The Nature of Theological Discourse

Ellen T. Charry

Theology is a scary word to many people. It smells of dusty old ideas that are difficult to grasp, counter-rational, useless, abstruse, and even harmful. When I inform someone that I teach systematic theology, the response is usually, “What is that?” I sometimes hear theology ridiculed from the pulpit, along the lines that Christianity or discipleship is not about a set of abstract doctrines but a way of life of service to the poor, of simple praise of God. The doctrines are presumed to get in the way. There is not a big market for theology books these days.

Yet, we simply cannot do without theology, for theology keeps the church tied to God. Its goal is to remind the church and its members that their identity, their decisions, and their undertakings should always be thought about outward from God. In contemporary thinking, we often take things at face value. We see a breathtaking landscape, are moved by an expression of tenderness or compassion, or we experience suffering. We are most likely to attribute these things to some aspect of the things themselves. They provide their own explanation. A theological outlook is different. From a theological perspective, such things and events only find their meaning in relation to what we know of God: beauty, love, goodness, and even judgment. In the case of great suffering, people press their understanding of God to make sense of things that seemingly conflict with what we expect of God. Christianity cannot do without theology. If there is not good theology there will be bad theology, not no theology.

The theological task, then, is to make theological sense of the world and of ourselves: that is, from the point of view of what we understand of the being and work of God as best we know it. One may go further. If one’s life is to be centered in God, which is the Christian goal, the task of theology is to help the church help people know, love, and enjoy God. The Christian tradition is persuaded that this is the way to a happy, flourishing life. In our culture, this is a tall order. So it has ever been.

Theologians generally put pen to paper when a theological problem arises that needs to be addressed or resolved. This is because, until something comes along to disturb our theological equilibrium, we assume that our understanding of God and the things of God suffice. One type of problem comes from questions about the Christian understanding of God from non-Christians. Early on, Christians started worshipping Jesus! What did that mean? Pagans and Jews were quite horrified at this. So Christian theologians had to answer their questions, for they were good ones. In this case, theologians act as defense attorneys for Christian beliefs and practices. In the process of answering the questions of outsiders, they shaped the tradition in fresh ways, leaving their imprint. Careful argument and debate on the problem of worshiping Jesus resulted in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Another important type of theological problem comes from Christians themselves. The truth is that Christians have rarely agreed with one another on issues of faith, doctrine, and practice. Christian theological history, then, is an intergenerational conversation across the ages, in which the last generation enters respectful conversation with its elders. For example, in the fifth century St. Augustine pondered the death of Christ because it seemed so odd. That God would demand the death of an innocent man—indeed, of his own Son—to rescue us from the devil’s hold flouts every vision of morality. He needed to defend the faith against a serious objection. He wrote that God could not just release us from the power of the devil over us simply by an act of divine power. The innocent Christ had to die to atone for our sins, because that way we would see that power and might alone are not the proper way for us to have our way, even to accomplish a good end. In essence, Augustine was saying, the end does not justify the means. Rather, the demands of righteousness must be satisfied by the means themselves. Therefore, Christ had to die so that we would see that power is not an end in itself, but must be used morally; that is, in the service of righteousness. Then he added the decisive factor: “It is to be wished, then, that power may be given, but power over vices, to conquer which men do not wish to be powerful, though they wish to be [powerful] to conquer [other] people…. Let a man desire to be prudent, strong, temperate, just; and that he may be able to have these things truly, let him certainly desire power, and seek to be powerful over himself and (strange though it is) against himself for himself” (De Trinitate XIII: 13:17).

Augustine here is explaining the action of God in Christ’s death as moral teaching that we need. Although God acted in a way that looks to us flagrantly immoral, the great Augustine drew from it a lesson to uplift us as we need to be lifted up from our natural inclinations. We need to attend to the death of Christ with proper understanding. This understanding comes from the teaching of the church. This is theology’s way of helping us know and love God more dearly. For God’s works are not undertaken out of limits to God’s power, or capriciousness that appears cruel. What at first glance looks odd is actually an expression of God’s deepest knowledge of and care for us: care to transform us by his actions. Indeed, children are often more influenced by what adults do than by what they say. In this case, we see the Father and the Son working together for our salvation. The teaching is that in the triumph of Christ over the devil, God invites us to cease desiring power over others and turn our attention to self-mastery. Learning comes from watching.

