On Monday and Tuesday this week I had the pleasure of sitting for hours on end discussing theology with men older and wiser than me. It wouldn’t be right to say that I felt like the 12-year-old Jesus in the temple. But I do admit that I identify with Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, singing about what he would do “if I were a rich man“:
If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray.
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall.
And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day.
That would be the sweetest thing of all.
How did I achieve such sweetness? About a dozen of us were gathered for an annual event called the Forum for Doctrinal Studies. Each year one member of this group prepares a theological paper, which we then read and discuss for about a day and a half.
Faith Builders kindly hosts the event, but is unaffiliated. FDS is a basically autonomous child of the Fellowship of Concerned Mennonites, and there is some overlap in who is involved. At this point I’m tempted to honor the men who attended this year by naming them, but I know they are not seeking any such recognition. Instead, I’ll briefly describe them.
What are some things about these men that blessed me? Here are a few:
- It was refreshing to hear these men interact respectfully. There are certainly differences of understanding among these men (and I add to the diversity). But I rejoice to report that the conversations were full of humility and grace.
- It was also evident that these men have pastoral and worshipful hearts. They care about hurting people. They are aware of the glory of God. Theology is no mere academic exercise for these men.
- Yet they are also men who believe that ideas matter, and that it isn’t a waste of time to have lengthy discussion about matters like what does or doesn’t get imputed in justification or the spiritual state of children.
- What Scripture says is important to these men. To be honest, the one who quoted Scripture most often and helpfully was possibly a man who was the only non-Anabaptist in the group. (He was there by special invitation of Milo Zehr, who was presenting this year.) So we will always have room for growth. But it was good to have Steven Brubaker (that is, not me!) be the one to note aloud when Scriptural reflection hit a slump at one point. And it was especially encouraging to see how Milo has been wrestling deeply and systematically with the text of Romans for years, wrestling and writing for the sake of the church.
I could reflect more, but since it isn’t the aim of this group to make a big public splash, I’ll stop. May more such groups and discussions multiply within our Anabaptist churches. May older men and women take time to examine Scripture and discuss theology together, and may they invite those younger to join them!
Speaking of those younger, my friend Kendall Myers loaned me a fine old book last week: A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, by Helmut Thielicke. Here are some quotes that resonate with me as I reflect on the experience I described above. First, some thoughts about “the study of dogmatics [systematic theology] with prayer”:
The man who studies theology, and especially he who studies dogmatics, might watch carefully whether he increasingly does not think in the third rather than in the second person. You know what I mean by that. This transition from one to the other level of thought, from a personal relationship with God to a merely technical reference, usually is exactly synchronized with the moment that I can no longer read the word of Holy Scripture as a word to me, but only as the object of exegetical endeavors.
…A theological thought can breathe only in the atmosphere of dialogue with God.
Essentially, theological method is characterized by the fact that it takes into account that God has spoken, and that now what God has spoken is to be understood and answered. But it can only be understood when I
(1) recognize that what has been said is directed to me, and
(2) become involved in formulating a reply. Only out of this dialogue is the theological method comprehensible (Galatians 4:9). Consider that the first time someone spoke of God in the third person and therefore no longer with God but about God was that very moment when the question resounded, “Did God really say?” (cf. Genesis 3:1). This fact ought to make us think.
In contrast with this, the crucified Jesus, out of the uttermost darkness of abandonment by God, does not speak to men, does not complain about this God who has abandoned him. He speaks to Him at this very moment—in the second person. He addresses Him as My God and even expresses His complaint in a word of God, so that as it were the circuit between Him and the Father is complete. This observation, too, should make us think. (pp. 33-35)
Indeed. And here is another passage that made me think, given my youthful age (aka 40, aka too-old-to-be-trusted-by-teenagers and too-young-to-be-trusted-by-seniors):
It is far from my purpose simply to accuse the theological student or to caricature him…
We are dealing with the quite natural phenomena of growth…
A twenty-year-old is taught, say, to think about the problems of the Trinity. Over these, down through the centuries, the most bitter battles have been fought with life at stake. To these problems the great leaders have bent mighty spiritual energies and behind them lie quite definite spiritual experiences. You can see that the young theologian has by no means yet grown up to these doctrines in his own spiritual development, even if he understands intellectually rather well the logic of the system—that is, its crust of what once was spiritual, and the legitimate and logical course, so to speak, of its developments in the history of doctrine.
Therefore it is evident how and where, given such a state of affairs, serious crises must arise. There is a hiatus between the arena of the young theologian’s actual spiritual growth and what he already knows intellectually about this arena. So to speak, he has been fitted, like a country boy, with breeches that are too big, into which he must still grow up in the same way that one who is to be confirmed must also still grow into the long trousers of the Catechism. Meanwhile, they hang loosely around his body, and this ludicrous sight of course is not beautiful…
In his book on Goethe, Gundolf speaks, in reference to such cases, of a merely conceptual experience. Some truth or other has not been “passed through” as a primary experience, but has been replaced by “perception” of the literary or intellectual deposit of what another’s primary experience, say Luther’s, has discovered. Thus one lives at second hand.
But because this kind of perception of another’s religiosity or spirituality can be extremely lively and even passionate, it is easy to lapse into auto-suggestion, as if a person had experienced and passed through all that himself. He lapses into an illegitimate identification with the other. It is possible to be thoroughly bewitched by the mighty thoughts of the young Luther and then to lapse into the illusion that what is “understood” in this way and makes such an impression is genuine faith. In reality, it is only a case of perception and of being victimized by the seduction of conceptual experience. In his own life, in his own faith, the young man is not that far along! Young theologians manifest certain trumped-up intellectual efforts which actually amount to nothing.
Speaking figuratively, the study of theology often produces overgrown youths whose internal organs have not correspondingly developed. This is characteristic of adolescence. There is actually something like theological puberty…
It is a mistake for anyone who is just in this stage to appear before a church as a teacher. He has outgrown the naivété with which in young people’s work he might by all means have taken this part. he has not yet come to that maturity which would permit him to absorb into his own life and reproduce out of the freshness of his own personal faith the things which he imagines intellectually and which are accessible to him through reflection. We must have patience here and be able to wait. For the reasons I have mentioned I do not tolerate sermons by first-semester young theological students swaddled in their gowns. One ought to be able to keep still. During the period when the voice is changing we do not sing, and during this formative period in the life of the theological student he does not preach. (pp. 9-12)
These observations, too, should make us think.
And with that sobering thought I’ll make a rather untimely turn to a final announcement: I have been invited to share my long-promised essay on ordinances to the Forum for Doctrinal Studies. This may happen in either 2016 or 2017.
But—cheers for those who have been patiently waiting—I have the blessing of the FDS men to post it here before that time. So my tentative plans are to post the majority of the essay here much as it now is. Soon. But with the understanding that further revisions are in order and—crucially—minus the difficult final section where I attempt to answer the “so what?” questions about my historical and biblical findings. That is the section where Thielicke’s warnings above are most relevant, and where maturity on the part of this writer is most needed. (And where perhaps my readers here can help shape my thoughts before that FDS meeting?)
I invite you to join me in the study, dialogue, and experience of theology. I also invite your comments below. Thanks for reading!