Is something rotten in the state of theology?

I’m currently doing some thinking about decline in the importance of theology within the our churches. I reckon that the fact that people happily go ‘church shopping’ across a range of denominationalGregory of Nyssa ‘brands’, is a sign that the theological differences between churches are regarded as only relatively important and might be outweighed by other considerations (how close to the beach, for example).

Contrast the contemporary situation, where people have very little theological passion with that of 4th century Constantinople as described by Gregory of Nyssa:

“The whole city is full of it, the squares, the market places, the cross-roads, the alleyways; old-clothes men, money changers, food sellers: they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask “Is my bath ready?” the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing.” Gregory of Nyssa, On the Deity of the Son [De Deitate] 121.7-12, quoted in Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, The Orthodox Church, (London: Penguin Books), 1993, 12.

Clearly the doctrine of the divinity and eternal generation of the Son deeply divided the city and the theological debate had filtered into popular discourse.

A more recent example, slightly closer to home, is the oath administered to Lachlan Macquarie by Judge-Advocate Ellis Bent on Macquarie’s appointment to the Governorship of New South Wales. Rather bizarrely to modern sensibilities, Macquarie was required to swear that he did not subscribe to the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation. The oath was required of all Crown appointments under the settlement reached during the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and was only abolished by the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. Throughout this period, and well into the 20th century, most members of British society would have an opinion regarding the doctrine of transubstantiation (with highly varying degrees of sophistication) and the doctrine functioned as a clear demarcation of identity.

Ronald Knox, the brilliant Roman Catholic apologist of the first half of the 20th century offered his own particular account of the decline of doctrine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his interest in highlighting Catholic successes in the face of what he perceived as a steady Anglican demise, Knox highlights the loss of dogmatic authority as a factor in the popular perception of theology. He writes:

“It is the common assumption of all these modem prophets, whatever their school, that religious truth is something not yet determined, something which is being gradually established by a slow process of testing and research. They boast of their indecisions; they parade their dissensions; it shows (they say) a healthy spirit of fearless inquiry, this freedom from the incubus of tradition. Such sentiments evoke, I believe, no echo of applause outside their own immediate circles. The uneasy impression is left on the average citizen that “the parsons do not know their own business”; that disagreements between sect and sect are more, not less disedifying when either side hastens to explain that the disagreement is over externals, rather than essentials; that if Christianity is still in process of formulation after twenty centuries, it must be an uncommonly elusive affair.” (Ronald Knox, The Belief of Catholics, 1927)

Knox draws upon the unstated understanding that theology has a role to play in guarding and guiding the core beliefs and identity of the Church. If modern academic theology is incapable of fulfilling this function and instead offers to ‘raise questions’ and engage in ‘dialogue’, then the church will suffer and theology will wither.

What d’you reckon?

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7 thoughts on “Is something rotten in the state of theology?

  1. Reminds me of a passage from the Introduction to Adam Bede by George Eliot (can’t find who wrote the intro at present), which says:

    “Writing shortly after her death J. A. Froude spoke of the earlier part of the Victorian age, in which the spirit of critical inquiry had led the finest minds to question and doubt all established certainties, as a time in which, ‘all around us, the intellectual lightships had broken from their moorings … The present generation which has grown up in a new open spiritual ocean, which it has got used to and has learned to swim for itself, will never know what it was to find the lights all drifting, the compasses all awry, and nothing left to steer by but the stars.’ “

    But I am not convinced that any generation since has done a very good job of learning to swim for itself (or even of the varied consequences of everyone undertaking to learn to swim for themselves).

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      1. Hey, steal away (not that I have the right to say so). It actually should say "which has got used to it" instead of what's up there – which reads a lot better (I copied it from somewhere on wikipedia, and should have known better). I googled J A Froude and there's more in the context of the quote which might be of some use. It also says "To those who inquired with open minds it appeared that things which good and learned men were doubting about must be themselves doubtful".

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  2. By the way, I had to google "filioque" the other day, and discovered a long-standing historical theological debate to which I was oblivious – for another example.

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  3. Hey Dan,

    Sharp observation on the decline of theology in contemporary church life. I remember being at a conference at which many prayers from the platform ran along the lines of 'Lord, please don't let our theology divide us'. Ouch!

    I would like to push back a bit, however, on your conclusion. Isn't part of the function of good theology — that is, theology that's a faithful attempt to articulate a response and to point away from itself back to God's grace in Christ — to upset and 'raise questions' about false certainties? While I do know all too well (as both a blogger and a postmodern) the tug towards endless questioning with no desire ever to arrive at resolution, I'm pretty confident that it's appropriate for the theological voice to speak in various moods: often indicative, sometimes imperative, and even subjunctive at times — especially given our limitations and need for epistemic humility. Right?

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  4. Don't give me any credit for talking about speaking in different 'moods'. I can't be 100% sure, but it feels like something I might have pinched from Rowan Williams…

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