Cultivating good theology

Daniel Kirk at Storied Theology has a great post up in which he’s critical of an article in the current Christianity Today theme this month by J. I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett in praise of catechism.

Now I must say, since we’re attending a Presbyterian church now (I’m actually serious), my kids have recently been learning the children’s version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism for Sunday School. While I’ll certainly need to start shaking loose some of the stuff I have problems with in the WCF before it hardens permanently in their minds, it’s both a good exercise for their brains and a way of learning historical Protestant theology. What I’m just saying is that although I certainly have a problem with overly and artificially systematized theology, I’m not really necessarily anti-catechism.

But I also must say, the following remarks from Daniel Kirk are spot on:

I could not disagree more with the claims being asserted [in the article by Packer and Parrett]: that the real thing we need is theology, and all those stories in the Bible (you know, the actual Bible God, in God’s wisdom, decided to give to the church) are second-rate tools the learning of which makes us less competent Christians.

This is the classic inversion of sola scriptura: no longer do we really want you to do what the Reformers did (read your Bible), we want you instead to read and memorize what they said after they had read their Bibles.

Wow. That last sentence was a home run, with bases loaded. What do you think the Hebrews did before they had a Calvin or a Beza?  Do we really want to take the ancient Jewish commentaries as seriously as we’re to take, e.g., the Westminster Confession of Faith? Why the heck would the Bible come loaded with stories of people encountering God, often coming away with differing ideas about what they learned about Him, and very little that even resembles systematic theology? Couldn’t God have provided an inspired, inerrant commentary or hermeneutic key if He really wanted to?

Certainly we should teach our kids our beliefs about what the authors of the Bible believed; it can even take the form of a catechism. But whatever we do, we don’t want to give them the impression that we are teaching them unquestionable Approved and Authorized Theology®. We should be instructing and encouraging them that good theology isn’t learned by rote, but painstakingly cultivated.

Tagged with:
Recent Posts:
  • Steve,

    Well said. I can add nothing.

  • It seems you just did. 😉

  • Oh. ha.

  • “…good theology isn’t learned by rote, but painstakingly cultivated.”

    That's good. That's really good. As one with a minor in Bible, I like the idea of learning good theology. But as one with a minor in Bible, I can see that what I've learned means little when it didn't impact my heart.

    ~Luke

  • jonathanrobinson

    And once again we are back with Lindbeck's typology, trying to figure out exactly what (true) religion is!

    Good post.

  • Yeah; I guess that catechism, while especially at home in the cognitive-propositional type, also finds a place in the cultural-linguistic approach. As is probably obvious in my posts, I distrust the former very much, and tend to favor treating our religion as a combination of the latter (as best I understand it) and the experiential-expressivist approach. It's definitely worth thinking about!

    Can you characterize your own approach in Lindbeck's terms?

  • Precisely, Luke. I'm firm in believing that good theology is simply trivia unless it energizes our heart and actions.

  • jonathanrobinson

    In my humble opinon, we (human beings) needs all three elements of the typology to be at work in our religion, but which one is dominant and at what expense to the others is where things get interesting. For me the cultural-linguistic model is uppermost and the other two are subordinate but still important elements, but they are (ideally) controlled and contained by the cultural linguistic nature of religion rather than the other way round. Christianity is a “way” before it is a “faith” (proposition) or even “a relationship” (experience) (as conceived by contemporary evangelicals). The Bible is a culture generating artifact, not a text book or a love letter. It is a building in which we dwell rather than a tool that we use.

    Does that even make sense? 🙂

    I understand you suspicion of the cog-prop approach but I don't think we can ever do without propositions entirely, they just need to be kept in their place!

    • Jonathan,

      I agree that cultivating theology whose propositions are analyzable cognitively is an unavoidable and in fact necessary part of religion. I just distrust its ability to actually deliver anything objective or absolute, although I suppose not much more than I do the others; they’re all a lot more subjective than cog-prop advocates recognize.

  • Jonathan,

    I agree that cultivating theology whose propositions are analyzable cognitively is an unavoidable and in fact necessary part of religion. I just distrust its ability to actually deliver anything objective or absolute, although I suppose not much more than I do the others; they’re all a lot more subjective than cog-prop advocates recognize.

  • well said and well done.We are looking forward on your new post, from the Reformed Theological Seminary

  • When I call to mind my 5 closest friends, none of them believe what their parents taught them. I hope my kids follow in their footsteps.

  • When I call to mind my 5 closest friends, none of them believe what their parents taught them. I hope my kids follow in their footsteps.