In the Presence of Older Theologians

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!

[amazon template=thumbnail11&asin=B0029PRS4U]Speaking of those younger, my friend Kendall Myers loaned me a fine old book last week: [amazon text= A Little Exercise for Young Theologians&asin=0802811981], 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!

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13 thoughts on “In the Presence of Older Theologians”

  1. I never liked the sepulchral tone of the FCM Informer, but the Forum sounds fascinating! Alas, I am a woman! 🙂 Tell us more! And yes, I am looking forward to that paper on ordinances.

    I understand a bit (in a different way) about the silent period between “adolescence” and maturity. It’s kind of a painful place to be, but knowing/hoping that it’s a necessary stage is helpful.

    1. “Sepulchral tone”! Perhaps that is partly explained by the fact that the raison d’être of the FCM Informer is to help keep the church out of the grave, by warning against theological liberalism and unbiblical practices. So yes, those who read FCM Informer will be wise to also add more joyful food to their mental diet. 🙂

      Yes, women need to be engaged in discussing theology, too. Perhaps you noted my subtle plug about that in the post. 🙂 I think there is something of irreplaceable value in having men-only discussion groups (I’m not sure C.S. Lewis was sexist for asserting this). But this irreplaceable value does not replace the equally irreplaceable value of women-only and mixed gender groups. May all kinds multiply!

      I met Lyle and Maria Stutzman at Faith Builders and heard some good things about the story that you and Will are living. Blessings to both of you as you live and learn, whether in silent periods or otherwise.

  2. Some thought-provoking stuff there, Dwight. Thanks for sharing!

    I have a question: First, I want to say I trust the heart of these men (FDS) that they want to glorify God and not themselves. So this is not a critique, but an honest question. Do they video or record these forums and make it available to public? If not, why not? Sounds like stuff that could benefit others that aren’t able to make it.

    The question comes from a growing burden that we quit trying to look humble (by not wanting to make a “big splash”) and start actually serving our churches (by doing what might appear as some to be a “big splash”). Now, maybe I’m misunderstanding things and I’m certainly not intending to criticize–it’s just a nagging question I have. 🙂

    1. Good questions, Asher. No, the FDS discussions are not recorded or shared in any public way. This is not because the men of FDS aren’t interesting in serving our churches. Most of them are involved in leading multiple public teaching events, after all, whether through Faith Builders or Biblical Mennonite Alliance or the Anabaptist Identity Conference or otherwise. Rather, the reason these discussions aren’t publicized it because FDS is designed to be a suitable place to test theological ideas, including perspectives that (a) are still in test-stage for those sharing them and (b) might not be understood or received well by the broader public. To be clear, I did not hear heresy being promoted at FDS! But I do think it is valuable to have a space where those who are leaders among us (or younger men who are developing their theological thinking) can test ideas and ask questions of each other. And frankly, much of the discussion would be tedious listening for most people, for the discussion is only semi-guided, and includes plenty of moments like those found in your average Sunday school discussion.

      It should also be said that the goal of this group is to help people test theological ideas and writings so that they will be better prepared to share them publicly afterward. So, for example, Milo Zehr may publish his text in book form at some point. So even though this group is an invitation-only group, it is designed to be useful for the church at large.

      I’d love to see more such groups develop! Groups that intentionally mix the most experienced theological thinkers among us with younger ones who are developing their theological thinking, groups that hold a high view of Scripture and are more concerned about biblical fidelity than about either novel ideas or defending the status quo in every detail.

      1. I see. That makes sense. Thanks for explaining. I didn’t realize the goal of the group. It really does sound interesting!

        I do think it would be neat to have theology discussions (more organized) in video format as a way for people to learn and grow on their own. Could that be an asset to our churches that complement Bible Schools? 🙂

          1. Dwight, I have vision of how it could be implemented–but not resources. 🙂 I do appreciate you and others, like Frank Reed, who are willing to engage the digital world through blogging because the next generation to lead the church is going to the digital to learn and grow.

            1. You’re right. I have mixed feelings about how online-centric some of our lives are, but I don’t think it will change soon for many. So we must sow seed here, too, if there will be a good harvest.

              Regarding video instruction, I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan. I enjoy it, but rarely find time for it. Reading is much faster, and audio is much easier for multi-tasking. So here’s the question: Do most others share my preferences? The answer to that question will help answer the question of how much time to devote to developing video resources. Thoughts?

  3. It depends. I will pretty quickly watch a video that’s less than ten minutes long when it’s from someone who I know is going to have something good to say. For the last four years I (sometimes with my wife) gone through a video or audio series that required scheduling time for it–either a full weekend, or spread out over a month or so. I’ve been grateful for that because being in LA and Thailand doesn’t allow for many chances to attend good conferences. 🙂

    My guess is that of guys 18-30 years old, at least 90% of them would watch something that’s done well over read. We’re not all as intelligent as you. 😉

    1. Solution: A 5-minute video presenting the incredible advantages that reading offers over video watching. 🙂 I’m not really sure I’m joking.

      Seriously, I could moan now about how our culture is eating away at our capacity for sustained thought, and point out that we’d often much rather be entertained than think. That said, (a) I do enjoy seeing my favorite writers on video from time to time and (b) if good video presentations could reach a wider audience and be a “gateway drug” to more sustained study, then they are a good thing.

      But it still takes more time, technology, and money to communicate via that medium!

  4. I’m glad someone is still working on Anabaptist theology. Historically, ours has been a theology has been something to be practiced, not studied or written. Except for the writings of Menno Simmons early in our history, J. C. Wenger, “A Theology of Anabaptism,” and Daniel Kauffman, “Doctrines of the Bible,” we have little in the form of a systematic theology. As Anabaptism diverges in dozens of different directions, maybe it’s time for someone or a group to work on a thoroughly biblical theology of faith which looks more carefully at what we believe rather than what we practice.

    1. Jim, I agree: Correct beliefs are important, not only correct practices. In fact, I think the latter inevitably suffer when the former are out of line. (Of course, the reverse influence is also true.)

      Your proposition sounds good but difficult. Who among us is equipped for such a task? At minimum, I am glad for those who are trying to speak and writing theologically in less comprehensive ways.

      Thanks for reading and responding!

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