Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

What is Theology?

Different definitions of theology lead to different methods/approaches of “doing theology.”  I propose the definition given by the late Baptist theologian of the “[b]aptist Vision,” i.e., the constitutive vision of the Believers’ Churches, James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000).  Theology, McClendon said, is “the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is.”  He intended this definition to be broad enough to encompass the theologies of other world religions and of philosophical substitutes for religion, such as Marxism, socio-biology, etc.  If the “convictional community” in question is the Christian Church, then theology is the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of the Christian Church, including the discovery and critical revision of disciples’ relation(s) to one another, to the Triune GOD, and to the rest of Creation.” (My adaptation.)

Certain things follow from such a definition:  i. Theology is pluralistic; done in different, even rival, camps.  There is struggle in theology–the struggle for truth. This sometimes involves struggle against the perceived errors of others.  Because Christ prayed that the Church would enjoy the same unity that he enjoys with the Father, striving for ecumenical reconciliation in the fractured Church is mandatory.  But all the ecumenical good will in the world cannot disguise the fact that theologians (and churches) disagree and that some of these disagreements are sharp and deep. Another way to say this is that theology is contextual  –related to differing church traditions (e.g., Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, “baptist,” etc.), differing eras, differing cultural contexts. 

ii. Theology is narrative based, construing the lived experience of the convictional community by means of Scripture.  There are, of course, different readings of Scripture:  A 12th C. Franciscan “take” on the biblical narrative differs from a 17th C. Jesuit take on the same narrative–but they are both much closer than either is to the “take” of a 16th C. Dutch Mennonite, of 19th C. antebellum African-American Christians in the U.S. South, of a WWI-era Pentecostal, of a Peruvian “base community” in the 1970s, of a Reformed “take” in South Africa during the “Boer War” resistance to British rule, of an African Christian response to both the British and Afrikaaner readings, etc. 

 iii. Theology is rational.  Some (Schleiermacher, Barth) have called theology a “science,” and in the broadest sense of the term, this is true.  But because in English “science” is understood after the model of the natural sciences, McClendon suggests (and I agree) that it is less confusing to call theology a discipline that is to display the rationality appropriate to its metier, just as the disciplines of art, law, and medicine display their own particular rationalities. Thus, like these other cases, theology is a practice, a craft, that is rooted in the other practices (e.g., mission, evangelism, worship, communal prayer, preaching, hospitality to the poor and the stranger, life together in the Body, nonviolent service to the neighbor, nonviolent encounter/witness with the enemy,  etc.) of the Church.  The theologian must likewise be rooted in these practices, in a particular Christian community, even if s/he is employed by a secular or pluralist university.

  iv. This leads us to the fact that theology is self-involving.  Possibly in rare circumstances a Christian theologian could write a Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist theology (Hans Küng has attempted this regarding Judaism and Islam) or some non-Christian could undertake to write a Christian theology.  But these would be exceptions that prove the rule.  In convictional work, self-involvement is the rule, exceptions must be explained case-by-case.  (This is NOT to say that Christian theologians should not be in dialogue with non-Christian movements. The missionary nature of the Church means that, in each context, theologians will dialogue with major forces and thought-forms in their cultural context.  But the theologian does not attempt to adopt a “neutral” or “detached” observer frame. S/he is not an anthropologist.)

I. Is this a good way to understand theology? Why or why not?

II. What does the practice of theology look like when understood this way?

May 21, 2007 - Posted by | theology


  1. Good post to think about as I go into my third of three classes on “systematic theology” at Fuller this Summer.

    Comment by Pat McCullough | May 21, 2007

  2. Are you studying with Colin Brown or whom? Say hello to Glen Stassen, Nancey Murphy, John Goldingay, & David Scholer for me. Glen was my Doktorvater back when he was at SBTS. I taught as Visiting Prof. of Christian Ethics at Fuller in 2000 when Glen was on Sabbatical and met the worthies mentioned above.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 21, 2007

  3. Great post, Michael. If I were to add anything to your four points, perhaps I’d say that theology is also “discourse” — i.e., it’s concerned with the language of the community and with the articulation of the community’s language-rules.

    Comment by Ben Myers | May 21, 2007

  4. I sincerely do not mean this as a know nothing question. And it is off topic, so feel free to ignore it.

    But, as a poorly educated layman, I’ve been trying to figure out what theology is good for. What does it do for average pew sitter?

    Once academics have “done theology” how does it trickle down to the rest of us?

    Comment by jmeunier | May 21, 2007

  5. Mr. Meunier, that is NOT a bad question at all. I will try to work on that question in a later post. For now, I’ll say 2 things: 1) I don’t think theology is supposed to “trickle down.” I think all Christians(“laity” as well as “clergy” to use distinctions that my own tradition finds suspect, at best) are supposed to be theologians, not just academic theologians. 2)IF, as McClendon contends and I agree, theology is a practice that is rooted in and serves other essential practices of the Church (and the churches), then theology should help us “be church” better–to more faithfully be the community of disciples of Jesus in this time and place. Thus, theology should flow from and help our preaching, our worship, our prayer life, our witness/evangelism, our service, etc.

