What Academic Theology Doesn’t Do

Academic theologians are often greatly rewarded for engaging questions that are unimportant in real life, and the things most vital in real life are often given perfunctory lip-service in the academy–if they’re addressed at all. The brutal truth is that the academy is a long way from real life, and deliberately so.

At its best, that distance gives academics the “time and space and air and light” to dig into ideas, histories, and lines of inquiry that aren’t immediately practical. The world God made being what it is, such inquiries “just to see what’s there” often lead to unexpected insight. Conducted properly, it can be a rich and rewarding pursuit. Unfortunately, too often that decoupling from the practical world can also lead to downright idiocy that never comes back down to earth.

But that’s not my real beef with academic theology. I have two reservations, one about its positive contribution and another about its negative contribution (about the latter, more next week). Positively, I have wrestled long and hard with the standard academic systematic theology categories, and I find them effectively worthless in the work of making disciples.  The contents of those categories are often vital, but the organizational scheme is actively harmful.

The academic approach divorces essential truths from the contexts in which their beauty and utility is readily visible, and embeds them in a classroom context where they appear abstruse and impractical. A counseling major in seminary remembers with a shudder the lectures on christology in his required theology classes, trying to keep homoousios straight from homoiousios, never learning that the precious truth the fathers preserved for him is the very heart of his life’s work. 

So because the Christian Faith is deeply precious, I have deliberately and consciously chucked the academic way of organizing and talking about it. There is another way of approaching the same material — still ordered, but it’s the order of a nursery, not a library bookshelf. It’s the order exhibited by the biblical literature itself, from the Torah to the church epistles — which are neither composed nor arranged like systematic theology texts. They’re history, liturgy, and theological reflection on both. If we simply study The Story of Our People, we will cover all the bad ideas, but we will encounter them in their historical context, as temptations rather than just bad ideas.

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