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

The Practice of Theology, 1

I began these reflections with the definition of theology given by the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000), “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.”  The particular convictional community we Christians are concerned with, of course, is the Christian Church, the universal Body of Christ, the People of God.  The convictions we are dealing with, unlike some whose convictions are about “girls, guns, and gold,” (to use a traditional and sexist motto from the Old West), are convictions about the Triune God, about Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of God, about the Holy Spirit, about creation, humanity, sin, and salvation, about discipleship, and the hope of new/re-newed heavens and earth.

The church’s primary instruction in these moral and doctrinal convictions we might call “primary theology” (unless some reader has a better term).  This is what we find in hymns, confessions of faith (e.g., the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds), church covenants, catechisms, sermons, evangelistic presentations of the gospel, Sunday School lessons, liturgies, etc.  More formal or “academic” theology is a secondary practice of the Church–but just as necessary for that.  In this practice, theologians investigate these primary theological (i.e., moral and doctrinal) teachings–“discovering, and interpreting” the convictions of the Church (or a part of it, e.g., Orthodoxy in post-Communist Ukraine, Pentecostalism in South America, post-apartheid Reformed faith in South Africa, etc.).  But the (secondary/academic) theologian has a normative task, too.  S/he tests these convictions in their current form:  are they faithful? adequate? biblical?  The theologian’s task, as McClendon puts it, is to hold up a mirror to the community in which the community recognizes itself not just as it is, but as it should be, must strive to be, in order to be what God is calling it to be.

We see the practical nature of theology:  Rooted in basic Christian practices (worship, prayer–both individual and corporate, preaching, evangelism, the saints’ mutual service, hospitality to strangers and enemies, etc.), theology is also to serve those practices.  A biblical example may be in order:  When the apostle Paul writes to the church gathered at Corinth, they are celebrating the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist, Holy Communion) with a full agape meal–but the rich are gorging themselves and the working poor, arriving later, are going hungry.  Paul leads them to see that their practice of the Supper is distorted, not just morally, but doctrinally–in so mistreating the poor, the Corinthian Christians “failed to discern the Body of Christ” not just in the meal but gathered in Corinth.  Their distorted liturgical practice was wrong morally and doctrinally–revealing flaws in the Corinthian Christians’ eucharistic doctrine, ecclesiology, soteriology, and even Christology.  Paul’s instruction in liturgical reform (from now on, skip the full agape meal, eat at home, do nothing to dishonor the poor made in God’s image–who are also your sisters and brothers for whom Christ died) is also doctrinal correction. In terms of our definition, this is the transformation of the community’s convictions, displayed in their practice.

Next: More on convictions; branches of theology

May 24, 2007 - Posted by | liturgy, theology


  1. […] blog about how theology trickles down from the seminary faculty to the people in the pews with an interesting post that turns my question on its head. The church’s primary instruction in these moral and doctrinal […]

    Pingback by Practical vs. academic theology « Come to the waters | May 24, 2007

  2. This reminds me of the way academics in professional fields (education, journalism, etc.) see their relationship with the field.

    Of course, in these secular fields, there is usually a sharp divide between practioners and the academics. It is difficult for academics to be heard at all beyond the ivory tower.

    Comment by jmeunier | May 24, 2007

  3. Sometimes, Mr. Meunier, there is a sharp divide between the academic practitioners of theology and the practioners of “primary theology,” and that is unfortunate. Since the beginning of church history the best theologians have been those who did not just dwell in an ivory tower: Almost all the Patristic writers were bishops. Almost all the Reformers spent time as pastors or traveling evangelists. Even in modent times, the best theologians were very active in church life either as pastors (e.g. Schleiermacher, Barth, William Temple, the Niebuhr Brothers, Andre Trocme, Jean Lassere), or were missionaries (e.g., Emil Brunner, Leslie Newbigin; John Howard Yoder was first a missionary and relief worker with the Mennonite Central Committee & later an administrator in Mennonite missions; Letty Russell began with East Harlem Protestant Mission; Harvey Cox began as a university chaplain and a missionary to post-war Germany) or involved in some other form of ministry. In other words, they did NOT simply dwell in a university or seminary ivory tower. In my alma mater, most of the faculty regularly took turns as interim pastors while retaining their teaching loads.

    I am deeply suspicious of any theologian (or biblical scholar, church historian, etc) that does not have deep and current connections with active church life. I also think it is helpful if they have spent some time working in a factory and/or on a farm–not just in white collar occupations.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 24, 2007

  4. Sounds like “incarnational” is a good word to describe the theology that you are articulating. Of course, you could add many others to your list of incarnational theologians, but the one that leaps out at me is Bonhoeffer. Duke Divinity School (as well as many other seminaries, I’m sure) requires that all members of the faculty be active in some local church.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | May 24, 2007

  5. Hey, Mike,

    As another McClendon fan, you would not be surprised to know that I think what you have written here is great. I have just finished editing an article that I hope can be published in which I am addressing this very process of discovery, understanding, interpretation, and transformation. I’ll send you a copy of the current draft.

    My point of entry is to examine ecclesiological practices of the Christian Community Development movement, the new forms of church based community organizing, the new monasticism, and other exemplary practices of churches claiming their full political mandate as they engage the world.

    So keep up the good work here.

    Comment by Mike Broadway | May 25, 2007

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