    Again, I will try to say more about this later. I want to agree with you to this extent, however: Many theologians have done a VERY POOR JOB in enabling laity to see the value of theology, much less how they can be part of such a practice. To that extent, they are guilty of a form of malpractice–of not serving adequately the church(es) whose health is their very reason for being.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 21, 2007

  6. Ben, I detect the hand of George Lindbeck in your addition. I am willing to accept it as an addition. McClendon, I think, saw that discourse and grammar as implied in ii and iii. (Of course, alas, he’s not around anymore to ask since he finished his 3rd volume the same week is heart finally gave out.)

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 21, 2007

  7. I will pass the greetings along next time I see them (some I see more than others). Actually, I tried to like to the course description, but it didn’t work, here it is. The class is with Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, the Finnish superstar. I really appreciate his global take on theology. Some profs give lip service to contextual theologies, he emphasizes them (while also covering the traditional understandings).

    Comment by Pat McCullough | May 21, 2007

  8. I tried to “link,” that is, not “like.”

    Comment by Pat McCullough | May 21, 2007

  9. I agree that theology should not “trickle down.” If anything, it trickles up. That is, theology is critical reflection on the practices of the Christian community, such as worship, prayer, service, witness, evangelism, mission, etc… I think most theology started out as a series of footnotes on the Apostles’ Creed, which is another way of saying theology was an attempt to reflect on the meaning of our baptism. Christian theology is our humble attempt to say what the church means when we confess, “Jesus is Lord.” Also, statements such as “Jesus is Lord” subvert and redefine what the world would count as “rational.”

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | May 22, 2007

  10. Pat, I never got to meet Kärkäinen. When I was there in 2000, they just announced hiring him to replace Miroslav Volf who had left for Yale, but Kärkäinen hadn’t yet arrived in Pasadena. (I did meet Colin Gunton who was also a visiting prof. at the same time I was.)

    Jonathan, I not only agree, but think I have said as much–except without mentioning the Apostle’s Creed.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 22, 2007

  11. Michael:
    I find that I am quite sympathetic with what you have here so far, but I wonder if it might go further.
    As I composed this, I found that I was violated your comment guideline #4, so I’ve posted it on my blog. I’m not sure how to put in a link, so the address is: http://gowerstreet.blogspot.com/2007/05/what-is-theology-some-thoughts-on.html
    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Michael, and your invitation to us as well!

    Comment by Jason | May 22, 2007

  12. Oh, I guess that’s how you do links! 😉

    Comment by Jason | May 22, 2007

  13. Michael, I look forward to your upcoming post on the practical value of theology. I am finishing up my graduate work at HDS and wonder myself how my studies will benefit the folks in my congregation. In other words, I feel bipolar—one part of me exists in the highly academic, historical-critical study of religion, and the other part of me exists in the “real world,” in which the people to whom I minister require real world answers in real world language (something theologians in general have a very difficult time employing). At any rate, I anxiously await your post…

    Comment by David Garrett | May 22, 2007

  14. To Ben (#3) and Michael (#6):
    Ben’s comment does echo Lindbeck, but it is not completely out of line with McClendon either. Convictions, by McClendon and his long-time non-Christian friend, James Smith, is a very good but underappreciated exploration of the way convictional communites develop and talk about convictions. (I think it is one of the best uses of speech-act theory around.) McClendon might say that discourse and grammar are implied in i-iv, not just ii & iii. But, Michael, you are right, we can’t ask Jim. I’d be happy to ask Nancey though. She could approximate Jim’s response better than anyone else I know. [Side note: Remind me sometime to tell you about the first time I had lunch with Jim. It’s one of my favorite stories.]

    Comment by Chris | May 22, 2007

  15. Jason, thanks for your link.
    Chris, I did have McClendon & Smith’s book (especially the revised version) in mind. By all means, ask Nancey about “discourse” Chris. She is a fascinating and brilliant person.

    I was glad to know Jim for his last decade. Please email me with any McClendon stories you have. My dissertation (under Glen Stassen and with Yoder as external reader) tested and modified slightly Jim’s “baptist vision” in theological ethics. I have published one academic article on Jim’s hermeneutics.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 22, 2007

  16. David, hopefully as I show how Christian theology is deeply rooted in (and serves) the practices the Christian Church, you will find yourself less bi-polar.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 22, 2007

  17. Michael,

    Thank your for your first reponse. I look forward to your fuller post at a later date.

    Let me also offer a Hat Tip to Ben Myers for linking your blog on his site. That’s how I found your very intersting blog in the first place.

    Comment by jmeunier | May 22, 2007

  18. Ben’s a good bloke that way. 🙂 His site led me to many others and many have said the same. In this case, I asked him to link to me because I wanted many new readers for this thread. Thanks, Ben!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 22, 2007

  19. Of course, I would have linked here anyway (even if you hadn’t asked) — although lately, I’ve unfortunately had far too little time for visiting blogs, so I’m sure I miss a lot of good posts!

    Comment by Ben Myers | May 22, 2007

  20. […] What is Theology? […]

    Pingback by Index of Posts on Theology as a Craft or Practice « Levellers | July 14, 2008

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