White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

The Theological Theologian

Published Thursday, November 12, 2020 By Joshua Schendel

When I went off to test myself in the academy, I was full of aspirations of becoming a real scholar: studied, cultured, erudite. But I was not quite so full of intellectual capacity (though I secretly hoped that I would uncover latent capacities with much reading—it didn’t happen; instead I found a quite contrary capacity: with much reading comes much forgetting). What to do in such a situation? How to impress? I quickly learned the academic art of pretense, a part of which includes reading bits and pieces of all those ‘important’ theologians, just enough so that I could hint to those who seemed to be in the know that I, too, knew what should be known by those in the know. I was, as C. S. Lewis put it, chasing the illusory inner ring.

Augustine freed me to read those, and only those if need be, who really helped me to understand. And not only to read bits and pieces, but to ‘spend labor and time’ on them. “No man,” he says in his De Trinitate, “ever so spoke so as to be understood in all things by all men. Let him, therefore, who finds this fault with my discourse, see whether he can understand other men who have handled similar subjects and questions, when he does not understand me: and if he can, let him put down my book, or even, if he pleases, throw it away; and let him spend labor and time rather on those whom he understands…” (I.iii.v)

The late John Webster has been that kind of helpful theologian for me in many areas of my thought (see the wonderful recent tribute to Webster by Michael Allen). One of those areas, it turns out, happens to be on the topic of theological education. I’m not here referring to institutions that carry out that education, nor to the curriculum and order of study undertaken in such institutions—though Webster has important things to say of these both. I am rather referring to the way in which ‘theology becomes theological,’ as Webster put it. We might get at it with a two-fold question put thus: What is the goal of theology, and how do I go about attaining it?

The following engagement with Webster is drawn mostly from essays in his two-volume God Without Measure (here and here)

The Ends of Theology

Webster begins his account of the ends, or goals, of theology with an important distinction, especially in the milieu of much Modern theology: “Ends are not the same as purposes. A purpose is a human intention… An end, by contrast, is not intentional but natural…” (I.218-219). It is commonplace in the modern academy to put theology to a variety of purposes. But these purposes are not the ends of theology. The ends of theology are not derived by what we wish to do with it. Rather, “Christian theology is an intellectual activity with ends which derive from our nature as that nature is caught up in the history of creation, revelation and redemption. These ends are scientific, contemplative and practical; theology with be theological when it makes these ends into its purposes…” (I.219)

What are the scientific, contemplative, and practical ends of theology? In short, to know, to delight, and to worship.

By scientific ends Webster means “the acquisition of that knowledge of [theology’s] matter which is proper to creatures, in accordance with its cognitive principles” (I.219). That is to say, knowledge is an end of theology. Why study but, in the first place, to know? These scientific ends are, however, “instrumental and interim: necessary, but not sufficient or final” (I.219). Knowledge is an end, but not an ultimate end. It is therefore also a means to a further end, namely, contemplation.

 “Contemplation… requires the mind to move through created things to the divine reality of whose self-communication they are signs and bearers. Contemplation is rapt attention to God… This contemplative end of theology expresses a certain teleology of human nature, according to which that nature is completed in knowledge of God” (I.220, emphasis mine). The knowledge of the various subject matter of theology (‘all things in relation to God’) ought to carry the knower to the origin and end of those things, i.e. to God. Thus, when by intellectual acts one comes to know some thing, she does not stop there, but rather takes the further contemplative step of directing attention to the whence and whither of that thing. This includes those ‘things’ which comprise theology’s subject matter.

“As theological intelligence tends to this object, it necessarily gives its attention to interim, mediating matters: Greek syntax, the eschatology of the apostle Paul, the political history of Gregorian reform, practices of Eucharistic presidency. But, however absorbing, such studies are preparatory, contributory or dispositive, serving to conduce the mind to contemplation of the infinite excellence of the divine being.” (I.214)

But neither can contemplation lay claim to the final end of theology, in our pilgrim state at least. Theology has practical ends as well, Webster avers:

“Contemplated truth forms and governs the enactment of our lives, because this truth presents us with the law of our existence… Primarily and principally, theological intelligence intends eternal and necessary truths, by the gift of God penetrating to their depths. But by derivation these truths are regulative, and theological intelligence would have too narrow a view of the interests of faith if it did not also consider the realm of human conduct.” (I.220-221)

Both knowledge and contemplation as intellectual acts lead us to God (theologia ad Deum ducit, as the medieval were fond of saying), but not as mere intellectual assent to a truth. Rather, it leads us to union with God by “way of an active life of holy fellowship with God” (Webster, Holiness, 79, 84-85). The practical end of theology, then, is holiness, without which no one will see God.

