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Pragmatism and the Practice of Theology

March 20th, 2019 | 17 min read

By Joshua Heavin

By Joshua Heavin

Several decades ago, missiologist Lesslie Newbigin wrote about our impulse towards pragmatism in the post-Christendom West:

In discussions about the contemporary mission of the Church it is often said that the Church ought to address itself to the real questions which people are asking. That is to misunderstand the mission of Jesus and the mission of the Church. The world’s questions are not the questions which lead to life. What really needs to be said is that where the Church is faithful to the Lord, there the powers of the kingdom are present and people begin to ask the questions to which the gospel is the answer. And that, I suppose, is why the letters of St. Paul contain so many exhortations to faithfulness but no exhortations to be active in mission.[1]

Newbigin’s call to prioritize fidelity over expediency remains a timely and difficult word for the church today. To be fair to those of us striving to answer the world’s questions, we certainly should aim to love our neighbor by removing avoidable stumbling blocks that cause Christianity to seem weirder than necessary to our neighbors who are indifferent or hostile to the faith.

Nonetheless, pragmatism can exert a kind of Babylonian captivity on our churches, manifest in marketing our churches as religious goods, services, and experiences to a consumeristic society such as online churches and faux-spontaneous baptisms. My concern here is not primarily with these more obvious and dismissible examples, but rather of similar trends that are less readily detectable.

Even among our churches that attempt to take discipleship and instruction somewhat more seriously, such discipleship and instruction can easily be practiced in a nonetheless pragmatic mode. For example, a somewhat frequent refrain in North American churches is the assertion that “everybody is a theologian.” That phrase doesn’t intend to communicate that everyone wears tweed jackets, reads multi-volume books, or writes dry prose about obscure matters.

Rather, it is used to encourage skeptical or otherwise uninterested listeners to value Christian doctrine and recognize that everyone holds fundamental convictions about God, regardless of whether those convictions have been deliberately formed or acquired unawares. To the credit of this slogan, I have used it on several occasions and will probably do so again in the future in order to encourage non-Christians and Christians alike to become lifelong learners as disciples of Jesus Christ. However, it is worth pausing to consider what happens in the popular imagination of the church when everybody – and hence, nobody in particular – is a theologian.

Ultimately, in our efforts to promote theological learning in the church, we must avoid pursuing this commendable aim in a manner that betrays the subject matter in question. Theology, in other words, is not a hobby.

In the 4th century, amidst a conflict with the Eunomians, St. Gregory of Nazianzus lamented his situation in which theology had become a common, trifling matter indistinguishable from sports banter or theater gossip. Notably, in the first of Gregory’s five theological orations on God and Christ, that would prove to be of tremendous historical importance for the doctrine of the Trinity, Gregory writes:

But, in fact, they have undermined every approach to true religion by their complete obsession with setting and solving conundrums. They are like the promoters of wrestling-bouts in the theaters, and not even the sort of bouts that are conducted in accordance with the rules of the sport and lead to the victory of one of the antagonists, but the sort which are stage-managed to give the uncritical spectators visual sensations and compel their applause. Every square in the city has to buzz with their arguments, every party must be made tedious by their boring nonsense. No feast, no funeral is free from them: their wranglings bring gloom and misery to the feasters, and console the mourners with the example of an affliction graver than death. Even women in the drawing room, that sanctuary of innocence, are assailed, and the flower of modesty is despoiled by their rushing into controversy. Such is the situation: this infection is unchecked and intolerable; “the great mystery” (1 Tim 3:16) of our faith is in danger of becoming a mere social accomplishment.[2]

In our own context, “the great mystery” of the Christian faith continues to be in danger of similar ailments, and not merely because of an indifferent or hostile secularism in the West. Arguably, as in Gregory’s day, this problem can be due to an ethos that we can unintentionally cultivate within the church, and that is why we can learn from Gregory’s extraordinarily scandalous claim:

And you must not be astonished if I speak a language which is strange to you and contrary to your custom, who profess to know everything and to teach everything in a too impetuous and generous manner… not to pain you by saying ignorant and rash.

