What’s the Point of Christian Theology?- Or, Why Theology isn’t About Making Us Better People

N.b. This piece is specifically about the potential purpose of practising philosophical theology as a Christian- I think former Orielenses Tara Burton has written about as good a piece as could be written about the purpose of theology from a secular point of view!

I enjoyed reading Edward Brook’s very well written post on the purpose of philosophical theology (even though it’s confusing to have more than one Ed). I think the general direction is probably good. There is one key point, however, which seems to me to be off the mark- one which then determines the understanding of the whole piece. That point is the understanding of what constitutes the ‘ethical’ aspect of knowledge of God, in the Biblical sense.

Edward writes that the goal of theology is the knowledge of Jesus Christ. He also writes (absolutely correctly, I think) that there is no reason to suppose that propositional knowledge does not have ‘ethical’ aspects, and so no reason to unconditionally denigrate what we try to say in relation to God’s revelation in the name of what we can supposedly know but not say. In virtue of this, the aim of theology is not just a sparse knowledge of Christ- it is ‘to know Jesus Christ and the fullness of eschatological life in him.’ This ethical aspect, this fullness of eschatological life, is described as ‘personal, participatory knowledge of God- friendship with God that results in moral transformation.’

Now: I do indeed believe that the aim of Christian theology is necessarily active- that is to say, that it must concern what we do, how we live, who we are (I would say existential, but I’m no fan of the word or its broader implications. I also don’t say ethical, because I’m pretty sure Christian doctrine can’t be used to ground specific logical-ethical principles). I also believe, however, that if this active end is described in terms of moral transformation then we have made a dangerous error; that if the active aspect of Christian knowledge is understood as the moral transformation of the knower, we have a) cast the human individual- not Jesus Christ- as the end of God’s grace, and b) given a false account of what it is to exist as an individual in Christian faith. I’m going to try and explicate this belief, and why it is troubling. I will then try to describe a view according to which the active aspect of theological doctrine is the clear articulation of confession, not (in any sense) the moral transformation of the subject. In virtue of this, I will claim that the final aim of Christian theology is not knowledge of Christ (whether propositional or experiential), but the clear communication of Christian faith through word and deed. I do not believe that this is incompatible with the bulk of Edward’s post- in fact, I hope that it is actually a more consistent rubric within which to understand the relationship of analytic methods to mystery.

Over the course of writing this post, it became apparent that to argue each of the points which must be argued would make it absurdly long. Given that I have problems with length at the best of times, I decided to structure this post as the skeleton of a proposal- describing the basic thoughts, but not properly arguing them (or, in many places, citing their origin). I’ll then try to write individual posts on each of the points which clearly require argument and elucidation, breaking up the whole to make it slightly more readable. I hope that this is ok- even though it leaves a whole lot of potential logical gaps open in this piece!

The Individual as the End of Revelation

The first objection to the idea that the active aspect of systematic Christian theology is constituted by the moral transformation of the human individual is that it identifies that individual as the end of God’s grace. Now, what could be problematic about this? After all, didn’t Christ come to save sinners? And aren’t sinners individuals? Shouldn’t knowledge of God effect a new birth, a new being in the believer? And shouldn’t this new being be a morally superior one? Should it not render faithful Christians dead to sin?

All of these things are true. The problem (as usual, I think) is not the truth of linguistic statements, however- it is the conditions according to which we suppose those statements to have the sense under which they are true. I believe that there are at least three conditions according to which we have to understand the sense of these statements which, taken together, render it impossible to understand their truth as entailing that the end of God’s revelation (and so the end of the interpretation and proclamation of that revelation) is the moral transformation of the individual. The first is the fact that Christ’s mission is stated in terms of the whole of creation, and that this creation cannot be understood as a collection of discrete and self-subsisting individuals. The second is that ‘newness of being’ is to be understood in terms of relation to the divine, not essence or character (and so not in terms of a substantial transformation)- that though the term ‘sinner’ is to be understood as a necessary predicate of human being, this is not due to intrinsic nature or essential qualities, but a relationship between God and creation which, though not absolute, it is not within human power to change. The third is that sin is not to be understood as a moral term (in terms of either character or conduct) and redemption is not to be understood as an alteration in moral standing- to such an extent that, running according to a particular strand of reformed thought, neither Christian knowledge nor the practise which follows from it are to be understood within moral categories.

In virtue of the first condition, the redemption of the individual in creation cannot be understood apart from the redemption of the context within which that individual exists and which determines the individual’s existence- meaning that the redemption of individual persons is not the final goal of God’s revelation. In virtue of the second, the form of this redemption cannot be understood as an essential transformation, on either a moral or a substantive level. In virtue of the third, whatever difference is effected by knowledge cannot be understood as a difference in moral nature (whether this be the moral value of actions or persons). Taking all together, the end and effect of God’s revelation cannot be the moral transformation of the human individual, and so this cannot be a determining aspect of the purpose of theology.

