Theology and the Church
I am auditing one class this semester called Critical Debates in Christian Mission. The subject matter has little to do with my particular area of research. To be honest, I would not have even considered the class if a friend had not told me that it was one of the best classes he has taken at New College and that every PhD in systematic theology should take it. This was high praise, and it intrigued me. So, now I am taking the course. As of right now (granted it has only been one class), the course is living up to the billing.
Listening to where the class is going and grappling with some of the readings, I understand why my friend thinks that every theologian should take this class. The course addresses current conversations that are not just happening in missions, but it is also addressing contemporary conversations surrounding the mission of the church.
I don't know if you noticed, but there is was a slight difference in emphasis. As an American, I tend to think about missions but this course deals with mission. Yes, in discussing the mission of the church missions is addressed, but the interest here is bigger than just going overseas or working cross-culturally. The interest in this particular course is about what the mission of the church is. This slight change makes a huge difference and also makes the content of the course provocative.
Interestingly, there are no other systematic theology PhDs taking the course. However, I understand why my friend said he thought every systematic theologian should take it. The content of this course has already forced me to think about my own work slightly differently. I am reminded of what one theologian has said (in a rather lengthy quote) about doing theology:
Most theologians agree that theology is a church discipline — that is, a discipline which functions within Christian community. This is one aspect which distinguishes theology from philosophy of religion. Philosophy of religion is not committed to a community; it is an individualistic attempt to analyze the nature of ultimate reality through rational thought alone, using elements of many religions to assist in the articulation of the ultimate. Theology by contrast cannot be separated from the community which it represents. It assumes that truth has been given to the community at the moment of its birth. Its task is to analyze the implications of that truth, in order to make sure that the community remains committed to that which defines its existence. Theology is the continue attempt of the community to define in every generation its reason for being in the world. A community that does not analyze its existence theologically is a community that does not care what is says or does. It is a community with no identity.
What a class like Critical Debates in Christian Mission can do for a theologian is to help reorient thinking. This class has reinforced for the me the importance of doing good academic theology, yet doing it for the service of the church. The church is asking questions that theologians have the tools to help answer. Nevertheless, all too often her theologians are silent. Critical Debates is helping me to think about and enter into some of those conversations.
Often people wonder what a small church in Franklin, TN has to do with systematic theology done at the New College in the University of Edinburgh. The church has questions that the academy has the tools to answer. Academic theology needs the church and the church needs academic theology. If the two are separated, the academy starts to answer questions no one is asking and the church provides vapid answers to important questions.
Theology must be done for the sake of the church.