What makes good theology?
Theology has been an interest of mine for most of my life. Making a living from teaching and writing about theology is a relatively new development for me, and it has led me lately to do some introspection.
Theology is a topic people like to debate. Like politics and money, theology is somewhat taboo to discuss publically in our culture. Churches split over it. Friendships end because of it. Sometimes, people even kill for it. Theology is not always nice. Oftentimes, it can be downright divisive. We draw battle lines based on our doctrine, defining who’s in and out…
infant baptism vs. submersion…
universalism vs. exclusivism…
traditional vs. contemporary…
predestination vs. freewill…
As easy as it can be to get sucked into these topics (and as much fun as they can be to debate with fellow theology nerds) I’ve always felt a little out of the loop when it comes to the divisiveness of theology. For some reason, I can usually find something of value in just about any theology – whether I agree with it or not.
I don’t agree with Calvinists, for example, but I appreciate much of what they try to affirm. I’m not a universalist, but I like that there are folks out there who continue to hope for the salvation of all. I enjoy reading dead German theologians, as well as emerging contemporary thinkers from the Majority World.
My appreciation for bits and pieces of (just about) all theology has got me thinking – what is it that makes good theology? What common themes exist in these diverse opinions that allow me to feel somewhat at home across the theological spectrum? While no list could be definitive, I’ve chosen to highlight three things that I believe make for good theology:
1. Good theology is authentic.
There are theologians out there who do what they do simply for a paycheck. They have very few convictions of their own, and perhaps even view belief in God as being somewhat passé. Yet they continue to do theology, almost entirely from speculation and with no clear assertion of what they actually believe. Other theologians are backed into a corner. Maybe they no longer agree with their tradition or the views of the school that employs them, so they curtail their views out of the fear of losing their jobs. Both of these examples make for inauthentic theology.
I want theologians to believe something. If I am going to invest the time to read your stuff, I would like it to reflect something of your context, worldview, and convictions concerning the divine. Don’t hide what you believe behind a veneer of speculative fluff, give me something real. Even if I don’t agree with what you have to say, I will appreciate your theology much more if I can tell that it comes from the heart.
2. Good theology is compelling.
Some theologians tell you what they believe. Others tell you what to believe. I appreciate when a theologian makes you want to believe. Write a compelling word. Inspire me! Paint me a picture of God, the world, and human nature that is so fresh and so beautiful that I can’t help but believe.
You can shove your opinions in other people’s faces as much as you want. You can lay the most solid foundation, building an argument with absolutely no holes, etc. – but at the end of the day, I will never believe what you have to say if I don’t find it compelling. This is why so much of contemporary apologetics is ineffective. It’s not enough to convince people, you need to compel them. And people are compelled by beauty, not effective reasoning.
3. Good theology does no harm.
Theology is not a harmless pursuit. It requires discipline and responsible handling. Religious belief is a powerful force that can persuade people to do great things, as well as terrible things. When theology maligns individuals or groups of people, it becomes destructive. Theologians have the responsibility to be compasses for the church, keeping it engaged with culture and pressing forward, while correcting in love and pointing to God’s Kingdom.
When we speak theologically, we have the power to draw people closer to God or drive them away. In this respect, theology is the responsibility of all Christians—and we will be held accountable.
There is much more that could be added to this list—engagement with Scripture, contextuality, being rooted in love, etc.—but these are the three points I chose to emphasize.
What do you think makes for good theology?