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The Three Senses of Theology

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PART ONE: Excerpts from a seminary commencement speech I gave in March this year:


In his short English-language introduction to his four-volume magnum opus, The New Critique of Theoretical Thought, the late Dutch Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweed writes that the Greek philosophers of old were the exact opposite in the extreme sense, disdaining doxa (popular opinion) while holding that true knowledge is philosophic in character. Thus, for them true theological knowledge cannot stoop to the level of faith, denying the possibility of divine revelation. So from the very beginning, there has always been a fraught relationship between theology and philosophy, as Dooyeweerd describes it in his book In The Twilight of Western Thought.

I think what Dooyeweerd, who has championed an integral, biblically directed philosophical prolegomena to all Christian theology, has written about the relationship between philosophy and theology is very relevant to our discussion today. All too often, our failure to understand the historical roots of that problematic relationship has led to much confusion, if not equivocation, in the way we understand “Christian knowledge.” It is important, first of all, what we mean when we speak of theology.

Church Fathers, especially Augustine, rejected the Greek proposition that philosophy, as an independent source of knowledge, can well hold on its own without theology, and in fact, can be an independent source of truth. For them, pagan-inspired philosophy, being full of errors and superstitions, cannot be trusted.

Philosophy can only be the servant of theology – with its own principle of knowledge, namely Scripture – and at the careful control and tending of the latter.

Augustine most of all held to this conviction. And yet, Dooyeweerd explains that it was still the influence of Greek philosophy in Christian theology that however led Augustine to think that theoretical Christian theology is true knowledge of God and true self-knowledge. So for Augustine, theology is true philosophy.

In Aquinas, by Dooyeweerd’s account, Christian philosophy ceased to be identified with theology, as Augustine wanted. Instead, philosophy as an autonomous science is assumed, including a philosophical or natural theology that refers to the natural light of reason alone.

Aristotlean metaphysics from which it is drawn, though now outside the control of Scripture, is accommodated into Christian theology. Thomism assumed that the natural truths of philosophy cannot contradict the supernatural truths of the Christian theology as expressed in doctrines, which are assumed to be supernatural, since they are drawn from divine revelation, and for that matter, are higher than the truths of philosophy.

Thus it is in Aquinas’ Thomism where we got the notion of theology as the Queen of the Sciences, of theology as elevated over all other forms of knowledge. It is also in Aquinas where Christian theology, in the sense of the academic and scientific practice, became identified with sacra doctrina (the doctrine of the Church) and sacra scriptura (the Holy Scriptures).

Three senses and True knowledge of God and of ourselves

How is this so? To understand why, we must acquaint ourselves with the three senses of theology that Dooyeweerd speaks of. The Christian philosopher speaks of the first sense of theology as true knowledge given in regeneration (the central religious orientation of the heart to the true God); Theology in the second sense is that of the church’s confession of faith as expressed in the creeds (a non-theoretical expression); Theology in the third sense is that of theology as an academic or scientific discipline (a field of theoretical study or a special science). So when we speak of the first sense of theology, we speak of the most basic root orientation and direction of all our temporal existence drawn from the word-revelation of the Holy Spirit, which ought to inform the two other senses of theology. Meanwhile, theology in the third academic and scientific sense then springs from a general theoretical view of reality as its presupposition (a philosophical root), whether implicit or expressed.

In Dooyeweerd’s view, academic Christian theology “refers to a theoretical explanation of the articles of faith in their scientific confrontation with the texts of Holy Writ and with heretical views.” In this sense,” he continues,” Christian theology is bound to theoretical human thought which cannot claim the infallibility of God’s Word.” When we say then that every Christian ought to be a “theologian”, it is fundamentally a reference to the first sense, to the fact that we are all religious beings, whose hearts are either oriented to the true God or to something in the created order that in our apostasy, we turn into a god.

We are homo adorans, beings created to worship, in the totality of who and what we are (as opposed to say, the Thomist-Aristotlean construction of the human that stresses on the intellect, hence, on rationality, as its defining characteristic). It is only this sense where we can say that every Christian is a theologian. Stated in another way, true knowledge of God and of ourselves is a true spiritual miracle, being no less than the very gift of God by faith, and not the work of scientific or systematic (i.e., “dogmatic”) theology (theology in the third sense). In true evangelical fashion, we say that we must be born again – like Nicodemus – to truly know God and who we are before him (John 3:1-21).