Discussion of theology is not for everyone, I tell you, not for everyone – it is no such inexpensive or effortless pursuit. Nor, I would add, is it for every occasion, or every audience; neither are all its aspects open to inquiry. It must be reserved for certain occasions, for certain audiences, and certain limits must be observed. It is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul. For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is for weak eyes to look at the sun’s brightness.

What is the right time? Whenever we are free from the mire and noise without, and our commanding faculty is not confused by illusory, wandering images, leading us, as it were, to mix fine script with ugly scrawling, or sweet-smelling scent with slime. We need actually “to be still” in order to know God, and when we receive the opportunity, “to judge uprightly” in theology. Who should listen to discussions of theology? Those for whom it is a serious undertaking, not just another subject like any other for entertaining small-talk, after the races, the theater, songs, food, and sex: for there are people who count chatter on theology and clever deployment of arguments as one of their amusements.[3]

Gregory’s own prescribed remedy cuts against our liberal democratic sensibilities; it also cuts against the populist skepticism and suspicion of elites and expertise recently detailed in Tom Nichols’ “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters,” whereby ignorance can strangely become a virtue in many areas of modern life. As Alan Jacobs observes on similar instincts in evangelicalism:

These tendencies — activism and indifference to general public opinion — are not always bad. Indeed, at times they have served the evangelical movement well, by keeping it on mission. But an unconditional emphasis on activism can easily become anti-intellectual, which can restrain people from thinking about matters they really need to think about. After all, effective activism will be informed activism.

Similarly, if you don’t care what anyone else thinks about you, you can easily find yourself locked in an echo-chamber. It can become what C. S. Lewis called an “Inner Ring,” a self-congratulating, self-justifying circle of people who are “in the right.” So overall, I think conservative evangelicals have paid a hefty price for being unreflective and self-enclosed — too hefty a price.

To be completely clear, I’m not here criticizing churches for hosting conversations for theological education with inquirers in a coffeehouse or pub – let alone doing theology in prisons, nurseries, nursing homes, slums, favelas, hospices, office break rooms, soccer fields, trailer homes, refugee camps, and illegal meetings held in secret. By no means!

But what is deserving of the full force of Gregory’s criticism is where theology is regarded as a quaint, sentimental pastime for polite society, or an intuitive, populist recreation akin to podcasting that requires no rigorous training, and in both becomes nothing more than an avenue for self-promotion.

First, the content of our theology and the future viability of formal theological education is affected when theology is widely regarded in the church as a self-evident enterprise. For instance, one might ask: “with all the pressing needs our community and church are facing, why do we need to focus our limited resources on institutions devoted to theological education, or equip individuals to study ancient languages and texts for the purpose of theological inquiry, when ‘theology’ is something that everyone already does, and I can do relatively straightforwardly with my Bible,, sermon audio, and a few popular books?”

Although not everyone is called to formal, academic study, we need to avoid intentionally or unintentionally creating the impression that such training is a superfluous luxury with minimal bearing on the church’s health or life. Inevitably, the discussions occurring in academic theology today affect the church’s confession and preparedness for ethical reasoning tomorrow, either for better or worse. Serious theological inquiry necessitates rigorous training in biblical and other historical languages, careful study of primary biblical and historical texts, and wide reading in the church’s tradition, let alone some grasp of our contemporary situation into which the church will testify to Jesus as Lord.

On the other hand, the pressure for every academic to continually justify their existence under the mantra of ‘publish or perish’ prevents many from being able to devote serious time and energy to cross-disciplinary reading and reflection while juggling teaching, grading, and an abundance of meetings. Understandably, there are few grants willing to fund undirected thought and reading. Nonetheless, the most helpful, creative, and generative theological work often emerges from periods of deep reflection upon a sustained curiosity, whose real value and contribution might not be fully perceptible or marketable at its inception.

