On Doing Theology

If you want to learn to play football, at some point you have to touch a football.  Golf, tennis, chess, writing, mathematics, or any other human activity - to learn it, you have to actually do it.  Can we learn anything real without actual practice?

The prevailing method of those called theologians today is speculation and clever reasoning, not learning by doing, which is discipleship.  According to those who know it best - Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets of Israel - discipleship, or in modern terms, apprenticeship, is the only way to know God, that is, the only way to do theology.  Whatever we profess about the Bible, Tradition, or whatever else that we think matters, and however right we may be, when we do our theology by abstract speculation and clever reasoning rather than action, we reject the witness of God and all those whom He has sent.  Rightly did one of the Fathers call this method  "the theology of demons," in keeping with James 2:19.  That this kind of theology serves no pastoral  purpose in any congregation, never healing anyone, never actually making disciples, confirms this Patristic judgment.  The tree is known by its fruit.  Indeed, they testify against themselves that God has given them nothing to say by stealing their words from one another, since they are not getting them from God, seeking to impress us with this hollowness by properly footnoting it.

Jesus rejoiced and thanked his Father that He has "hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes."  Since they were revealed to Jesus, it follows that Jesus was, and is forever, one of these babes.  If Jesus received the kingdom of God, which seems obvious, then he did so by becoming like a little child (Mark 10:15), and so we need not be ashamed to do likewise.

Babies don't study things by speculating and reasoning abstractly about them and quoting one another's books.  A baby studies it by grabbing it and putting it in his mouth.  The bread and wine of the Lord's supper drive home to us that we come to know God by eating him, by putting him in our mouth.  If the rest of the week we treat God as an abstraction instead of putting him in our mouths, "tasting and seeing that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:3), we make the Eucharist of no effect, in the same way that we profane our baptism if we live as though our life is in this present world.

Since he is rightly called in Eastern Christianity Saint John the Theologian, let's consider what John the apostle says in his first letter about doing theology (1 John 1:1-4):

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands have handled, concerning the word of life - and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us - what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.  And these things we write so that our joy may be made complete.

To have fellowship with someone in ice cream is to eat ice cream together, not for one to eat and the other to get a description of what ice cream is like.  To have fellowship with the apostles in the word of life is to hear, see with our eyes and handle with our hands the word of life just as they did.  Since that is how the apostles learned apostolic doctrine, and it would never have happened otherwise, that's how we have to learn apostolic doctrine.  It's the only way to be an apostolic church, as Christian churches everywhere claim to be.  Nobody really is, because everybody settles for doing without the experience of truth through which the apostles got their doctrine, and so we end up doing without the apostolic doctrine that comes from that experience, no matter what we say.

John in the next few verses tells us where it all starts, which is that since God is light, then to have fellowship with Him means to walk in the light.  And for starters, that means the continual exposure of our sins to that light, which dispels them.  That's how we find out that the light of God is real, and hence that God is real (1 John 1:5-10):

And this is the message which we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.  If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.  If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and the truth is not in us.

It's all about whether we walk in light or in darkness.  If we walk in the light as John the Theologian did, we will practice and teach real theology, as he did.  If we walk in darkness, we lie, and so our theology will be a lie.  If we say that we have no sin, the truth will not be in us, and so our theology will be like us, devoid of truth.  And for sure, our doctrine is to be developed by actual experience and practice of God's presence, not abstract speculation.  A doctrine that is not lived in daily life, and understood through being practiced that way, is certainly not apostolic, if the apostle John is to be believed. Let's see how this works with a few familiar theological questions that the churches have generally disdained to handle in this apostolic manner:

The nature of the Eucharist

Jesus plainly said of the bread and wine of the Eucharist that it is his body and blood.  Roman Catholic theologians have tried to make this precise, and have explained it by inventing a doctrine that the words of institution spoken by the priest bring about this change.  One problem is that this explains nothing - they still give up on how it happens, just saying it's so in some mysterious way.  Another problem, acknowledged by the Vatican in 2001, is that the Assyrian liturgy has no words of institution, and yet the Roman Catholic Church agrees that the bread and wine in this liturgy is truly the body and blood of the Lord.  If it's so without words of institution, then such words are not how it happens.

Many Protestants react against all this by dismissing the elements as merely symbolic, along with the plain sense of what Jesus said, and that makes no sense either, because in that case, why bother?  The lame rationalization that we're to do this ritual just to be obedient is slave's talk, bearing false witness against Jesus who made us friends, not slaves, because he shows us what he is doing.  God never tells us to do anything just to be obedient, because obedience is not for God an end in itself.  God calls us to obey because His word is life, and disobedience is, as Jeremiah said, making broken cisterns that cannot hold water.  Whatever God tells us to do, it's to do good to us.

