks…or listening to lectures, but through engaging in doing theology in particular contexts and situations. (1994: 2)
De Gruchy alludes to the theologian’s task of responding to issues that society is faced with. Theology, from a Christian perspective, has relevance to everyday life as it is concerned with the transformation toward a more “just” society (Ferdinand Deist, 1990: “Doing theology”). Theologians need to be “competent, critical and reflexive religious practitioners who are able to make a constructive contribution to the practice of their faith” (Ralphs et al, 2002:103).
But theology as a whole should not be dominated by theory. Charles Birch et al highlight an important point:
In general, academic theology spends too much time asking formal questions about the nature and method of theology and too little in actually doing the work of theology. (1990: 261)
In his article Doing Theology in the Kalahari (1997: 58-62), Steve de Gruchy talks about the ways that one might go about doing theology in rural Africa. He points out that, in the African context, the foundation of the Christian community lies with the lay leaders, and not with ordained ministers or the professional theologians. He then explains that any rural African theology must be “overly” related to the Bible, because the Bible is an extraordinarily powerful book in rural areas. In addition, he emphasizes the necessity of a contextual theology that is applicable to rural Africa, as there is an obstructive tendency for theology to be taught with an urban context.
As mentioned before, theological study serves as the basis for theological practice. While practice is a major aspect of theology, one should not neglect the academic side of theology. Regarding the dominance of the practical aspect of theology, Macquarrie makes it clear:
It is foolish, for instance, to suggest that we need devote ourselves only to the practical tasks of Christianity…..they do not in the slightest degree take away the need for fundamental theological thinking. Christian action itself will become aimless and sporadic unless it is illuminated by clear theological understanding. (1966: Preface)
Küng argues along the same lines:
If Christians with their theology wish to undertake a critical function in society—in certain respects and within certain limits—they must know and be able to explain the basis of their criticism. (1977: 558)
Ignorance of theological study is detrimental to theology in practice, as such understanding serves as the basis for responsible action. In light of this, one must examine the various traditions through which theology is transmitted, and the contexts in which it is studied and done.
“I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.”
1 Corinthians 11:2 NRSV
The Christian faith is passed down from one generation to another by means of oral or written tradition. One needs only to attend a church service to experience the passing down of oral tradition; similarly, one needs only to read from the vast collection of Christian works to experience the passing down of written tradition. As we pass our knowledge onto others in the same way, we take our place in the cycle.
For the Catholic Church, sacred tradition refers to the way the Bible has been handed on and interpreted, as well as the “conciliar decisions, creeds, worship, and the consistent teaching of the Church” (Oscar Lukefahr, 1994: 33). Protestants, on the other hand, have in the past held that revelation has been passed on to us by scripture alone, but recently seem to acknowledge a positive role for tradition (Macquarrie, 1966:10).
Lukefahr emphasizes that Catholic belief cannot be limited to scripture. His argument revolves around the fact that early in the life of the church there was no New Testament, and he adds that “the first Christians believed in sacred Tradition before a complete Bible existed” (1994:10).
But whether tradition is acknowledged or not, as long as it is properly understood, it does not serve as a rival to scripture, but as its necessary complement.
Berkhof notes that “an important function of tradition is to show the relevance of the biblical message for each new era and situation” (1979: 93). This entails that, upon encounter of such situations, expression of the biblical message adopts a different emphasis, interpretation, or elaboration in order to apply to the new conditions and urgencies. The contemporising of received traditions can be seen in the way the stories about the Patriarchs, the laws of Moses, prophecies or the sayings of Jesus are reinterpreted and changed. These shifts then become part of the traditions as they are passed on to the next generations (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. VI: 634). Thus the cycle continues.
But there can be a disadvantage to tradition. John De Gruchy explains:
Tradition can be understood in two ways. Firstly, as something negative, that which comes between us and the liberating message of Scripture. This was the reason why Jesus himself criticised the way in which religious leaders of the day used tradition. (1994: 7)
The problem arises when tradition has not been properly understood, and when it dominates Scripture. Macquarrie points out that:
…just as we saw in the case of scripture, so with tradition there can be an uncritical and excessive regard that leads to bad theology. (1966:11)
For tradition to be useful as a tool of theology, it must take its place as a guide, and not as something that constricts Scripture to one specific interpretation. Additionally, in order to fully understand the message being handed on through tradition, the context in which it occurs must receive attention.
“Christianity never exists in some pristine, unhistorical form. It is always embedded within particular cultures and mediated through them.”
J. De Gruchy, 1990: 209
The word “context” has a number of meanings, but the one we will be concerned with is that of the cultural, economic, political and personal situation in which we live.
As mentioned earlier, our conception of God has come to us through historical events. Küng puts it this way:
He is not God who remains immovable in (or outside) a moving world, but the God who acts within the scope of human history, makes himself known in human happenings, reveals himself in a human way, makes possible encounter, conversation, association, with himself. (1977: 308)
Theology is based on the belief that God’s revelation has taken place through nature, history, and human affairs. Thus it is necessary to study the historical circumstances of divine revelation, and the ways in which they may have influenced theological interpretation and reflection.