Hence, although the venerable practice of catechesis is sadly not at an all time high in the contemporary Western church, we need to encourage every Christian to become oriented towards pursuing knowledge of God (e.g. John 17:3), without simultaneously undermining the value of either rigorous theological training or the formation of trained theologians who will create the books, articles, hymns, and agendas of the church in decades come.

Second, existentially, we will do ourselves and our churches a disservice — and quite possibly great harm to ourselves and others — where theology is practiced without any accountability and without reverent contemplation of the high and holy God who has made himself lowly in Christ, before and in whom we speak by the Holy Spirit. St. Athanasius of Alexandria concluded his masterpiece On the Incarnation, one of the more beautiful and doctrinally significant treatises in Christian history, with the following admonition:

But in addition to the study and true knowledge of the scriptures, there is needed a good life and a pure soul and the virtue which is according to Christ, so that the mind, guided by it, may be able to attain and comprehend what it desires, as far as it is possible for human nature to learn about God the Word. Without a pure mind and a life modeled on the saints, no one can comprehend the words of the saints.

For just as if, if someone would wish to see the light of the sun, he would certainly wipe and clear his eyes, purifying himself to be almost like that which he desires, so that as the eye thus becomes light it may see the light of the sun; or just as if someone would wish to see a city or a country, he would certainly go to that place for the sight; in the same way, one wishing to comprehend the mind of the theologians must first wash and cleanse his soul by his manner of life, and approach the saints themselves by imitation of their works, so that being with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also the things revealed to them, and thenceforth, as joined to them, may escape the peril of the sinners and their fire on the day of judgment, but may receive what has been laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven, “which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have they entered into the heart of man” (1 Cor 2.9), whatsoever things have been prepared for those who live a virtuous life and love the God and Father, in Christ Jesus our Lord, through whom and with whom, to the Father with the Son himself in the Holy Spirit, be honor and power and glory to the ages of ages. Amen.[4]

When non-Christian scholars perform academic inquiry into Christian theology it is a demanding intellectual challenge akin to other academic disciplines. But when a woman or man in Christ strives to participate in the work of faith seeking understanding, the entirety of one’s self is summoned before the holy, searing presence of God, whose manifold wisdom is now being made known to the rulers and authorities through the frailty of the church’s testimony (Eph 3:9–10). In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, and has entrusted the reconciled community with a word that confronts both us and the world to not only be reconciled to God but to accordingly share in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:15–21).

Because opportunism is an ever-present temptation in the work of theology, both in the content of our theologizing and in the character of our lives, the accountability of creeds, confessions, and an ecclesial community can be of tremendous generative value. We must be watchful, as the Apostle Paul put it, “lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27); “we are not – like so many – peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Cor 4:17).

Finally, politically, if our Christian confession is never impractical or an offense to the powers of our world, it is likely the case that we have ceased to testify faithfully to an identifiably Christian faith. While Christian disciples will sacrificially love their neighbors and enemies, seek the common good, and participate in civil society (Rom 12–13), the testimony that “Our World Belongs to God” and shall be inherited by “the meek” (Matt 5:5) will always unsettle or provoke those who believe otherwise. What Michael Gorman calls “uncivil worship and witness: following the lamb into the New Creation” is heresy to the cult of civil religion and an offense that must be eliminated to the beastly powers.

In the last century, the Theological Declaration at Barmen responded to the German Christian movement with an impractical confession:

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.

Although the North American context today differs in many ways from then, Christian witness that is faithful to Jesus Christ today will nonetheless be a disruptive word, as Alan Noble describes it, in the distractions of everyday light in the malaise of Late Modern life. Moreover, the word of life and forgiveness that is Jesus Christ himself will not only be ‘impractical’ to, but a cutting word of judgment against, the demonstrably rising trends in violence associated with Christian white supremacy.