If we ignore these conditions, meanwhile, it seems to me that we move the focus of theology away from Jesus Christ to the moral character of individual human beings. This can first ground (and does ground) an overly individualistic picture of the point of Christian living, one which is focussed on the supposed purity of human conduct. The practical effects of this view are made evident in the German Pietism of the 1920s, in the inconsequential niceness and religious wooliness of much of 20th Century Anglicanism, and the neo-Puritanism of stereotypical American fundamentalism. It can then lead (and does lead) to a reading back of human moral categories onto Jesus Christ himself, categories which especially distort the content of God’s revelation through Him so as to resemble the prevailing sensibilities of the day. Though some such reading back is ultimately unavoidable (there is no ‘pure’ reading of Scripture), there is no reason to therefore give up on attempting to limit it.

The Truth of Christian Existence

The second objection is simpler, and largely follows from the above- it is that to say the effect of personal knowledge of God is the moral transformation of the individual gives a false account of the reality of Christian existence. The argument is that there is no reason to suppose- and every reason to reject- the idea that Christians are better people for their knowledge of God, in any sense (even and especially what we might call ‘good’ Christians). The argument to be given here is both theoretical and empirical. On the theoretical side, it is derived from how Scripture describes the encounter of peoples with God’s revelation. On the empirical side, it is derived from an analysis of the character of Christians and Churches over time- not, moreover, those who can be pointed to as examples of ‘bad’ Christianity, but those we might want to point towards as exemplars. The argument is that even a saint is not made more moral, or in any way less by their relationship with God. Presenting moral transformation as following from Christian faith, meanwhile, provides a good ground for a pejorative disillusionment, accusations of hypocrisy, and pride (either in the form of self-approbation, when we think we are better for our faith, or self-despair, when we fears that we have no faith because we are not better).

Confession and Proclamation

Instead of moral transformation, I would argue that the active aspect of Christian theology can be better understood in terms of confession. Confession here is understood as the active acknowledgement of the truth of a given belief. Christian confession is an acknowledgement of the truth of God’s revelation- that Jesus Christ became incarnate, died, and rose again. Acknowledgement of a truth is understood as a process with practical and intellectual aspects, and in a specifically Christian content, acknowledgement is a matter of faith (both human and divine). It thus has serious implications for how to live one’s life, but these implications are not grounded in a supposed personal transformation.

Under this view, the active goal of Christian theology is thus (to paraphrase Anselm and a whole lot of other people) to try and understand God’s revelation so as to better understand these practical and intellectual aspects- not the attainment of new knowledge, then, but the clearer understanding of a belief held in faith (and so treated as grounding knowledge). This understanding is not an end in itself, however: understanding is not the final goal of theology, but a means to a broader end- the active, clear, and integral proclamation of the object of this faith over the course of human life (in both word and deed, if that needs to be added).

Finally, all this self-evidently involves the formulation of propositions. It also involves a critical analysis of those propositions, in order to try and ensure that we communicate as clearly and accurately as possible what we are hoping to communicate. A significant part of this, however, is recognising that the propositions formulated are not themselves the God’s revelation- rather, they are our confessed human responses to that revelation. Of course, we try to ensure that those responses are true to the revelation itself, and of course we try to ensure that they point to the revelation, but they are not themselves that revelation. The point here- and one which I think shows how an understanding of the end of theology impacts an understanding of the purpose of analytic methods in the theological sphere- is that we do not protect and clarify the meaning of the revelation itself: we try to clarify our understanding and our responses to that revelation, through which we then attempt to confess its truth. This of course entails trying to understand what God is saying through Jesus Christ- but at the end of the day, we are analysing human words and deeds, not divine ones. We cannot analyse the divine Word: we can simply hope that our analysis of the human words and deeds through which we try to articulate that Word to others might be directed towards the love of God and neighbour.

(P.s. The idea above, of confession, is not in the least bit incompatible with the idea that personal knowledge of God can effect personal transformation. That is not rejected because confession might be a better model. I also don’t think that much of the last section contradicts much of what Edward wrote- at least, I hope not, as I broadly agree with him.)

 

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6 thoughts on “What’s the Point of Christian Theology?- Or, Why Theology isn’t About Making Us Better People

  1. I have a lot of sympathy with your emphasis on the need to understand the transformation of believers through the concepts of faith and confession rather than moral categories, but I’m not sure that some of the claims that you object to are that problematic in this regard. Basically, I’m not sure why it’s an issue to say that the relationship with God (participation? Friendship?) results in a personal transformation which has a moral aspect, emphasising that this is a result or fruit of the relationship, not its basis. Even if sin is understood as a relational category in the sense you mean, this does not necessarily mean that a change in our relation to God would not produce changes that could be considered personal, and described in moral categories. I don’t want to say by this that there is an empirical test by which you could tell that someone was a Christian by their moral improvement: perhaps it has more to do with a change in the basis for a person’s actions, but this can still be considered a moral concern.

