Theology and the Laughter of the Angels

Two weeks ago I began teaching Systematic Theology II at Tyndale Seminary.   I suspect that not all of the students in the course are excited to be there, both because the class meets at 8:30 AM on Mondays, and because systematic theology is not everyone’s favourite subject.  Some of the students are probably only taking the class because they have to.  I told them, “That’s fine.  You don’t have to love systematic theology.  You don’t have to be excited about it.  But you do have to know the basics.”

I think anyone who wants to be a leader in the church needs to be familiar with the basics of Christian doctrine – how it has developed and why it is important.  Systematic theology is not idle speculation; it’s not about professors sitting in their offices thinking up topics for papers.  It’s about the gospel and the God of the gospel.  It’s about proclaiming that gospel faithfully and biblically.  It’s about seeing the big picture of how each doctrine relates to the others; and it’s also about learning the lessons of history, so that we are not doomed to repeat the theological mistakes of those who have gone before us.

Stanley Hauerwas makes an interesting observation about the nature of seminary training today.  He’s concerned that many people don’t take seminary training seriously enough, and he makes his point by comparing seminary and medical school.  He asks us to imagine if a future doctor got to medical school and said, “You know, I’m just really not into anatomy.  I’m not going to worry about that subject. I’m going to focus more on my bedside manner.”  What do you think the school administrators would say to that student?  They’d say, “It doesn’t matter if you’re not interested in anatomy.  It’s important.  If you want to be a doctor you’ve got to understand how the human body works!”

Likewise, leaders in the church need to be able to think theologically.  It’s important.   This means they need to know the basic doctrines, historical figures, schools of thought, and so on, but more than that, they need to be able to bring these resources to bear upon the questions they face in their own life and ministry, so that these questions can be thought through theologically, and not simply on the basis of other concerns, be they pragmatic, psychological, financial, etc..

It is often said that everyone is a theologian.  I think this is true.  Theology is, simply put, God-talk. We all talk about God, and in that sense, we are all theologians.  The question is, are we going to be good theologians or are we going to be hacks?  We don’t need everyone to be experts.  But just like we expect that doctors will know the difference between our heart and our stomach, church leaders need to know the difference between Christology and ecclesiology; they need to see how they relate to one another, and both our Christological and ecclesiological assumptions inform our practices.  Just like a doctor needs to be able to tell the difference between a healthy person and a diseased person, church leaders need to be able to tell the difference between orthodoxy and heresy.

Having said all that, it’s important to recognize that theology is not like anatomy.  God is not laid out on a slab for us to poke and prod and test and dissect.  Although God does make himself known to us through Christ and the Spirit, this is always a profound condescension on his part; he comes down to our level so that we can understand him with our limited human minds – but we have to always remind ourselves that God is bigger than any theological system.  He is greater than the greatest thing we can possibly imagine. and so we have to remain humble about our theology.  We can speak truthfully and faithfully about God but we can never speak exhaustively.

I ended my introductory remarks during our first class with this wonderful quote from Karl Barth.  I reminded them that Barth was the greatest theologian of the 20th century – many would say the greatest theologian since the Reformation.  He wrote prolifically.  His Church Dogmatics was up to six million words when he died – and he hadn’t finished it.  In spite of all this, Barth retained a wonderful humility, both regarding himself as a person and about his theological work.  I always try to keep this quote in mind as I think theologically:

“The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, “Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!” And they laugh about the men who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh.”
Quoted in Robert McAfee Brown’s “Introduction” to Portrait of Karl Barth, by George Casalis, trns. Robert McAfee Brown. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1964, p xiii.

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