Chapter OneTheology and Wisdom
J. I. Packer
I. What Is Theology?
"She's a rum 'un, is nature. Nature is more easier conceived than described." So
declared Charles Dickens's dreadful creation Mr. Wackford Squeers, schoolmaster,
pontificating on the world around him. And an observer today might well feel
like saying something similar about theology as it goes on show at gatherings of
what is nowadays called "the guild"-the professionals who teach theology in
universities, seminaries, and a variety of schools and colleges, along with their
pre- and postdoctoral apprentices and the people who write books and articles,
edit journals, manage Web sites, and publish CD-ROMs of which theology is the
announced theme. Here we confront a "rum 'un" indeed. Never before has the
world or the church seen anything like the range of views about God and religion
that is paraded at these meetings in papers read, discussions mounted, and books
set out on publishers' display tables. What account of theology, we ask, will
embrace all this? Common ground and agreed method seem to be lacking.
Should we then echo Mr. Squeers's cop-out and say, in effect, that describing and
defining theology is currently a task beyond us? Do we adopt this counsel of
despair, or what?
Eventually I want to argue that true theology is essentially identical with
God's gift of wisdom, but let us start where we are. The first fact to be faced is that
during the past two centuries the word theology has been drastically secularized
and de-doctrinalized among us. No longer does it signify, as it once did, the analysis
and assertion of a dominant churchly orthodoxy. Theology has become simply
the voicing and discussing of any and every notion about God and religion-good
and bad, old and new, familiar and strange, conventional and eccentric, true
and false-and it is clear that many institutions of the theological trade wish to
keep it that way. The idea that the church should somehow oversee the study of
theology or that there should be basically one theology for everybody is dismissed
as naïve ecclesiastical primitivism, not to say atavism; and the concept of heresy is
deconstructed as a kind of outdated and sordid power play. Following this path,
we reach the four frames of a memorable Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy, with her
habitual schoolmarmly pertness, delivers the following speech: "My topic today is
the purpose of theology. When discussing theology we must always keep our purpose
in mind. Our purpose as students is undeniably selfish. There is nothing better
than being in a class where no one knows the answer." Lucy focuses very well
the fundamental frivolity of much theology today.
To put it clinically (for it is in truth a pathological development), pluralism-that
is, the acknowledging of plurality as totally right and entirely proper-has
become the popular theological paradigm among the Protestants of what we
may call the Old West (North America, Britain, continental Europe, and
Australasia). Roman Catholics and Orthodox in their different ways still think of
theology as a spelling out of the faith of the church within an essentially biblical
frame. But for Protestants generally, theology has come to mean adjusting the
faith more or less to the prevalent culture according to each adjuster's individual
ideas, so that doing theology and having a theology of one's own becomes more
important than any of the specific affirmations and denials one makes. These personal
theologies are repeatedly redesigned as their creators continue to read and
discuss. For such Protestants, the Bible is a historical testament of religion with
which to dialogue rather than the abiding testimony of God from which to learn
and before which to bow; and the supply of energy for their dialogical engagements
and theological experiments with Scripture seems endless. So pluralism is
evidently here to stay.
This present-day plurality of positions among purveyors of theology can be
accounted for in various ways. In North America, at any rate, sociological pressures
have had something to do with it. The sequence of events is quite simple
and predictable: the academics who are promoted are those who publish; publishers
naturally want to sell books; notoriety speeds sales; ergo, new ideas and
way-out opinions quickly find their way into print. In turn, this cycle provokes
fascinating academic discussions, reminding us of what the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones
used to say, namely that discussing religion is always a delightful activity, for
it makes us feel good without our needing to do anything except talk.
Again, for the best part of a century now, many theology-teaching institutions
have employed instructors less for the orthodoxy of their views than for
their technical prowess and their penchant for stabbing sleepy minds awake.
Moreover, many of these teachers seem to have operated on the assumption that
their students' education was best served by challenging whatever confessional,
Bible-based certainties were brought into the classroom. This has had the knock-on
effect of impoverishing churches, for though it is a truism that congregations
want to hear their preachers' certainties rather than their doubts, this kind of
theological education makes the proclamation of certainties impossible, thus
undermining the morale of believers and churches alike.
Behind these sociological realities, however, stands a problem that is both
convictional and methodological. During the twentieth century, a number of
streams of thought converged to produce what we now speak of as the post-Christian
mind-set. Among these were philosophical and scientific rationalism's
claim of being the only way to knowledge; evolutionary theory's attempt to
explain everything in progress terms; literary and historical criticism's challenge
to the Bible's trustworthiness; and positivism's skepticism about any form of
supernaturalism. These ideas stand in startling contrast to the view that they displaced.
Up to the seventeenth century, Christians everywhere had assumed, more
or less explicitly and clearheadedly, that theology was a true science and indeed
the Queen of the Sciences, in the sense of its offering an account of God that
determines where the other sciences fit in and how they should be practised.
Christians believed that this theology constituted a cognitive apprehension-that
is, actual knowledge-of the reality of God in Christ according to the Bible and
the church's creeds and liturgies. By the same token, they also believed that the
apprehension was not self-generated but was given by God through the means of
grace that he provides in and via the church. They believed, moreover, that this
apprehension was marked by three integrated characteristics: that as it was factually
instructional, so it was devotionally relational and morally transformational.
In other words, knowledge of God is as much communion with him and obedience
to him as it is grasping facts about him; and theology-that is, the formulation
of this knowledge in orderly speech-is real and authentic only to the extent
that it embodies these three elements with biblical accuracy and then expresses
them in worship and holy living. This was the intellectual paradigm of the whole
Christian world for a millennium and a half.
II. Theology Deformed
Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, however, under the influence
of commanding thinkers in the Cartesian mold, this consensus view was shattered
by an epistemological upheaval in the Protestant West. The concept of knowledge
was itself secularized and shrunk, with the result that theology (already over-intellectualized
in many circles after more than a hundred years of ceaseless debates)
was subjectivized, a process that virtually guaranteed the hegemony of pluralism.
Theologizing-once an orderly, reverent, and heartfelt echo of biblical teaching,
kerygmatic and catechetical, normative and edification-oriented, an extension
indeed of preaching, evangelism, and pastoral care-turned into a scholars' second-level
reflection on the primary levels of Christian existence. In this secondary
process of reflection, peoples' thoughts, feelings, and declarations-both historic
and contemporary-become the agenda prescribed for treatment in place of the
message of Scripture as such; and constantly, in this kind of exploration, the academic
quest for coherence has taken precedence over the properly Christian passion
for faithfulness to what God has revealed. In former days, theology had been
conceived in personal terms as the discerning doxological devotion within which a
teacher's knowledge of the Bible, church history, and practical ministry would be
set and linked up; now, however, theology appears as one leg of a fourfold syllabus
for clergy education, alongside biblical studies, church history, and ministry skills.
Edward Farley well describes the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century's reconceiving
and academicizing of theology:
In brief, this shift is from theology viewed as a habitus, an act of practical
knowledge having the primary character of wisdom, to theology
used as a generic term for a cluster of disciplines. Crucial to this shift is
the definition of theology by its reference and not by the subject's act.
This objectification of theology appears to be the outcome of the sectarian
(Catholic and Protestant, Lutheran and Reformed, orthodox
and heterodox) controversies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
That is, dogmas, articles of faith (pure and mixed), the teachings
of the church obtain a certain primacy. "God and the things of
God" had always defined the reference and content of theology, but
theology itself had always been a sapiential knowledge that attended
salvation. When the step is taken to define theology by its reference, it
becomes the doctrinal truths themselves.