The church’s suspicion of the practical value of theology, though misguided, is not without some basis in experience. Helmut Thielicke’s humorous portrait of the young theological student who comes home from seminary and unleashes his learning on an unsuspecting church reflects the perception of many laypeople when it comes to theology: “Under a considerable display of the apparatus of exegetical science and surrounded by the air of the initiated, he produces paralyzing and unhappy trivialities, and the inner muscular strength of a lively young Christian is horribly squeezed to death in a formal armor of abstract ideas.”
In its healthy form the speculative nature of theology can enable us to uncover hidden depths of God’s revealed truth. It is the role of theology to help us probe questions we have not thought to ask. But theology can also take unhealthy forms. It may elevate small points and magnify textual obscurities to the degree where all that the theologian has to offer the church are “paralyzing and unhappy trivialities.”
The use of academic language when discussing theology is only one of the factors which contributes to this. The root problem is the theologian’s aim. The goal of most theological writing today is not to theologize the church. The real prize is the recognition and respect of those in the guild and the best way to obtain these is by doing battle. Consequently, the theologian does not approach his subject like a shepherd who is concerned for the well being of the flock but like a knight arrayed for battle. Theological discussion is a jousting match with other members of the guild.
Furthermore, theology’s preoccupation with the interests of the guild breeds an air of condescension, if not outright contempt, towards those who are not members. The average church member senses this and concludes that the task of theological reflection is beyond his grasp. In this way the guild mentality actually fosters the very theological ignorance it condemns. Since the guild is made up primarily of academics, the perspective of the majority of pastors is excluded from the conversation. As a result, pastors read theology for their own personal benefit but do not know how to draw the congregation into the discussion.
Preaching and theology were lovers once. Though inseparable and mutually devoted to one another at the beginning of their relationship, in these latter days they have become estranged. They are not exactly enemies, but they are hardly friends any more and they are certainly no longer partners.
As is so often the case in these matters, each is inclined to blame the other for the separation. And as is also so often the case, there is some truth in the complaint that they make. Both are guilty of mutual neglect. And both, sad to say, have at times been unfaithful to the other.
Still it must be recognized that if preaching and theology have since found more interesting companions, it was not their original intent. They began their relationship with a common sense of purpose, supported by vows of mutual fidelity. In order to better accomplish their goals, they decided to divide the work between them. Theology was to focus its attention on the higher matters of God, creation and redemption, while preaching would devote itself to the “lower” but equally important concerns of the flock. They did not at first see these tasks as being mutually exclusive. Indeed, they believed that they contributed to one another.
Yet in time the two “grew apart.” The noble questions which first occupied the attention of theology have given way to more obscure matters, many of which prove to be at odds with the bread and butter interests of preaching. Theology prefers the thin air and heady conversation of the classroom and the philosopher’s salon to the dishrag speech and knee scrape anxieties which so often seem to occupy the attention of preaching. Preaching, for its part, has grown impatient with the endless speculation and impractical theorizing that theology loves so much. Preaching criticizes theology for being too detached. Theology accuses preaching of being too parochial.
The sad truth is that neither is very far off the mark.
I have often heard the church criticized for its lack of interest in theology. The church, we are told, is theologically illiterate, more interested in entertainment than in doctrine. But if there is any truth in this complaint, I do not think the church is entirely at fault. I hold the church’s theologians at least partially responsible.
In his book A Theology of Preaching: The Dynamics of the Gospel, Richard Lischer quotes from an article by Walter Wink that was published in The Christian Century over thirty years ago. In the article, Wink criticizes the theological scholarship of his day saying, “The American scholarly scene is one of frenetic decadence with the publication of vast numbers of articles and books which fewer and fewer people read. Most scholars no longer address the lived experience of actual people in churches or society. Instead they address the current questions of their peers in the professional guild.”
After thirty years, this tendency has not diminished. If you doubt this, simply scan the topics scheduled to be presented at any meeting where professional theologians gather. If the average church member is disinterested in theology, it is partly due to the fact that the church’s theologians are mostly in conversation with themselves. Indeed, it has been my experience that many church members are interested in theology but don’t label it as such. They are asking fundamental and profound questions about the nature of God’s relationship with humanity, the origin of evil, and about their own personal significance. Meanwhile, the church’s theologians, who have been reflecting on these questions for over two millennia, are talking among themselves.
Nowhere is this more evident to me than in our seminaries and Bible colleges, where practical theology is treated as a “soft-science” and preaching is seen as primarily the domain of those who intend to be pastors. Most of the theology majors I meet aspire to be professors rather than pastors. They are not terribly interested in preaching. Yet most church members get their theology from the pulpit. It is in the home and the workplace not the academy that the battle lines of theological controversy are drawn. Those who step into the pulpit are the church’s first line of defense.