When the Dutch philosopher speaks of a “radical starting point” for Christian thought, Dooyeweerd really means that point of being “reborn” through the working of the Spirit as the foundation of theoretical thought. True Christian theology (the first sense of theology) is not/cannot be reached through the extensive, academic study of the things of God, or in Aquinas’s term, through the workings of natural reason – of autonomous theoretical thought, that is – or of sacra doctrina itself, apart from regeneration in the Holy Spirit. For human effort through a scientific or systematic investigation of the character of God (theology in the third sense) cannot unlock the mystery of the birth (creation), death (fall) and resurrection (redemption) of Jesus Christ. Only faith as a gift of the Holy Spirit will do for fallen humanity.

Because to do so, in Dooyewerd’s idea, is to make it an autonomous project, the way a certain Aristotelian Thomism would make of natural reason, in the absence of a Reformed doctrine of the total depravity of fallen humanity. The transcendental theoretical critique of theology is precisely this: without Spirit-imparted faith, correct doctrine is nothing but lifeless words.

A person may well have mastered Calvin’s systematic theology and yet remain ignorant of the saving faith the New Testament speaks of. For academic purposes, she may be well versed in the intricacies of the Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion and yet in her heart, remain in the dark about the personal and spiritual implications of the great Genevan theologue’s (or for that matter, of Martin Luther’s) insight that a person is justified by faith, and not by works. Only the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration can impart true knowledge of God in the heart of a person. But not everyone is a theologian in the third sense (a professional or academic theologian).

This then is the paradox of any academic theology (or any theology in the third sense), even one that is by nature orthodox: it may accurately describe all the truths that Scripture teaches and yet may at the same time serve as stumbling block to true knowledge of God and of ourselves. Theology in the second sense of its creedal form may draw from the third sense in a reciprocal relation. That is, academic theology, carried out by believing or confessing theologians, informs and shapes creedal Christianity (theology in the second sense) and deepens our religious commitments (theology in the first sense).

Thus, in our being theologians in the first sense, we draw from theology in the second and third senses in a constant interplay. We need theology in the third sense, yes, to deepen and enrich theology in the first and second senses. But without theology in the first sense, theology in the third sense is vain striving. To explain further, theology in the first sense, anchored on our being homo adorans, is the knowledge of God and of ourselves that happens when we hear and share from the Scriptures, opened in our hearts by the Spirit, and arising from our obedience to Christ in doing the truth. In other words, this is the deepened faith that grips our whole being when we follow Christ in all that we are.

This is why it can happen – as it has indeed happened – that, many a naïve reader of the Bible, by simply being an active part of the church of Jesus Christ, is able to acquire the correct and fruitful use of Scripture, experiencing its profound truths in their everyday life, even without the hermeneutical and theological sophistication of professionals in the field. In the language of the Book of Hebrews that was our Scripture text earlier, they “have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (v. 4-5) and have chosen to be faithful with their Lord and Savior rather than fall away.

This sort of drinking the deep truths of Scripture is not a theoretical endeavor after the manner of academic theologians; this is actually experiencing and living out the truths of Scripture in faith as Christians living together in a community of believers. This is embracing the “Deeper Life” – pursuing together the Lordship of Christ no matter what – in the highs and lows of life, through disappointments, pains, tears, illnesses, and defeats, towards the higher plane of Christian maturity that no amount of academic theorizing can ever accomplish. And yet, even all this, is still the working of God’s grace in the heart of Christians.

Contrast this to many theologians with PhDs from the world’s top universities who somehow manage to dish out absurdities, half-truths and distortions for most of their professional lives, ruining the lives of many in and out of church, and living lives that are unconnected to what they claim is the very subject of their life’s work, namely, God! Nevertheless, the distinction Dooyeweerd makes between and among these three senses of theology may also explain why someone whose heart is totally committed to God may still be working within a theological tradition rooted in unbiblical ultimate commitments.

In fact, Dooyeweerd warns us of the dangers of conflating the Scripture with dogmatic theology (as in the Thomistic sense of theology as sacra doctrina et sacra sciptura):

For dogmatic theology is a very dangerous science. Its elevation to a necessary mediator between God’s Word and the believer amounts to idolatry and testifies to a fundamental misconception concerning its real character and position. If our salvation be dependent on theological dogmatics and exegesis, we are lost. For both of them are a human work, liable to all kinds of error, disagreement in opinion, and heresy.

The philosopher-theologian James K.A. Smith, in his book engaging the Cambridge Radical Orthodox theologians, asks the following questions, drawing from this Dooyeweerdian insight on theology as an academic discipline:

Is Christian faith to be equated with Christian theology? Is Christian revelation to be equated with theology? Is Christian confession theological in a scientific sense? How are we to do justice to the ‘sense of the faithful’ if Christian faith is collapsed with Christian theology? Must every Christian be a scientist in this respect?

Smith’s questions posed in 2004 and Dooyeweerd’s before him, are ever relevant.

…..

 

The image used in this post was taken from here.

Written by Romel

May 28, 2018 at 11:44 pm

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