Theologians respond to the concerns and needs of their societies through their theologies. Paul, for instance, used differing approaches and content in his preaching of the gospel to the Jews and the Gentiles (Invitation, 2000: 136). In order for theologians to produce theologies that are relevant to each context in which they find themselves, they must partake in contextual analysis. This attempt to understand the cause of societal problems is an examination of the social, economic, cultural, gender and political factors that exist and interact in a specific context.
As the theologian takes his/her place in the cycle of tradition, he/she interprets received tradition from within a sociological context. The tradition is subsequently handed down from that context, and re-interpreted by theologians of the next generation through their own sociological context. As contexts differ, so do the interpretations and reflections. Birch et al comment:
Any student of ideology can show that all Christian theologies in the past have expressed the experience and interests of some Christians rather than others. (1990: 268)
It becomes clear that theological interpretations, which are expressed in beliefs, doctrines and methods of worship, reflect patterns of thinking that are present in particular times in history, and within specific cultures. Knowledge of these patterns is vital in order to fully grasp the received tradition.
Part of the contextual study of theological tradition involves analysis of Scripture. In the same way that we notice theologians throughout recent history addressing their societies in particular ways that respond to contemporary issues, and recognize the need to understand the context in which this occurs, so we recognize the need to understand the context in which the biblical authors recorded their accounts. Hermeneutics helps us to achieve this.Hermeneutics
“Insofar as biblical texts form a part of a dynamic communication process, their essential hermeneutical nature is undeniable. Interpretation is essential to discerning the will of God.”
Bernard C. Lategan. Anchor, Vol III: 150
Lategan, in his article Hermeneutics (Anchor, Vol. III: 149), describes it (in the most general terms) as the “art of understanding”. Hermeneutics is the theory of interpretation, and it “provides a strategy that will enable us to understand what an author or speaker intended to communicate” (Initiation, 1998: 320). Hermeneutics can be understood in two ways: it can refer to the method and techniques used to interpret written texts, or it can refer to the conditions that make understanding possible. Either way, it is intrinsically linked to epistemology.
The etymology of the word hermeneutic is derived (Initiation, 1998: 451) from the Greek hermeneueien, which is synonymous with interpretare, the Latin verb for interpreting. Theological hermeneutics, therefore, is the study of the interpretation of the Bible.
In modern hermeneutics (Berkhof, 1979: 89), a threefold distinction is to be made
· between what is said and what is intended with it;
· between the different authors, books, and witnesses; and
· between then and now
Uncritical appeals to scripture become virtually impossible once we are aware of this distinction. Berkhof explains the task:
…we have to restate what the authors intended to say, in its agreement with as well as deviation from the other biblical authors, in such a way that we today can hear it as the Word of God (1979: 89-90)
Theological hermeneutics is normally used in contrast to exegesis, where the latter is the practical interpretation, and the former is the underlying theory.
In interpretation of written documents, hermeneutics makes use of various approaches, most of which are called “criticisms”. In terms of New Testament hermeneutics, for instance, diversities in Greek manuscripts are compared (textual criticism); the literal sense is detected (historical criticism); the antecedents from which the New Testament writers drew their information are studied (source criticism); the literary genre is diagnosed (form criticism); theological emphasis of New Testament writers is analysed (redaction criticism); passages are examined in the context of the entire New Testament or Bible (canonical criticism); the structure of New Testament works are analysed (structuralism); the real author is distinguished from the implied author and the real audience is distinguished from the implied audience (narrative criticism); the strategies used by the New Testament authors to make what was recounted effective are analysed (rhetorical criticism); and the text is studied as a response to the social and cultural settings in which it was produced (social criticism) (Raymond E. Brown, 1997: 21-27).
Brown proposes (1997: 28) that “different approaches to the text must be combined so that no ‘criticism’ becomes the exclusive manner of interpretation”.
If these various approaches are considered inclusively, the intended meaning of the biblical authors becomes accessible to us.
Theology is the scientific discipline that has God as its subject matter. The foremost task of the theologian is the transformation of society from our current situation to one that is more “just”. To achieve this, theology must be “done” responsibly. The key to doing theology responsibly is to have a coherent and reasonable foundation of theological theory. In practice, the work of a theologian is only as effective as the supporting theory is accurate. Since theology is handed down through tradition and takes place in various contexts, these factors, as well as the discipline of hermeneutics must be examined critically.
I am an atheist, and I agree with the above overview. It is plainly evident that, in the same way that the archaeologist needs a critical and coherent basis from which to do archaeology, the theologian needs a critical and coherent basis from which to do theology. They are both scientific disciplines. I recognize that hermeneutics is an extremely important part of theology because of the contextual way in which theological knowledge reaches us (i.e. tradition).
For the Christian, the relevance of theology is evident in its task of transformation.
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