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  2. Yeah, there’s no proper argument to actually say why these things would be problematic- I started writing them, and it became apparent the post would’ve ended up at close to 7,000 words, if not more! So, the job now is to write specific posts on why I find the use of ‘transformation’ and ‘moral’ so problematic… Not that that would stretch people’s interest at all 😛

    (I will say that I absolutely don’t think there is no personal *change* associated with Christian confession- but I think that to refer to this change as transformation, and to make the fact of change itself the centre of the active aspect of Christian doctrine, is problematic/inaccurate.)

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  3. Hi Ed,

    Thanks for this. I am looking forward to reading your more detailed reflections. A few thoughts in response below.

    All best,

    (the other) Ed

    1. Of my post, you write, “This ethical aspect, this fullness of eschatological life, is described as ‘personal, participatory knowledge of God- friendship with God that results in moral transformation.’” I might well have been unclear in the post but I didn’t mean to conflate these positions in quite the way you assume.

    For a definition of true theology, I am happy with this from Polanus:

    True theology is ‘the knowledge (scientia) or wisdom (sapientia) concerning divine things, divinely revealed, for the glory of God and the salvation of rational creatures.’

    On this position the ultimate goal of theology is the glory of God, the intermediate goal is the salvation of man. (I think there is more to say about the particular role of academic theology here but that will have to wait.)

    My emphasis on ‘the fullness of eschatological life’ wasn’t spelt out in the post but it was intended as a way of including the cosmic scope of salvation through Christ as in Colossians 1:15-23. Another way of putting this would be in terms of life in the kingdom of God.

    2. Having said that, I am happy with the idea that friendship with God results in moral transformation. Reading through Romans, it seems pretty clear to me that the obedience that comes from faith (Romans 1:5) has a clear ethical dimension to it. I agree with Emily’s comment at this point and look forward to your more detailed argument.

    In particular, you say that, ‘Christian doctrine can’t be used to ground specific logical-ethical principles.’ What do you mean?

    3. You write that, ‘If the active aspect of Christian knowledge is understood as the moral transformation of the knower, we have a) cast the human individual- not Jesus Christ- as the end of God’s grace, and b) given a false account of what it is to exist as an individual in Christian faith.’

    I don’t take myself to have been arguing that the active aspect of knowledge is moral transformation. I think knowledge of God (I take the NT to be working with the OT category) holds together (without confounding) intellectual and volitional and emotional aspects. I don’t think intellectual and ethical can be divided neatly in terms of passive and active. The work of the Spirit needs to come into the conversation here also.

    4. Reading your pt. 2 which elaborates your concern regarding individual salvation, I think you have in your sights a position that isn’t mine. Or do you think that the kind of individualism that you critique is a necessary entailment of my view?

    5. Regarding proclamation/confession vs transformation, I don’t get your concern with transformation. Clearly transformation needs to be specified but if we are talking in terms of transformation as an eschatological category (realised in a now and not-yet sense) as the perfecting of the image of God in humanity conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ and the renewal of creation in the kingdom of God, please could you elaborate on your concern?

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  4. Ed 1,

    1. That makes plenty of sense, and I think is less to do with the post being unclear than just being short, and not really focussed on that side! I was relatively conscious writing that I may well have been a) attributing a view to the piece which you don’t actually hold, and b) attributing entailments to that view which you wouldn’t. It was certainly clumsy to link the fullness of eschatological life and the ethical aspect so thoroughly in my reading!

    2. Will try to make the pretty sparse statements above more clear on both points- and think that Romans would probably be a fruitful point around which to centre discussion specifically around the extent to which obedience relates to ethics- which is in part semantic nit-picking, but to my mind has important consequences for how we conceive of Christian living.

    3. Aye, the shift in terminology there is a bit confusing- and I should find something better than ‘active’. I completely agree about the impossibility of neat division; but that agreement is probably clouded by the use of the term ‘aspect’. I’m trying to use the term to refer that in a given thing which can be spoken of according to a particular sense (here, active) without implying any division within the thing itself (sort of how I take Davidson to use the terms ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ when laying out his anomalous monism). Even then it’s not a matter of neatness ofc- and I’d certainly agree that ‘intellectual’ and ‘ethical’ wouldn’t map onto ‘passive’ and ‘active’. I’m with Barth on the idea that dogmatic utterances are intrinsically ethical, in a number of senses.

    And yes, the work of the spirit very much needs to come in here.

    4. No, I don’t think individualism is necessarily entailed by your view- and was again conscious that you’d never used the term ‘individual’ in your piece. That was more a case of trying to pre-emptivelt cover all the bases possible, in case it was included in your view (and also because, in writing against the centrality of moral transformation, individualism does often go hand in hand with it!). Entirely agree that nothing you write entails individualism, and hope it was worth broaching anyway (will add a note on that above!).

    5. I tried to say this in the post-script, but should have made it clear- I don’t actually think confession and transformation stand in an exclusive relationship to each other. It’s entirely plausible to agree with confession as I’ve described it above and include within it the understanding of transformation I’m looking to reject. Preferring confession as a broader rubric isn’t a reason to reject the idea of moral transformation, then- the reasons for that, if they hold, are independent!

    Hope those are semi-decent answers! Will try to put some worthwhile stuff out actually trying to substantiate the above…

    Ed 2.

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