theologians and their crazy talk, pt.2

Ok, here are some thoughts about theology and the church that I have been stewing over for a bit. I’m a pastor, not a theologian, so my reflections have more to do with the intersection of church and theology. I so desperately want church to relish theology in word and deed!

1.) I’ll start with my most practical argument: In the end, I think churches don’t really listen to theologians because theologians have chosen to say nothing to them. It is easier for theologians to remain in another country, with another language, instead of engaging in the assiduous work of laboring alongside churchgoers to change them and live their theology out with people in real places. Of course this is not fair nor even true, but it is perception.  Teachers could be the handmaidens for what God is doing in the church through experts.

2.) Of course, people don’t want them to, anyways. Everybody’s guilty. For many church goers, theology rarely resolves anything, it doesn't get anything done-I mean, at least since the reformation… they wonder, "What's the use?" Academic theology is often the talk of privileged people.  Of course, the anti-intellectualism of the congregation seems to defend against actually having their privileged lives shaken up.  But If theologians can't agree on anything, how do we evaluate who we should listen to? Why would someone who cannot understand what they are saying let them steer their church? ...unless of course, they had a reason to trust them.

But academic credentials are not enough to garner trust any longer for a church that feels alienated by Academia. How bad is it?
Mark Driscoll may start a seminary.
People want (A)nswers, not answers with footnotes disputed in Godless Europe and Princeton. Sadly, theology has little utility to churches and pastors other than sussing out new growth techniques and self-protectedly reinforcing boundaries. I think that’s part of the reason there is emphasis on “theological imagination” in a lot of writing these days.  So much is lost that would enrich and nourish the body.

3.) Pastors should shoulder much more of the blame then they do. Perhaps there was a time when the pastor was a go-between, someone who could interpret and apply and make sense of all those PhD concerns. Only pastors don’t really do that anymore because people don’t want it. People want leaders. They want businessmen.

And we give those people D.Mins.

The pastorate is determined by money at least as much as truth. Evangelism sells. The “life you’ve always wanted sells.”* Economic trinity vs. immanent does not. Heidegger is irrelevant to ditch diggers, bankers, programmers, chefs, and case managers, and those are the people who give, and have pastors. (Side note: liturgy isn’t really helping here, either, despite churches believing it’s the next big thing.)

We pastors pander too much to the empire’s values. I know this because 1) there are still many poor in my town, and 2) theologians point this out to me.

4.) Knowledge is a threatening power and people don’t trust the way theologians wield it because they don’t get it.  They don't have community with them or perceive they share the same values in quite the same ways.  Besides, aren't they all liberal?  Theologians just don't live in the real world to the US church.

But how could they?
 In the race to publish or perish, correct tests, attend functions, maybe even have a family, who’s got time to integrate professional and personal church life worlds? What needs to happen between churches and academic theologians: -they need to listen to one another more. Feeling “heard” builds trust and safety even in the midst of disagreement, but every person I’ve ever met in academia, friends and enemies, is struggling to survive. You can't make it without a platform.  More so than the engineers and small businessmen in their churches.  I'm not suggesting that everybody at the potluck pitches in on the next dissertation, but it seems like academia and the church are on perpendicular courses sometimes.

Churches need to take much more seriously the support of seminaries as academic universities, not just cookie cutter pastor factories. Please not that. You can’t train a pastor in a seminary. That happens on the job. You can teach theology in seminaries. I think the whole thing is a mess and suggest that the path should look more like: --train a pastor in a church, teach them how to care for people in the midst of community that shapes them, --then send them to an academic institution to challenge their thinking. Right now it’s the other way around. We send people to seminaries to learn how to be a pastor and then when they get into a church, they have to learn how to think. Or just do really good seeker services.

