Reflections on the Culture of Theology
Upon completing my doctoral degree in July this year, I spent subsequent months reflecting on the nature and ends of academic theology. I was fortunate to have received an excellent theological education at Westminster Seminary California, where I met some exemplary theologians who laboured hard to serve scholars, students, pastors, and churches. I was captured by their vision of theological education and, more importantly, by the depth of their theological wisdom, and I was determined to pursue higher degrees in theology so that I could also gain, just like they did, wisdom, knowledge, and insights about the things divine.
Yet, completion of the long-held dream of PhD soon produced what many call “the post-PhD blues,” the kind of disheartening feelings and thoughts about the value of my academic training. What was it all for? Why did I want it? How wiser have I come? And what now? In this crucial period of reflection (or even depression), I have found John Webster’s nascent reflections on the culture of academic theology to be helpful in fighting the sense of uselessness. By listening to his penetrating voice in his The Culture of Theology, I regained a sense of direction and a drive to move forward; in short, Webster helped me in the crucial time to see the essential agenda that academic theologians ought to bring to their work, and those visions helped me to discern how I should use my intellectual skills for academic theological endeavours.
The first agenda for academic theologians, as Webster wonderfully argued, is that their work ought to be eschatological. He states that “Christian culture is the assembly of forms and practices which seeks to somehow inhabit the world which is brought into being by the staggering good news of Jesus Christ, the world of the new creation” (43). Culture, used in this sense, is “a set of intentional patterns of human action which have sufficient coherence, scope, and duration to constitute a way of life” (48). The culture that Christian scholars ought to form on earth, then, is the pattern of thought and action that inhabits the eschatological world, and this eschatological frame of Christian culture is crucial in understanding the nature and ends of academic theology, for it is against the backdrop of this eschatological culture that the intentionality and intelligibility of theological works ought to be established.
What is the eschaton, then? It refers, Webster argued, to “that single, perfect reality which is the basis and end of all realities, that absolute which, as the origin of all that is, is pure, free, ungraspable, approachable only by virtue of its own prior approach to us in a kind of loving devastation” (53). This reality can only be seen and received by those in faith, and this reality both disrupts the ordinary pattern of Christian life and also re-locates it in the culture of heaven, and hence the Christian intelligence is immersed in the mortifying and vivifying work of God. “Christian culture, caught up in Christ’s sanctifying work, is thus characterized by a pattern of overthrow and reestablishment” (54–55).
It is in this sense that Webster regarded the intellectual work of theologians to be “regional,” as theologians operate within this region and culture of eschaton. “Christian theology flourishes best when it has deep roots in the region, the culture space, which is constituted by Christian faith and its confession of the gospel” (44). Thus, in short, “Christian culture is eschatological in the sense that it is a set of astonished human responses to the gospel of the new world” (63). This is surely the fundamental agenda that young theologians ought to adopt early on in their career, and something I took deep into my heart, as this eschatological frame is the proper frame in which theologians should evaluate the worth of their academic labours—working as a theologian means to inhabit and participate in the eschatological life for self and others, and in order to fight the temptation to make lesser ends the ultimate, this eschatological agenda must be at the core of all theological projects, pursuits, and products.
The second agenda for academic theologians is that their work ought to be exegetical. Webster argued that “among the most important practices which need to be cultivated—especially at the present time—are textual practices, habits of reading. There can be few things more necessary for the renewal of Christian theology than the promotion of awed reading of classical Christian texts, scriptural and other, precisely because a good deal of modern Christian thought has adopted habits of mind which have led to disenchantment with the biblical canon and the traditions of paraphrase and commentary by which the culture of Christian faith has often been sustained” (45).
The exegetical task of academic theologians understood in this way is precisely to improve the textual practices of learners, and specifically in relation to two kinds of literature. The first is the Scripture itself: “One of the main tasks of theology is to exemplify and promote close and delighted reading of Holy Scripture as the viva vox Dei, the voice of the risen Jesus to his community” (64). This presupposition that the Scripture is the viva vox Dei is crucially important, for it rightly prioritizes the Scriptural interpretation as the utmost significance in the academic undertaking of theology. Hence “theology has its controlling center in exegesis of Holy Scripture; Holy Scripture is the Word of God; the Word of God summons us to faithful reading” (65). Thus “Christian acts of reading Holy Scripture are encounters between the gracious, eloquent God of the gospel and the sinner who has been arrested and made new” (74).
The second kind of textual practice that theologians ought to participate in—and invite others to do—is the reading of classical texts that not only speak about the history and etymology of Scripture itself, but also those that contributed to the historic formations of Christian doctrines. The church is the main audience to which the living voice of God is uttered, and the Scriptural meaning has been taught to and discovered by the faithful readers in history. There is then a demand for theologians to give heed not only to the living voice of God in the Scripture but also to the living voice of the faithful teachers echoing through history, and in this very sense, all academic fruits of theology ought to enable the church “to be the ecclesia audiens, assisting competent reading and reception of Scripture” (77). Hence, regardless of their particular specializations and competencies, theologians ought to contribute to the church’s exegetical study of God’s Word, so that both the living voice of God and the living voice of faithful teachers can be communicated to the present church for faithful reading, hearing, and confessing.
The third agenda for academic theologians is that their work ought to be ecclesial. Whether working in universities or seminaries, the eschatological and exegetical aims of academic theology ought to serve a particular faith community, and that is the church: “church is the eschatological reality of the new creation; it is the ‘creature of the Word.’ And as creature, the church is simply not competent to receive the Word, let alone to authorize it. In the Word, the church hears God’s summons to obedient attention to the gospel” (71).
The ecclesial community is the proper region in which the eschatological vision and the exegetical task are to be coalesced, and it is those who belong to that very community witness to each other—and to others—about the eschatological reality through their exegetical endeavours. “The witnessing task of the apostolic community is to indicate what Jesus Christ himself has said and done and now says and does in the Spirit” (92).
Thus, Webster summarized that “[t]he task of theology is to watch, contribute to, and sometimes to intervene critically in the apostolic life of the church so that that life can be nothing other than what it already is: the public covenant of the gospel” (96). What then does this say about the ends of academic theology? One thing is clear: the proper institution and community in which the study of theology must be pursued is the church, the community of believers who hear the voice of God. Then, before young scholars attempt to evaluate their academic works against the background of the marketplace of ideas, and before they measure their worth against the background of the prestige of universities, they first ought to have a role in ecclesial communities, and in the service of the ecclesia audiens, in order that their intelligence can be used for deeper, higher, and better ends.
Although much more can be said about Webster’s contributions to theological education, ruminating on his nascent articulations of the culture of theology was sufficient to assist a young scholar to gain a proper direction and drive for his work. The higher goods that theologians ought to produce, promote, and procure are precisely eschatological, exegetical, and ecclesial kinds, and Christian intelligence, refined through doctoral education, should be used for those goals. In short, the Christian intelligence matured through modern academic trainings ought to be used for the exegetical endeavours of ecclesial communities that inhabit the eschatological culture, and the value of refined intelligence ought to be measured along those lines. And these ends are much higher—and better—than merely improving one’s resume or career profile, and hence more gripping and compelling, and even long-lasting, for it is aligned with the end of God’s astonishing grace itself.
Dr. Seung-Joo Lee (PhD, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) is Academic Support Officer at Reformed Theological College in Melbourne and Ministry Intern at Knox Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia.