Tag Archives: Augustine

The theologians, You and I

By Dr. Oliver Langworthy, Associate Lecturer in Patristics, St. Mary’s

I recently published on the subject of how Gregory Nazianzus received the title of the Theologian. The article was awarded the Eusebius Essay Prize from the Journal of Ecclesiastical Theology (available here). While my interest in that article was on the historical attribution of the title of ‘the Theologian’ to a specific figure, my research made me pensive about what a theologian is and who might reasonably be called one today.

Is someone a theologian simply because they study theology? The Oxford English Dictionary does not clarify this: “A person who engages or is an expert in theology.” At what level of engagement is one reasonably identified as a theologian then? Most undergraduates who study theology in the United Kingdom don’t self-identify as such. Few enough postgraduates do so either. When one graduates from a doctoral programme studying theology or biblical studies, one is, at the very least, a doctor. Depending on the institution this might even be a ThD rather than a PhD, but is even a doctor of theology necessarily the same as a theologian? I tend to think not. It isn’t something granted by an institution but instead independent of formal training. Why not simply look to contemporary theologians and use them as a guide? A glance at Wikipedia’s “List of Christian Theologians” article yields a list populated by more than a few people who never called themselves theologians however much they engaged in theology.

Part of the problem is that ‘theologian’ is not a title of Christian invention. In Eusebius of Caesarea’s Preparation for the Gospel he identifies the figures of Orpheus, Musaeus, and Linus as the oldest Greek theologians. Eusebius elsewhere even makes mention of a figure called Seleucis the Theologian, a figure roughly dated to the first century AD who received his title for his books on the gods. If one asked Augustine, he might reject the idea of Christian theologians altogether. In his City of God, Augustine engaged with Varro’s tripartite division of theology into mythic, civil, and natural. While he permits that the natural theology of the philosophers can, in some cases, approach near the truth revealed in Christian Scripture they do not achieve it. They, Augustine argued, remain bound to the concept of sacrifice to multiple deities. This faint praise does not extend to mythic and civil theology, which he closely links and castigates for their shallowness and obeisance to the fantastic gods. Gregory of Nazianzus had plenty of his own scorn for, especially, mythic theologians. Writing against the Emperor Julian in his fourth oration he said that: ‘[F]able is the resource not of persons confident in their cause, but of those giving it up: but if these tales be fictions – in the first place let them produce us their undisguised theologians, in order that we may have to deal with them.’

This is not to say that Christians were averse to identifying their own theologians. In arguing for the divinity of the Spirit in his fifth theological oration, Gregory identified the most archetypal of Christian theologians: ‘For, tell me, what position will you assign to that which proceeds, which has started up between the two terms of your division, and is introduced by a better theologian than you, our saviour himself?’ Clement of Alexandria, in the first chapter of the Stromata, wrote that, ‘This Moses was a theologian and prophet, and as some say, an interpreter of sacred laws.’ Athanasius of Alexandria, in his Against the heathens identified the apostle John as a theologian. The company of those identified as theologians by the Fathers is therefore a fairly rarefied one: Moses, John, and Jesus. What about those of us who are not patriarchs, apostles, or the son of God, but still think to call ourselves theologians?

Evagrius of Pontus’ Chapters on Prayer provides a starting point: ‘If you are a theologian, you will pray truly and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.’ As this is very nearly a koan it benefits from some reflection.

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How being a ‘Pastor-Theologian’ Convinced Me that Theology is a Contemplative, rather than Practical Discipline

By Jared Mickelson, PhD Candidate in Systematic Theology

Being a minister while pursuing a post-graduate degree in systematic theology taught me that the end of theology is contemplative (or even speculative), rather than practical.

Medieval and Protestant Scholastics debated whether the primary end of theology is speculative, practical, affective, or—more commonly—some particular combination of the three. While this might appear to signal significant doctrinal divergence, when viewed from a perspective shaped by the assumptions undergirding theology in the modern university, one is more impressed by the (relative) scholastic unity rather than diversity. This is because a scholastic’s characterising of theology’s end as either speculative or practical, usually did not concern crude calculations regarding the quantity of space devoted to esoteric ruminations on the triune relations over-against passionate appeals for humanitarian action, but whether the final state of the blessed is better glossed as an act of speculative meditation, active adoration, or affective delight.[1] We might identify a shared affirmation that theology’s end is contemplative, concerning the eternal fulfilment of creatures in God, rather than immediately practical, terminating in the exercise of practical reason in the temporal sphere. Scholasticism was thus rooted in an Augustinian vision, which evinces “A conception of paradise [that] provides a sharp corrective to modern notions of spirituality, inasmuch as eternity will apparently be spent in the reflection on issues today considered purely technical.”[2]

Thus Stephen Long: “I defend a ‘speculative’ theology whereby the doctrine of God serves no interest because God is an end in God’s self and not a means to something else. God is to be enjoyed not used.”[3] Pastors addressing parishioners and academics appealing to university administers or grant instituting bodies, share a common struggle here, to maintain that the knowledge of God is not a means to some other good, but itself constitutes the final, blessed end of human creatures.

