Tag Archives: Jared Michelson

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

By Jared Mickelson

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.

***

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.

Dr. Tim Baylor on the Upcoming Symposium on Creation and the Reformation

We are excited about the upcoming symposium entitled Creation and the Legacy of the Reformation. Join us on June 12 at 7 pm in Parliment Hall for an exciting night.

Dr. Timothy Baylor, Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at University of Wales Trinity Saint David, recently sat with Jared Michelson to answer questions about the event. Jared is presently a PhD candidate in St. Mary’s College. The questions presented in bold are Jared’s; Dr. Baylor’s responses appear underneath. We appreciate the work that both of them have put into this project.


The doctrine of creation in particular seems to be an issue of increasing importance in contemporary dogmatics. Why choose the doctrine of creation as the theme of the symposium?

Some of today’s most important theological conversations circulate around the doctrine of creation in one respect or another. Pressing practical issues pertaining to matters of ecology, sexual ethics, and economics all fundamentally depend on decisions made in the theology of creation. The doctrine also proves to be decisive for a number of issues at a higher theoretical level — such as the nature of God’s freedom and perfections, the conditions of human flourishing, and the place of human action in the work of salvation. All of these are topics of fundamental and perennial theological interest, and all of them have important conceptual correlates in this doctrine.

Why frame the symposium around a discussion of Protestantism and the doctrine of Creation?

In recent years, a number of works have been published implicating Protestant theology in the widespread agnosticism and atheism of our time. The story goes something like this:

Contemporary atheism and agnosticism is the result of a disenchanted view of the natural world. Generations before us conceived of creation as being radically dependent upon God, and so as participating in God’s power. Accordingly, they were able to discern God’s presence and action within the natural order. We, by contrast, presume the natural order to be self-moving and self-sustaining — the kind of thing that requires God’s intervention only in the most exceptional circumstances. This view of the natural order stems from a theology of creation in which God’s action is always interruptive in nature — breaking in from the outside. Though this theology had its genesis in the late Medieval Nominalists, the Reformers implicitly adopted this vision of nature as a means of critiquing Catholic theologies of mediation. The Reformation thus became a vehicle for spreading this nominalistic theology of creation. Though contrary to the intentions of the Reformers themselves, they served as accelerants of the entrenched skepticism and deism of the Enlightenment because they lacked a theology capable of affirming the participation of the natural order in God.

Of course, genealogies such as these are not strictly impartial. Often they are oriented by a very definite theological vision and serve as a means of discerning the causes of that vision’s decline. To the degree that this is the case, these genealogies function to narrate the drama of our culture’s engagement with God, or, in this case, what John Webster once called the “spiritual history of [its] neglect”.[1]This, of course, is not new. In some ways, these narratives function similarly to the types of historical narratives that the Reformers often gave, in which the Reformation is depicted as an advent of God’s grace and mercy standing at the end of a long season of spiritual decline.

That indicates, I think, that what is called for here is not simply a return to the history of the early Modern or Enlightenment periods to inspect the faithfulness of this narrative, though certainly that too is warranted. I think it also calls for a properly theological reflection — one that contemplates the normative question: Is there a Protestant doctrine of creation, and if so, how should it function?

The symposium includes a fascinating line-up of theologians, who come from a variety of divergent theological perspectives. What motivated the invitation of these particular participants?

We are very fortunate to have such a gifted group of people to be part of this conversation. Each of our participants is known for his or her contributions to the study of theology. All of them have written on the doctrine of creation or topics closely adjacent to the doctrine. And it was important for us to have a variety of different voices represented as part of this conversation. This is a topic on which there are no easy answers. You expect Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, and Catholic thinkers disagree with one another, but on a topic like this one, it is just as common for them to disagree amongst themselves. In order to move the conversation forward, in other words, it is crucial that we skillfully engage a variety of different perspectives. And each of our participants have a long history of doing just that.

 


[1]“What Makes Theology Theological?”, God Without Measure, I, p. 215.