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Designer Theology?

A look at how Christian theology needs to adapt to the 21st Century.

Provocative Questions

If you were asked could you come up with an adequate theological response on cloning - for the six o'clock news?

Do we jettison all the "old theology" and just sit in a corner and dream?

What I am pleading for in this article is "designer theology" - a theology that can respond to the events in the news and give a considered and intelligent answer to the issues of everyday life. Such a theology is "designed" to meet the problems of life.

My argument is that formal theology is lost in conversing with itself and produces little that is relevant to or readily understandable by the "end user".

When Jesus rescued theology from the scribes and Pharisees He demolished the presupposition that the stuff of theology was endless analysis and commentary.

Introduction

(Matthew 13:52 NIV) He said to them, "Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old."

Each year we are bombarded with issues that demand a theological response and which have not so much as a paragraph on them in most theology books. The international debt crisis, the currency markets, cloning, "life on Mars", new cults and occult practices, and research results on the nature of mind and the human person. If you were asked could you come up with an adequate theological response on cloning - for the six o'clock news? The approach that I learned of "this is the textbook and these are the answers" just won't work any more. There are too many questions and the answers are needed too quickly to wait for the latest tome to appear. What then do we do ? Do we jettison all the "old theology" and just sit in a corner and dream?

What I am pleading for in this article is "designer theology" - a theology that can respond to the events in the news and give a considered and intelligent answer to the issues of everyday life. Such a theology is "designed" to meet the problems of life. It is called forward by the future and is anchored as much in what lies ahead as in what has gone before. It retains the great truths of Scripture as a launching pad. It is not heretical, but it is mobile and constantly searching for the useful word from God.

The Credibility Gap

All the theology we have in works such as Louis Berkhof's "Systematic Theology" or Milton Erickson's "Christian Theology" is good and should be kept on our shelves as a basis for consultation. We do not need to reformulate the Trinity or many other doctrines. There is a huge gold-mine of good theology and thinking that we can draw on. But we need to realize that the questions they are answering are seldom the ones that we are tackling each day and they lack the vibrancy and sense of reality that we need if theology is to speak to us in our vocations. An Australian theologian Robert Banks writes of the need for a "theology of everyday life". He talks of the "credibility gap" between belief and daily life. He says:

1. Few of us apply or know how to apply our belief to our work or lack of work.

2. We make only minimal connections between our faith and our spare time activities.

3. We have little sense of a Christian approach to routine or monotonous activities.

4. Our everyday attitudes are partly shaped by the dominant values of our society.

5. Many of our spiritual difficulties stem from the daily pressures we experience.

6. Our everyday concerns do not receive much attention in the church.

7. Only occasionally do theological institutions address everyday life issues.

8. When addressed, everyday issues tend to be approached too theoretically.

9. Only a minority of Christians read theological books or attend theological courses.

10. Most churchgoers reject an idea of a gap between their beliefs and their way of life. (i.e. most people think they are living consistently with the Christian ethic and don't like it when you point out that they are not!)

A good example of this was when I looked up a very large theology text to see what it said about money. Since the Bible and Jesus and Paul speak a great deal about money and it is a matter of concern to me I thought I might find something. I found not one word about the issue - the index went straight from Monarchianisn to Monism and skipped Money!

Now there is nothing wrong with discussing these things and Monism is indeed a big theological issue with the rise of Hinduism in the West. What is wrong is leaving out what matters most to ordinary Christians living ordinary lives. So that we have a wonderful theology full of elegance and truth but which is out of step with the information about God that we need at this moment, in this situation.

Every profession tends to end up speaking only to itself. Doctors and teachers and computer scientists do it all the time. Most industries fall into it now and then too. Every so often you read exhortations about a person called "the end user" who has to be able to easily program the VCR (or whatever) and need to be considered in the design of the product and the communication of information about the product. My argument is that formal theology is lost in conversing with itself and produces little that is relevant to or readily understandable by the "end user".

T
heology In The Scriptures

There is a pre-conceived notion that theology is about the minute and scholarly analysis of doctrine and philosophy. However good theology, when we see it in Scripture, bears little resemblance to this theology of the scholars. When Jesus rescued theology from the scribes and Pharisees He demolished the presupposition that the stuff of theology was endless analysis and commentary.(Matthew 7:28-29 NIV) When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, {29} because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.He taught as an independent rabbi with a relevance and authority derived from no human source. The great theologians of Scripture such as Moses, Isaiah, Ezra, Jesus and Paul were not hesitant, equivocal or academically modest. They were not engaged in speculating about a God they cogitated about but rather declared a God they knew. Their authority was from above and they strode forward with great flashes of insight almost unsupported by reason or scholarship. The great theologians of Scripture did their theology in the real world and spoke a final word to concrete situations. In all these varied aspects theology as done in the Bible and theology as done in a modern university are vastly different enterprises.

Suggestions For A Way Forward

I do not wish to sweep away the theological efforts of my peers and toss them aside. Much has been gained by the honest labors of good biblical scholars. I read and appreciate their efforts. However we are losing the battle against change. We are falling behind further and further and sounding more and more unreal and distant with each passing year. Something has to be done to create a responsive and relevant and worthwhile theology. I suggest the following approaches may help for what they are worth.

Conclusion

Basically we need to remember that we are servants working in God's vineyard to bring forth fruit for His Kingdom. Theology cannot afford to be self-indulgent or it will cease to be truly Christian. Unlike some disciplines we cannot research what we like but must research what God needs researched. We are to bring His authoritative word to His Church in this hour