Kant in the Conflict of the Faculties, notes that “truth (the essential and first condition of learning in general) is the main thing, whereas utility…is of secondary importance.”[4] Truth, not utility, is the main thing, yet in the same influential essay, Kant relegates theology to the status of an authority based-discipline which cannot attain to questions of truth without stepping outside its restricted domain. Thus post-Kantian academic theology is tempted to justify its existence in the university by means other than the appeal to truth,[5] by appealing instead (for example) to theology’s supposed ability to illuminate the motivations of political actors with religious faith, or to elucidate intellectual history, or to remind other university faculties of questions of ultimate value. Yet this remains a temptation. Articulating theology’s ‘usefulness’ in terms of goods less ultimate than Augustine’s summum bonum, is a perilous reduction of theology’s own historical self-understanding by appeal to mere utility.[6] Truth is ‘the main thing,’ for creatures were made to know and love—and to be known and loved—by the triune God who is truth itself. Theologians—even academic theologians—either have some small role in fitting human creatures for that unspeakably glorious possibility, or are of all people most to be pitied.

This temptation facing the academic theologian is analogous to the challenge facing the minister, particularly the ‘pastor-theologian.’ The minister too is tempted to secure theology’s usefulness by demonstrating its practical utility in securing lesser goods than the summum bonum. Ministry is pressed by the immediate, by the repeated and unceasing insistence that every sermon, address, or homily, succinctly present an immediate point of action capable of being implemented by the close of the week. This preoccupation with the immediate, corresponding to the claim that theology—if it is to be of use to the church—needs be ‘practical’ or ‘relevant,’ paradoxically results in a constriction and diminishment of human personhood. For if the end of the rational creature is blessed fulfilment in contemplation of the living God, and theology—like Christian discipleship, spirituality, and liturgy—exists to form and fit creatures for that end, then to reduce the end of the knowledge of God to the procurement of lesser, more proximate goods, is to obscure the greatest good to which I might direct my fellow congregants. It is to treat them as lesser beings, intended for a more mundane end than that suggested to us by the gospel of God become man.

Yes, theology is practical, but derivatively so: “In knowing and loving God’s name for his sake we rightly order our loves….The goal is resting in God for his own sake; in attaining this goal, practical ends are wondrously achieved.”[7] Pastors and priests most of all, must insist upon a contemplative end for theology, because standing with those we serve amidst the heartaches and tragedies of life, forbids cheap consolation, and the summoning of our congregants to ends less glorious than knowing and loving God himself, for his own sake.

[1] For a more fulsome description, cf. Ulrich Gottfried Leinsle, Introduction to Scholastic Theology, trans. Michael J. Miller (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 147-181. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1992), I, q.7, 1-15, p.20-23.

[2] A N Williams, “Contemplation: Knowledge of God in Augustine’s De Trinitate,” in Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church, ed. James J. Buckley and David S. Yeago (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 131.

[3] Stephen Long, “The Perfectly Simple Triune God Symposium,” Syndicate, accessed October 22, 2018, https://syndicate.network/symposia/theology/a-perfectly-simple-triune-god.

[4] Immanuel Kant, Religion and Rational Theology, ed. Allen W. Wood and George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 7:28.

[5] cf. Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 104.

[6] Two inaugural lectures issue this clarion call, though in distinct ways: John Webster, Theological Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998). Edwin Chr. van Driel, “Gospeling: Paul, Protestant Theology, and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,” Academia.edu, accessed October 22, 2018, https://www.academia.edu/9035282/Gospeling_Paul_Protestant_Theologians_and_Pittsburgh_Theological_Seminary.

[7] Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (Malden: Blackwell Pub., 2004), 22.

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Jared is married to Becky and serves as a minister at Cornerstone Church in St. Andrews. His PhD research concerns the doctrine of divine attributes from scholasticism to modernity in the Reformed tradition.