As powerful as this teaching is, about five hundred years later another theologian, St. Anselm of Canterbury, was beset with more good questions about the nature of God seen in the Christ-story. To answer the question of why God had to become human and die in this horrible manner, Anselm naturally looked to his teacher, St. Augustine. What he found there, however, did not fully satisfy. Without ever directly saying that the great teacher was wrong—only that he did not live long enough to say everything necessary on this point—Anselm saw that the struggle being worked out in the Incarnation/death of Christ is not only that between power and righteousness. Augustine’s interpretation was fine as far as it went. Still, it did not adequately highlight divine mercy. The other struggle here is the struggle to balance our understanding of the righteousness and the compassion of God. For if God only demands righteousness, we lose sight of the important fact that God is also gracious and merciful to us in our failings. Therefore, Anselm, without minimizing Augustine’s interpretation, added the point that Christ went to his death voluntarily. The cross was not an assignment from God the Father, but a compact between the Father and the Son. The Son volunteered for this suicide mission. It is an act of love for us in the service of righteousness. They aim to teach us to live compassionately in the service of righteousness. In looking at Christ, we see God’s willingness to die in order to rescue us from ourselves. We also learn that we too should be filled with love to the giving of our life, should it be necessary to rescue others in the service of righteousness.

Note that both teachings assume that we learn by seeing, and thereby, growing in understanding the work of God, the Holy Trinity. I call this perspective on understanding Christian doctrine its aretegenic function. This is the dimension of the teaching understood by the theologian to be God’s way of making us excellent persons. The point of this way of thinking about the work and being of God is the opposite of Tertullian’s urging us to believe not only in spite of, but even, because the teaching is absurd. Seeking the aretology of a doctrine seeks after the practical intent of God’s action or way of effecting something on our behalf. When aspects of the Christian narrative look strange or absurd to us, we can stop and ponder, What benefit accrues to us from God’s having done this rather than that?

Most theologians, I would guess, became theologians because they believed that God does not act irrationally, viciously, or out of powerlessness. They believed that God is wise, powerful, and good. These fundamental attributes are often challenged by events and counter understandings. Perhaps in our age, the most stunning challenge to the divine attributes is the Nazi genocide and other comparable mass murders. The theologian seeks to help us continue to love and enjoy God in the face of such horrors and other penetrating questions.

There is a deep psychological understanding at work in interpretations like Augustine’s and Anselm’s. How could it be otherwise? Unless God knows us truly, unto the recesses of our hearts where even we fear to tread, how can he cure us? The point of an aretegenic interpretation of Christian doctrine is that it assumes that God wants us to flourish by growing in wisdom.

To identify and analyze the aretology of a theological interpretation of a doctrine is then a criterion for assessing its adequacy. That is what Anselm did with Augustine’s teaching. An aretology, then, is the teaching on how God intends to transform us in goodness and wisdom through a certain action or aspect of his own being. Another example: A century and a half later, Aquinas asked why Christ died on a cross rather than some other way. It is, after all, such a horrible death. His answer was that on the cross Christ was stretched out in all four directions—north, south, east, and west. This was to bring the whole world into the reach of his saving embrace. The cross then, was itself an expression of God’s invitation to Christ. Responding to that invitation is another way in which, if we understand it properly, we come to dwell in the beauty and goodness of God. Again, St. Thomas asked why Christ was lifted up above the earth. The answer: to purify the air. What a shocking answer. Our very sins pollute the air we breathe. We need God to purify it. Somehow, it has a contemporary ring to it.

If we believe that God wants us to flourish in goodness and moral beauty, it is perfectly appropriate to use an aretegenic criterion to help us evaluate theological exegesis. If God wants us to flourish spiritually and to make us whole, we have an obligation to ask theologians if their interpretations let us know that God is good for us and not bad for us. The Christian theological tradition is a self-correcting conversation. An interpretation that appears salutary in one generation may appear harmful or dangerous in another. This is not to suggest, however, that theology necessarily progresses. It may also be that the theology of the current age is confused or harmful in ways that its own age is unaware. It may be unfaithful to the truth of God that is the heart of our faith. For this reason, theological criticism must also ask whether the teaching in question is scriptural and in keeping with the traditions of the church. Theologians are part of a venerable and hoary tradition whose opinions and judgments may well be more clear-sighted than their own.

While the examples shown may suggest that corrections of the tradition arise from the theologian’s own reflection, life of prayer, and perhaps pastoral experience, this is not the only way correction occurs. It may also be that an important insight about the truth of God was articulated in an earlier age, but cast aside by a later one, so that its hope and power are lost for the current generation. The doctrine of the ascension of Christ for example has been long lost in the west. Also, large segments of Protestantism have lost an appreciation of the sacraments. Theologians have been at work reclaiming these and other doctrines and practices that they believe will help us know, love, and enjoy God more truly when we understand them better.

The aretegenic inquiry asks whether an interpretation of God’s actions helps us grow in wisdom and understanding. As the author of Proverbs wrote for us, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7). If God is good for us, it is necessary that we understand that this be so. Theology is charged with a double task. It is responsible simultaneously to scrutinize and to defend the theological traditions we have inherited. Further, it is charged to heal the tradition when it strays from its best self, just as God seeks to heal us when we fall. This is an awesome responsibility, for theology treats more than ideas. Beyond the way the ideas fit together are people who want to know and love God.

Posted Mar 01, 2002