To return to Newbigin’s concern quoted above, it is true that we are not called to make our faith relevant, but demonstrate the relevance of our faith in our encounter with individuals and the systems of the varying situations in which the church finds itself. Wherever possible, it is good to attempt to answer the world’s questions. But hopefully, in calling the world to die to itself, take up the cross, and follow a crucified and risen Messiah from Nazareth, we are encouraging non-Christians and Christians alike to learn what kinds of questions to ask. Because we are created in the image of God but live under the cosmic powers of Sin and Death, we will find varying aspects that need to be affirmed and challenged in every culture.

As those who have already seen the preview of God’s coming victory and liberation of heaven and earth in Jesus’ resurrection, our testimony invites the world to share in Jesus’ future reign in the present by taking up the cross and following him. While it can be frustrating — not only initially, but across our lifetimes — to have our questions left unanswered, it can be liberating to admit that we don’t even know what questions are worth asking. The world’s questions are by no means insignificant; in fact, sometimes disinterested or hostile non-Christians are more attuned to recognizing the radical nature of our theology than our Christ-haunted subcultures that can become inoculated to or just bored with Christianity. But admitting that we are finite, mortal, constantly prone to selfishness, and in need of God and others to teach us how to learn about God can be an honest form of freedom, rather than presuming that I, right now, know what is of ultimate significance.

Thus, it is worth pausing to reflect on why so many of us reflexively, almost automatically, frame our popular theological teaching as ‘practical.’ Again, if a group of people whether young or old assume that theology is a total waste of time, we certainly should argue otherwise. However, when we feed the impulse to press every doctrine, from the Trinity to justification to the sacraments, into the service of being relevant or practical, trouble can quickly creep in. We can tacitly affirm all our current dispositions, desires, and arbitrary agendas uncritically, whereby theology becomes nothing more than a means for satisfying the ends of my unchallenged preferences and whims. Alternatively, we can end up doing very strange things with the actual content of theology itself, as evidenced in recent debates on the Trinity in evangelicalism over the last few years.

As Matthew Levering observed over a decade ago, “when practical relevance replaces contemplation as the primary goal of Trinitarian theology, the technical precisions of metaphysics come to be seen as meaningless, rather than as ways of deepening our contemplative union with the living God revealed in Scripture.”[5] In other words, according to Levering, the shape of our theology can be drastically affected by the goal we are pursuing. Is our aim God, and all things in relation to God, or chiefly ourselves, and God along with all things in relation to that?

Christian theology is indeed eminently practical; but it is such only as a result of contemplating God’s immanent perfections, as John Webster captured:

Christian theology is a work of regenerate intelligence, awakened and illuminated by divine instruction to consider a twofold object. The object is, first, God in himself in the unsurpassable perfection of his inner being and work as Father, Son and Spirit and in his outer operations, and second and by derivation, all other things relative to him. Christian divinity is characterized both by the scope of its matter – it aims at a comprehensive treatment of God and creatures – and by the material order of that treatment, in which theology proper precedes and governs economy. All things have their origin in a single transcendent animating source; a system of theology is so to be arranged that the source, the process of derivation and the derivatives may in due order become objects of contemplative and practical attention.[6]

Joshua Heavin is a Phd Candidate at Trinity College Bristol, University of Aberdeen, where he is writing a dissertation on the Apostle Paul and Participation in Christ.

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  1. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, ,1989), 119.
  2. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonious, trans. by Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham, Popular Patristics Series 23 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladmir’s Seminary Press, 2002), Oration 27.2, p. 25–26.
  3. Gregory Nazianzus, On God and Christ, Oration 27.3, p. 26–27.
  4. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. by John Behr, Popular Patristics Series 44b (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladmir’s Seminary Press, 2011) §57, p. 110.
  5. Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2004), 2.
  6. John Webster, “OMNI… PERTRACTANTUR IN SACRA DOCTRINA SUB RATIONE DEI. On the Matter of Christian Theology,” God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology: Volume I, God and the Works of God (New York, NY: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 3.

Joshua Heavin

Joshua Heavin (PhD, Aberdeen) is a curate and deacon at an Anglican church in the Dallas area, and an adjunct professor in the School of Christian Thought at Houston Christian University, and at West Texas A&M University.