5.) Theology is neither rhetoric or dialectic, but parrehesia. Theology must be completely free speech, dangerous and threatening. To speak what is true, theologians must set themselves outside the normal headspace of the world and proclaim the in-breaking of the gospel. Formal training helps to shape this kind of pointed reflection, and their critique is often as incisive as their alienation from normal society/church’s thinking. Good theology shows you things too wondrous to believe and things you don’t want to know. (Like that weird charismatic lady who throws her hands and “amens” up in worship just as you were getting comfortable, reminding you it’s a room full of people…)

6.)  As truth telling, theology is the analytic side of truth in the church. As the one side of the parrehesia, theologians engage the analytics of truth for the church – they help ensure in a formal way that the confession of truth remains true, at least to what has been established; reason, tradition, scripture,etc.  So it is committed to the western traditions of philosophy that consider the verification of truth. It is the science of theology that we see in universities. Here the morality of the theologian is always unfairly on trial. The goal of a theologian doesn’t determine the fidelity of theology with God’s word in this analytic sense. Nor does it determine the word of God that I might hear within their thinking. The two will never be identical. Good things are done for bad reasons and vice versa. For instance I am writing this post out of a profound and deep-seated need to control my environment through understanding, but it’s still pretty good, huh?


excuse me, but I need to arrange my sock drawer again..

7.) Theology has fidelity to Christ as the critique of the Church. Foucault describes the critical side as the one asking, “what is the importance for the individual and for the society of telling the truth, of knowing the truth, of having people who tell the truth, as well as knowing how to recognize them.” Here it can be admitted that despite theology’s aim to engage in God-talk, it isn’t Christian until it has love as its goal, in which case, it will always be chastened and bear witness to its inadequacies. Does it think more clearly about faith? Perhaps, but as Paul says, knowledge puffs up, love builds up. That seems to always have been the chopping block for the discussion. It’s one of those patently abused verses, and yet it still applies. Does a theology aim towards love or not? When the aim of even critique ceases to be love, perhaps all is lost…for the theologian, anyways. Love must always critique the critiquer, and chasten them, too. Who watches the watchers? Well, Jesus does and his rule of love would seem to shape the best theologies. I know, too simple, but the best critiques generally are.

8.) I love theologians and theology. Seriously. I personally feel both challenged and encouraged and the deep thinking of theologians has guided my life positively time and again. In their reflective considerations both formal and informal, I feel I have heard the Word of God address me again and again. In some of my darkest times, good theology and well considered arguments have been a rope dropped down a well to pull me up. I cannot overstate this. If scripture is the window through which the Word of God calls out to me again and again, theologians help remove the cotton from my ears to hear it! I even love theoblogians, especially theoblogians now that my time in school is over. Thank you all!

*I am not referring here to Ortberg’s book, which as a practical introduction to the disciplines is excellent.


  1. Hey Pastor Erin,

    Thanks so much for writing this. I had to look up "parrhesia" and I am excited that you are calling for it. I have things that I see in myself and in our church that I have a desire to discuss, but I was unsure if that desire was just me being insensitive to others and justifying it by calling it "truth". I am still pulling my thoughts together, but it is very much related to our latest series.

  2. I literally just wrote a blog post about a similar thing here: I think that people in churches feel like they should be able to understand academic theology, and when they can't, they just disengage, not really taking into account the fact that they probably wouldn't understand any other academic speech either (as a theologian, I'm totally lost when it comes to science, though I'm glad that scientists are out there doing their incomprehensible science to make my life better by creating stuff like fridges). And theologians are just as bad at recognising that their relationship to the church isn't necessarily quite the same as the relationship of a particle physicist to Joe Bloggs (

    I think it's partly because theology has been separated from the church insofar as it's now an academic discipline rather than something monks do. And I think its also because the liberal theology which led people to start suggesting that maybe Jesus didn't actually rise from the dead, and the Protestant theology which worries that theological tradition will suck the life out of Christianity means that people see theology as something which can destroy faith just as much as it builds it up (and I've known people who lost their faith pretty much as a result of studying theology at university).

    It's messy, huh? But good post, it made me think (as you probably guessed already).

  3. @Roger: Thanks! You can tell how deep I am into the coffee mug by how long the posts are. :)

    @Marika: I think your observations about the fear of liberal theology are spot-on. Here in the US there is a distinct anti-intellectual bent, too. Sadly, I also know a number of folks who lost there faiths as well, due only to the suggestion Paul didn't write the Pastorals, and in a way, their churches set them up for it if they never engaged in any theological reflection or mention other than the practical party line.

    Cheers, all!

  4. As a layperson who loved academic theology in school, I can definitely relate to your post! Most of the time I solve my own withdrawl problem by going to lectures and conferences.


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