As with many invitations that come in the mail, Who Needs Theology is inviting us to open and read through its pages. More than just read through the pages, the authors, Roger E. Olson and Stanley J. Grenz provide a comprehensive introduction focusing on what theology is and what theology does. Theology is not a small area of study subsequently there are times when the brush stroke seems too broad or too general. But I wonder if that is not their exact intent. Too tight a focus or too much information would no doubt turn readers away from the very thing they are inviting us to consider.
Over the past seven years theology has become my friend. Several years ago there was a popular movie called “Finding Nemo.” At one point in the movie Bruce, the shark declares and expresses his dedication that “fish are friends, not food.” While this soon disintegrates the desire is compelling. So compelling that Grenz and Olson are inviting the reader to take the same approach. Think of theology as your friend, not something to avoid or trivialize.
Early in the book the authors explored the climate for much of Christian study over the previous 20-30 years. We may shake our heads at some of their examples, unless you have lived through them as I have. I clearly remember in the 1970’s looking for cars with bumper stickers proclaiming: “Jesus is the Way,” “One Way” (with an index finger pointing toward heaven), or “Let the Sonshine in.” In an effort to be true to the Biblical text folk theology rejects critical reflection and instead favors acceptance and simplicity anchored in feelings and results. It was an exuberant time and our bible touting, name it and claim it bible verses, praise the Lord’s reinforced our acceptance and simplicity. Critical reflection really meant a lack of faith. Or so we thought.
While we have folk theology on one end of the spectrum I know that many churches today are invested with other Bible study methods such as Bible Study Fellowship, Precept Ministries (Kay Arthur) and/or Beth Moore studies. These lay theology methods have opened the doors for thousands of Christians to consider their faith more deeply. The challenge comes when questions arise, how is critical reflection attended to?
In part it is because of this that the study of theology, the invitation to study God needs to be considered a friend and not a foe. Fish are indeed friends! But why should we study theology really? As our recent study trip in London revealed, people want to be able to ask questions, to engage in thoughtful dialog where questions are explored. “Theology seeks answers to general and personal questions about God, ultimate meaning, purpose and truth.” It is in seeking the answers that one is able to reflect and then sound out what they believe about God and the world. Olson and Grenz begin by recognizing Christian theology as “reflecting on and articulating the beliefs about God and the world that Christians share as followers of Jesus Christ.” Personally I appreciate this generous definition. It is broad enough while also providing boundaries. Theology, in this case the study of God is approached through the lens of Christianity.
The challenge for me comes later in the book. It may not even be a challenge so much as an awareness of holding the tension. I am keenly aware that my generation, as those before me have often set out to “prove” the truth and reliability of scripture. When we have done so we have sought to establish the Bible’s authority, aligning our allegiance with Scripture. However the authors remind us that it is not the authority of the Bible that needs to be established, but its role. Grenz and Olson set forth that Christian beliefs precede theology. The tension is coming to grips with our own bias and context. As someone who wears contact lens (or glasses) I know what I see without them and what I can see with them.
There were times in this book when I felt the authors danced around the edges a bit too softly. This was most apparent in their discussion of dogma, doctrine and opinion. I wonder if we are not seeing an increased divisiveness in the Church over various doctrines and opinions? Immediately the role of women in ministry (including ordination) comes to mind. If anything the tension in this particular area seems to be increasing with opinions and doctrine fully engaged. Although I understand that dogma, doctrine and opinion were merely a part of the overall introduction to theology I do wonder if this book were edited today would this section have been increased to provide a broader framework to thoughtfully and critical reflect on doctrines dividing the Christianity.
Theology asks, “What must we be, say and do?” It has a constructive task. This is a task that involves the people of God. When something is constructed there are various parts fitting together, added or removed depending upon the need at hand, as the structure is built bit by bit. Olson and Grenz explained that the constructive task of theology “is to set forth the unity and coherence of the biblical teaching about God, ourselves and the world in the context in which God calls us to be disciples.” There was a time when this would have seemed neat and tidy. But to be constructive we are invited to be vested and engaged in the process. The invitation is to be a theologian, to step up and get involved.