Third Wave Theopoetics: Toward a Definition

The word theopoetics has been in use since the late 60s or early 70s, apparently.  It seems it was originally coined by Stanley Romaine Hopper as part of a scholarly conversation, then independently coined a second time by Catherine Keller in the early 2000s to describe her own work.  As I presently understand them, these two uses are distinct streams of thought, but with a certain amount of overlap.  I’m still reading up, so I don’t know much about the previous uses yet.

The word was independently coined a third time (that I know of) last Sunday by me, to describe a conversation I was having with Jim and Michele.  It occurred to me at the time that it was a fairly obvious coinage, so I googled it and discovered the above history.  It’s probably been coined independently dozens of times over the years, but these are the ones I’m aware of.

Theopoetics is a wonderfully apt descriptor for a project I’m part of — a project quite unrelated to the two previous uses.  It’s too good to give up, so I’m keeping it, but in order to be fair to the other communities that are also using theopoetics to describe what they’re doing, I’m going to use the term third wave theopoetics.  Of course, I will also invest some effort in description and definition over the next little while.  I’ll begin by giving the rationale behind the coinage, then a brief definition of the project as I see it.  In later posts, I hope to fill in some of the gaps by articulating some guiding principles and looking at the project through a series of different lenses.

Why theopoetics rather than theology?  The -ology suffix generally refers to giving an orderly account of the thing to which it is attached.  Thus, geology, the study of Earth (i.e., rocks), zoology, the study of animal life, climatology, the study of climates and how they change, anthropology, the study of human societies.

A poetics, by contrast, is typically a treatise on poetry or aesthetics.  Rigor is not by any means absent from a good poetics, but it’s understood that the practice of poetics depends heavily on seasoned judgment and a trained and practiced eye and ear.  An -ology is a science; a poetics is an art and a craft.  It simply isn’t “objective” in the way that biology is.

Theology, in very simplistic terms, is the -ology, the giving of an orderly account, of God and the things related to him.  So far, so good, but to modern people, just the use of the -ology suffix causes us to catch a whiff of bunsen burners, test tubes, and fourth-grade frog dissections.  It’s impossible to use -ology without causing the odor of science to cling to the field.

On the other hand, -poetics carries none of those connotations.

Now some folks really like the scientific connotations, and want to practice their studies of divinity in such a way as to imitate the rigor of the chemistry lab.  They can speak for their own motivations, but I was once one of them, and I can certainly speak for myself.  For me, the attraction of dressing theology in the trappings of empirical science was the idolatrous regard our society attaches to all things “objective” and “scientific.”  I loved the praise of men rather than the praise of God, and God rewarded my sterility of spirit with a sterility of intellect and worship to match.  In His mercy, He also led me in due time to repent.  This to say that I’ve seen the case for “scientific” theology, and I’m not impressed with it.  I am even less impressed with its results: barren theology leads to barren living.

No, the New Testament itself teaches us clearly that if we want to understand what God says to men, we have to have eyes to see and ears to hear.  This is not an objective enterprise; it matters if the one looking and listening loves or hates God, if he is experienced or a novice, if he knows the One he’s listening to, or not.  It’s a relationship, and like all relationships, it’s an art and a craft.

With that preface, I’d like to define what I mean by (third wave) theopoetics.  Theopoetics is the appreciation of — no, the embodied luxuriating in — God’s words and works as art.  The same God wrote the Bible as spoke the world, so theopoetics extends from the exegesis of Paul’s use  of kosmos to the dancing of taste buds at breakfast this morning.

You could say that this is a supplement to theology.  That would be true, in some sense.  But I mean it as a rebuke for theology’s tin ear, glass eye, and wooden leg, a corrective to too many theologians’ bean-counting ways.

The artfully written Bible and the artfully spoken world are both revelation and rhetoric.  God communicates by feasting our senses, by engaging the whole man, the dust and the breath.  Theopoetics is about being God’s image, living as His likeness, and therefore will not advance itself by writing laboriously footnoted papers.  The medium is the message.

