The Bible is theological

A response to ‘Is theology biblical?’ by Will Braun (Dec. 17, page 14)

January 2, 2013 | Viewpoints
By Ramon Rempel |

In our denomination we give less and less attention to the practice of theology. One wonders why. Perhaps it is because we falsely believe theology to be a strictly “academic” activity separate from church life (when in fact churches have been sorting out what it means to follow God from the beginning). Almost certainly the reason falls out of a false dichotomy between head and heart.

One could claim that we still take theology seriously, as it is primary in the training of our leaders and young people, but I can say from personal experience that teaching theology to young people gets harder by the year. Most want to feel religion, not think about it.

What is theology anyway? I will spare you the trite move of giving a dictionary definition. As one who has read the Bible and gone to church for most of my life, it seems to me that theology is nothing more than the active discernment, made in critical dialogue with others, of God and God’s will for his creation. Yes there are those who focus on this their whole lives in an academic setting, but the preacher on any Sunday is engaged in this—as indeed every Christian should be. It is not the only part of worship but it is an inseparable part of worship.

When I was a teenager, I had little time for thinking about the church. I did what I wanted and I thought I had it all figured out. I told my mom this and she said (in English) that I needed theological schooling, namely CMBC. I loved just doing what felt right to me but I came to realize that my mom was right. There is more to life than doing what you feel and that hearing God involves thinking. It is not that the head is more important than the heart, rather I needed to see how the Bible holds head and heart together.

Many Christians are moving away from the unity of head and heart, reflecting the history of Western thought over recent centuries. I hear theology in my church every Sunday but less than I used to and I can’t recall the last time a preacher referred to a theologian in a sermon.

Some may claim that there are different ways of experiencing God of which using the mind is but one. Once more the ugly spectre of the false dichotomy between head and heart is revealed. If, for instance, your experience in Bible college was more about being right than being loving, that is just as much a failure of the mind as anything else (and it was certainly not what I experienced at Bible college). Some music in church I find moving (much I do not) but I have never found that thinking about the words of a song makes it less moving. Much of the Bible is beautifully written and poetic, but I have never found that thinking about what scripture means lessens one’s ability to appreciate its ubiquitous beauty.

Theology is tied closely to the Bible. We are people of the book and one thing the Bible calls us to do repeatedly is to think (debate, discern, dialogue) the faith. We can see examples of this from Moses (Num. 11) through Paul (1 Cor 14).

Thinking about the faith can be challenging. Most worthwhile things are hard. Worship that seeks to eliminate the role of the mind is but worship empty of relevance. This is not to say that all worship must be “academic,” but rather that the choices we make in how we worship are based in an ongoing active community discernment on God’s will for his people.

The worry I have is that a faith without reason is one step from a faith made irrelevant. And this is what I have seen over many years of teaching youth. They want meaning, they long for challenge, they seek ways to use their minds (despite what they sometimes say), and if they don’t find meaning, challenge and a place to use their minds in the church, they will turn elsewhere.

Less reliance on theology does nothing to increase the accessibility of the Bible and faith to those with less intelligence or access to education. Whatever our challenges we are called to bring our strengths and our weaknesses to the church; no matter who we are, we all have gifts for the building up of the church. What less reliance on theology has done is drive the youth out of the church into ways of thought where the role of the mind is respected and greatly diminished their biblical literacy.

I have nothing but respect and admiration for those who dedicate their lives to theology. These men and women are performing a crucial task for the church doing full-time what every Christian should do at least part-time. I suggest we all pay careful attention to how our church leaders are trained, how our children are shaped and how we worship on Sunday. All of this needs to be carefully discerned in our churches with the full engagement of our minds since God is present when we prophecy to each other and when we weigh each other’s prophecy.

Those who think that there is a dichotomy between head and heart need to rediscover the significance of thinking to the church. Despite what they think(!) they are only driving people away with their Colbert-esque desire to “feel” religion from the gut. Do music, beauty and wonder have a place in worship? Of course. But so also does the mind. Let’s have more study in church. Let’s hold the head and the heart together. Let’s witness to the truth of scripture that when we gather to discern, God can speak through anyone in the church.

Ramon Rempel is a member at Charleswood Mennonite Church, and a teacher at Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute in Winnipeg.

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