In a post on a friend of mine’s site After.Church, seminary student Joseph Kim wrote about his hesitation toward learning traditional, academic “theology” in his training towards joining the ranks of pastors. It is a short post, a musing really, that does not go very deep into what it is that Kim may be worried about when he claims that he is worried about studying theology, but instead speaks to a question of relevancy. Is learning and reading the tomes of theology relevant to doing good pastoral work within the local church? Such a post and question got me thinking about the importance of learning and doing good theology. Full discloser, I am, by training, a theologian as well as a pastor currently serving a local church. By that I mean my PhD is in theology. If my PhD was in Biblical Studies then I might be writing a very different post. If it were in ethics, I probably would have just plagiarized someone else’s thoughts and writings on the subject.
I would argue that it is important to study theology because people in the pews are wrestling with deep theological questions that are often inchoate and confusing. Part of the job of the pastor is to help people articulate the questions and concerns that are heavy in their lives in a way that makes sense and connects them with the greater Christian tradition. I am not suggesting that the role of the pastor is to stand from the pulpit and tell the people what their questions might be, but to listen to people, to listen to their struggles, listen for their questions, and offer the wisdom of good theologians who have spent time thinking about and wrestling with those very questions. The pastor should be a bridge between the academy and the pew which means the pastor needs to study theology.
For example, say someone in my congregation wanted to understand the role Holy Spirit in relation with the Trinity. A simple enough question that a ninety minute lecture about the events leading up to and following the Council of Nicaea as well as an introduction to the Cappadocians would solve. This is a good, academic and boring response to such a question and will probably insure that you will never be asked another question again by that individual. Listen and go deeper. In listening we may realize that it was not so much the nature and substance and relationality of the Trinity that this individual was wondering about, but the presence of God in his or her life. The person is looking for assurance and comfort in the notion of God’s presence at a personal level. It may be a question that is focusing on the imminent nature of God, which I believe the doctrine of the Holy Spirit does speak to, but not necessarily through a Trinitarian approach (or at least not via the Council of Nicaea). Instead I could introduce that individual to Process Theology, to Elizabeth Johnson’s book She Who Is, or others who spend time talking about the presence of God and the activity of the Holy Spirit. To do this, I need to know what is out there and what work has already been done.
There are ongoing conversations in the academy that may seem to be removed from the experience of the people in the pews, but a good pastor (yes, I am suggesting that not all pastors are good) learns his or her theology, learns about the broader conversations, the questions asked, so that it can be brought into the experience and the faith of the people in the pews.
Beyond simply listening to the questions of the people and offering a place in Christian tradition to connect, theology gives one the tools needed so that one might have better pastoral presence in times of crisis. In this postmodern context (whatever that means) pastors are going to be pushed in their answers of suffering and theodicy in moments of anguish and despair. We cannot rely on modernistic answers that suggest things like we suffer because we are not good enough in our faith or that God punishes those who are not part of the elect (take that, Calvin!). In a multi-faith context we need to have thought through questions of salvation, theodicy, pain, and purpose of existence that does not say, “its all good,” but at the same time does not suggest that all but Christianity is bad. In the face of other religions pastors need to be prepared to give if not a well-thought out answer but at least a couple of different ways of thinking of the problem. This takes theological training.
Finally, when preaching your theology is front and center. As soon as you say something about God you are making a theological claim. You don’t have to footnote Anselm or Augustine or Aquinas or anyone else whose name starts with ‘A’, but you should know what it is that you are talking about. You need to be clear what it is that you are suggesting when you say “God is love,” or that “God’s love is for everyone,” because people will hear you and will push back in one way or another. You don’t need to explain all the ingredients that go into the cake for people to enjoy the cake. But if your eggs are spoiled, or your sugar is not sweet than nobody will want to eat the cake (hungry yet?). Good preaching is rooted in good theology.
Not only should we study theology in seminary, but we need to keep reading current theological texts. Ideas are changing, people are doing good work, and new notions and paths towards walking with God emerge. We are not meant to do our work alone but with a community. When someone publishes a book, no matter how erudite it may be, it is for the sake of the greater community and I contend that it can help you in your ministry in one way or another. Even if you disagree with everything the author says, it is sharpening your own ideas and beliefs and that is a good thing. Keep reading new ideas as well as the old ones. Read the ancient theologians, the romantic theologians, the modern theologians, and the contemporary theologians (this blog does not count… but is a good start) and then do your own work to continue to articulate and rearticulate your own theology.
So to Joseph Kim and all others who are in seminary studying to be a pastor, take your classes in theology seriously as well as your classes in Biblical Studies, History, and all those other things. To those who are currently serving churches, keep pushing your theology, keep reading, and keep growing. You will be a better pastor for doing it.
Finally, for the non-pastor, the person sitting in the pew, read theology. Go and buy a theology text, read it, and then demand that your pastor help you understand the parts where you get stuck. Your pastor will thank you (heh, heh).