Away with the temptation to write scholarly papers!  Let no man say when he is tempted to write a scholarly paper, “I am tempted by God,” for God is not tempted to write scholarly papers, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.  If God ever inspired a scholarly paper, He had the mercy not to inflict it on His people in Scripture; let us follow His good example.  Let the scholarly paper’s laboriously footnoted pages be few and let another medium take its office.  Let there be stories, songs, poems, vignettes, parables, sculptures, tapestries.  Let there be dances!  Let there be great rigor, but let it be the rigor of Miriam dancing well and playing the timbrel in time, the rigor of David’s perfect songs, the rigor of Solomon’s fitly spoken proverbs and Jesus’ apt parables, well-driven nails given by one Shepherd.

Let us learn the lessons of the Tabernacle by sculpting one, even a miniature one, and the more detail and prayer goes into it, the better.  Let the plagues be painted on murals, complete with the crushed heads of the Egyptian gods.  Let dances be choreographed in honor of the Red Sea crossing.  Let beer be brewed in honor of Jael slaying Sisera.  Let bread be baked in honor of the feeding of the five thousand — and let it be given to the poor and homeless in the name of Jesus.  Let rattlesnakes be barbecued in honor of Moses’ bronze serpent (we can eat off St. Peter’s sheet; why not?)  Let vibrant old liturgies be revived and adapted in honor of the resurrection of the Son of God.  Let our grasp of the nature and character of God be embodied to the hilt — something we can eat, drink, watch, touch, feel, smell.

And yes, hear.

But let us cease to worry about what those with no ears to hear will say.  They will want proof in the form of footnotes and syllogisms; we will simply live the proof before them, and wait for God to open their ears and remove the scales from their eyes.  “To him who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance.”

God grant that all His people have eyes to see and ears to hear the glory of the Father, expressed in time and space by the Body of the Son through the indwelling power of the Spirit.  Amen.


7 Responses to Third Wave Theopoetics: Toward a Definition

  1. josiah says:

    So, why can’t we just enjoy different parts of the body? Some are into theopoetics and others are into theology. Often there are those that enjoy both.

    Maybe, just maybe, the foot has told the eye, “I don’t need you.” But let not the eye turn and say the same.

    Enjoy both.

  2. FedExMOP says:


    Wonderful. Well written and poetic. This is so true, we cannot say enough that God is a living being that desires relationship. We do not develop this relationship by disecting and evaluating God as if he were some inanimate object to be studied and stored in a test tube.

    It is not a matter of whether we need “theology” it is that we need to look at it differently. Attempting to understand and explain God is not the problem, it is the method that we employ to do this that needs evaluating. I am excited to see where you go with this. I believe that is is possible to develop a more holistic and personal way of understanding God than what we traditionally think of as “theology”.

    Men of Praise Motorcycle Ministry

  3. Tim Nichols says:


    Thanks for your kind words. I’m excited about it too — and I don’t know where it’s all going. God leads me a step at a time, these days.


    It’s a series, brother. I understand your concerns, but stick with me another week or two.

  4. Josiah says:

    No problem. I shall stick in there. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy what you are saying. I agree that there is much to be said and experienced concerning the study of theology in different forms (symbol, liturgy, experience, etc).

    I would just be careful elevating one above the other is all.

    They both have their benefits and both are necessary. But left alone they look like dismembered body parts.

  5. joe d says:

    love the post… just wanted to add where I first heard the term. It was in John Caputo’s What Would Jesus Deconstruct, where sets out a “theopoetics of the kingdom.” As a current seminary student, i’m glad to have this perspective to go along with all the theology… and I like the idea of less scholarly papers 😉 Also, if you want a little more historical background, I just read (today actually) an article about Horace Bushnell – 19th century pastor/theologian who was very critical of the rationalistic theology of his day and though of theology as an exercise of the imagination. He called the Bible the “grand poem of salvation” and also thought of God as an artist… so, he sounds like your man.

    thanks again!

  6. Tim Nichols says:


    Thanks so much! I’ll certainly be looking up Horace Bushnell.

  7. amblingsaint says:

    Reblogged this on Ambling Saint and commented:
    Theopoetics-glorious! Well written and joyous! Thank you for writing this! Ambling

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