This brings us, first, back around to knowledge. These ends of theology ought not be considered so much a rungs on a ladder, one needed in order to reach the other and no longer needed after the other has been reached. These ends are rather more like the three-strand cord, intertwined and mutually reinforcing. For when one grows in holiness, he comes to know God better, and so has that better to contemplate, and so understands the law of his being and the beauty of holiness still further, and so on.

This brings us, second, to the kind of person a theologian is, or, is becoming.

The Virtues of Theology’s Practitioners

It is in light of these ends that the requisite, dispositive virtues of the theologian are best seen. For the person who moves through the processes of coming to know, contemplating, and offering obediential worship needs to be a kind of person. Or, better, needs to be a person who, being caught up in the sanctifying work of the Spirit, cultivates certain moral and intellectual virtues. Theology is not simply ‘thinking right thoughts’ but attention of renewed intelligence to the God who “gives to us the law of our existence.” Those who practice theology aright, then, are those who abide by the law God gives by the grace that he gives.

In his writings, Webster highlighted a number of “personal graces” that the theologian ought to exhibit. Here I’ll look at three in particular that helped me think through the difference between theological education and pretense.

Courage, Webster says, which is a “firmness of mind exercised in relation to difficulties which engender fear” (II.92), ought to be cultivated by the theologian. This is because, at base, courage is a love, properly ordered and governed. It is a love of real life, the life that is promised to those who come to God by faith. On the one hand, the theologian might be tempted in the face of external threat to draw back from theology’s proper ends or the pursuit of them in the proper way. On the other hand, the theologian may be tempted to be brash and audacious, so is reckless where “calm, truthful apprehension of the good and its opponents” is required (II.95-96).

Patience is also required of the theologian. Following a traditional taxonomy of the virtues, Webster says patience is a part of the virtue courage. It is courage “in its negative and primary mode of endurance” (II.97-102). Considered in itself, “patience is that excellence of character by which, for the sake of some good end, we tolerate difficulties and encounter obstacles to present happiness with equanimity, collectedness and steadiness of purpose” (II.176). Patience, coupled with humility, are the antidote to the kind of academic pretense that captures so many a budding theologian.

Studiousness is a part of “learning under the Spirit’s tutelage,” and “refers to the activity of the well-ordered creaturely intellect in coming-to-know” (The Domain of the Word, 193-194). “Studiousness involves earnest, arduous application of the mind. It is not passive or indolent or unfocused but eager, concentrated, taking pains to acquire knowledge” (ibid, 194). This is in contrast with the intellectual vice of curiosity, which “terminates on surfaces” (196). The theologian will practice studiosity, Webster says, by cultivating temperance, which is a fruit of the Spirit’s work of regeneration and sanctification whereby our desires in the realm of the intellect are properly ordered (199).

A fuller sketch of the moral and intellectual virtues requisite for a theologian would require a larger list than here given. However partial, what these essays from Webster helped me to see, among many other things, is that the ends of theology and the way of achieving those ends are bound up together. If one’s purpose of ‘studying’ theology is to appear scholarly and erudite among one’s fellows, that has implications for the kind of person one needs to be and will become in order to attain that goal. If the end of theology is properly understood—to know God and all things in him, and to love God and all things for him—this too has implications for the kind of person one needs to be and will become in order to attain that goal.

All this is to say that in the process of theological education, no less than in the Christian life more generally, the Christian, being caught up in the Triune work of reconciliation, must practice the mortification of the old nature and the vivification of the new. This is important not only for the theologian to remember about himself or herself. It is also important for the theologian to remember this about others. Theology is a process for the theologian – ‘theology becomes theological,” Webster says, as the theologian undergoes the process of sanctification wrought be the Spirit (God Without Measure, I.215, emphasis original). Let us so pray and work that we, the theologians, also become theological.

Joshua Schendel, PhD, is the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine and an author at Conciliar Post. He lives with his beloved wife, Bethanne, and three children in Southern California.