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
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