Bringing our humanity to this question, instead of dry cleverness, makes it simple.  In 2 Samuel 23, David was thirsty, so three of his men broke through the Philistine camp and fetched him water from the well at the gate of Bethlehem.  David said, "Shall I drink the blood of these men who went at the risk of their lives?" and poured it out to the Lord, just as the Law of Moses says to do with blood.  That water was the blood of those men.  In the same way, the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel complained of Jews who were more concerned with a blood spot in an egg than with a blood spot on a dollar bill.  Heschel didn't mean that a chemist would find blood on that bill, but the blood spot is there - as real as it gets - if that dollar is in my hand through the deaths or potential deaths of oppressed people.

If we look at this as human beings instead of trying to devise some precise philosophical explanation, all this is obvious, as it was to Heschel.  A three month old baby who smells Mom's bra knows that that's Mom, with no help from a doctrine of transubstantiation, and he's not fool enough to think it's just symbolic.  The baby has this mystery straight, so that as Jesus said, God has hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes.  Now if we get how this works the way the baby does, we understand where Jesus was coming from in John 6 when he said that we need to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  It becomes clear that we need to profit from the blood of Jesus in the way that David was not supposed to profit from the blood of his men who brought him water at the risk of their lives.  Our real business is with just this question - how do we do that?  Besides learning to receive and pass on the grace of God in this way, what else matters?

The Trinity

Rabbi Shimon Ben-Gamaliel says in the Talmud, "The world stands on three pillars: the truth, the justice, and the peace.  And these three are indeed one.  When justice is served, truth is served, peace is served."  This was no original thought.  The prophet Micah said before him, "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?"  These three are also one, as we discover that "justice" without mercy is injustice, "mercy" without justice is callousness and cruelty to the weak and silent, and that without walking humbly with your God, there is no justice or mercy, because these are not virtues that we attain to by training, but the results of walking in relationship to the just and merciful God.

John the Theologian said that no man has seen God at any time.  We don't see God's essence, as Eastern Christian theologians have emphasized.  We see Him in what He does, in the things He has made (Romans 1:19-20).  If we practice God's attributes, walking humbly with Him, we will understand well enough how He is altogether One, while being manifold like His wisdom.  The understanding that God is looking for is not precision in intellectual formulations but wisdom to walk with God and do His will - just as baseball teams are not looking to explain the physics of how a baseball is tracked and caught, but to hire players who can field the ball.

In Luke 10:25, a theologian asked Jesus, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?"  This is of course what theology is all about - except so far as it relates to this question, nothing else matters.  Jesus answers with the story of the Samaritan who showed compassion, as God does.  Immediately afterward, in the house of Mary and Martha, Mary chooses the one good thing, to listen to the word of God.  The priest and the Levite hurrying to their religious duties, and Martha bustling about to serve, both missed the point.  To stop and show compassion and to sit and listen to the word of God are indeed one, as Rabbi Shimon Ben-Gamaliel might have said.  They are distinct, and yet they are just one thing, the one thing necessary (Luke 10:42).

Through seeing such things and living them, we understand through His attributes how God is both plural and altogether one.  It cannot be explained, but it can be understood as God lives His life in us, divinizing us.  In this is fulfilled the saying of Moses, "Be holy because I am holy," and of Jesus, who said, "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."  If you know that justice, mercy, and walking humbly with God are one thing, that they cannot be done separately, you are living the mystery of the Trinity, and in some degree really understand it.  If not, you don't, no matter how cleverly you think you can explain it.

The Incarnation, God becoming flesh in Jesus

The Iranian proverb says, "To become learned, how easy!  To become human, how difficult!"  No doubt this truth explains why people like to do theology as foolishly and unbiblically as they do, seeking learning rather than humanity, but there's a bigger point.  We who need to become like God need to become human.  These two are indeed one.

Put negatively, our ungodliness is at the same time our inhumanity - at least this is obvious in other people.  People think it's a great problem for Jesus to be both divine and human, and work out all sorts of subtle explanations for how this can be, but come on now!  Who has ever become more like God without becoming more human?  Who has ever become a real man or woman except by becoming more like God?  Divinization, what Eastern Christians call theosis, means to become human just as the Iranian proverb says.  We may not be able to explain how Jesus can be both human and divine, but if we follow God, hearing His voice and doing His will, we can see in ourselves how this works.  The color blue is hard to describe, but we know it when we see it.  Not only can Jesus be both human and divine, our experience confirms in each of us that nothing else is possible.

John writes that the Law came by Moses, but that grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.  Whatever else this means, it means that truth cannot be embodied in statutes and propositions, even if they are true, even if they are from God Himself.  Truth must be embodied in human beings to be revealed at all.  That's why, as I've shown here, so many things are difficult or impossible to explain, but begin to open to us as soon as we come to them as humans.  We know that God became human in Jesus because we see Him laboring to become human in us.

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