Edwards: Theology is for everyone!

I have sometimes talked with people (and have almost agreed on frustrating days) who say that theological study does more to confuse our experience of the "simple love of Jesus" than to edify it. Of course, as I have written before on this blog, even the idea of "simple love of Jesus" is filled to the overflow with theological assumptions that are either sound or not. So theology seems to be necessary, after all - "understanding" cannot really be separated from "faith." All of us think certain things about God that shape how we believe in him (or don't believe in him). As someone said "You are already a theologian, what are you doing to become a good one?"

Jonathan Edwards addresses this issue with precision (of course) with his sermon
The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth (a VERY 18th century title, don't you think?).

He essentially argues that of all creatures humans alone have been given the higher rational powers of learning and understanding. And that God intends us to use those powers. And that the study of divinity/theology - the things of God - is the highest employment we can give to those faculties. This is indeed part of what we were intended to be as humans. I commend this (really really ridiculously long) sermon to you.

I think it is noteworthy that Edwards seems to assume that rational analysis of the Bible, comparing texts, will lead to a right understanding of the Scripture - this is a hallmark of the Reformed tradition. I think it can also be a deficiency because it ultimately makes the meaning of Scripture more or less up to individual reasoning. Granted, we expect the Spirit to guide that individual - but lots of "Spirit-led" individual interpretations have contradicted one another, and surely the "Spirit is not the author of confusion"? On the other hand our Wesleyan/Anglican tradition (with others) emphasizes the role of the Tradition of the whole Church, along with Reason, in helping to interpret Scripture rightly. Of course, Edwards is right that the use of Reason is crucial, but if divorced from Tradition it must inevitably lead to individualistic readings of Scripture.

Edwards rightly emphasizes the connection between "speculative" theology and "practical" or "experiencial" theology - that the two should not ever be separated. I am told that in the Eastern Orthodox tradition there are but three "canonical theologians" (or "divines"): St. John "the Divine," St. Gregory of Naziansus "the Theologian," and St. Symeon "the New Theologian." They are men not only of extraordinary insight into the mysteries of God, but also of exemplary holiness. Indeed in Orthodoxy one cannot even be a "theologian" at all if one does not have experiencial knowledge of God and personal holiness.

Along with Orthodoxy (which has four "great doctors" among its saints: Athanasius, Gregory, Basil, and Chrysostom), the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions also pick up this idea of the "doctors" of the Church - theologians of extraordinary insight and holiness. The Wesleyan tradition also emphasizes the importance of experience - and not any experience but most especially that of justification and sanctification, that is, Christian experience - as a part of our doing theology (see 2004 Discipline, para. 104, esp. page 77). So we are all agreed with Edwards that in some sense, a "theologian" (or perhaps we should say "a good theologian" or "a Christian theologian" - recognizing that everyone engages in some thought about God, though not all love him, which is the concern of Edwards and the Church) should be characterized by holy and God-focused living.

All of these traditions of the One Church, stand over against the peculiarly modern habit (especially associated with Mainline Protestants and Catholics in the West) of recognizing "doctors" as "theologians" sheerly on the basis of (perhaps even secular?) academic credentials and the number of publications to their credit. As if these of themselves gave much insight into one's knowledge of or life with Holy God. So in the theology sections of popular bookstores I can read what "theologians" are saying about "the historical Jesus," without any glimpse of the holiness of their own lives.

Edwards on the other hand, along with the greater part of the Christian Tradition, teaches that one who would be a Christian theologian must have both intellectual and experiential knowledge of the love of God - the two go together. So Edwards urges all who would know God (experiencially) to apply themselves diligently to study the things of God (divinity) - even the slightest nuance of theology, he says, is important and God has revealed not a single word of superfluity in Scripture. And he is certain that all we learn can and must impact our actual practice as Christians.

And we have more access to study these things than ever before! Edwards says to his own flock: "We are in some respects under far greater advantages for gaining knowledge, now in these latter ages of the church, than Christians were formerly; especially by reason of the art of printing, of which God hath given us the benefit, whereby Bibles and other books of divinity are exceedingly multiplied, and persons may now be furnished with helps for the obtaining of Christian knowledge, at a much easier and cheaper rate than they formerly could."

In a world filled with Christian bookstores, websites, and theology blogs, how much more do we have access to "advantages for gaining knowledge"? All of us have access to the resources and the Spirit to become good theologians (knowers of God) in our own lives. Let us strive to do so.

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Anonymous Brandon said...

Nice post on the topic. The Anglican "three-legged stool" and Wesleyan Quadrilateral were the two items that my grandfather, a Methodist bishop in Malaysia taught me when I was younger. I didn't realize the importance of them both until I was older and a member of my local Methodist church.

As for here in Australia, there still are some independent Methodist congregations around (such as the Wesleyan Church in Australia and my own denomination, the Chinese Methodist Church in Australia, which started off as a provisional conference underneath one of the five Malaysian conferences of the Methodist Church of Malaysia).

A lot of Methodist churches here in Australia joined with most (but not all) Congregational and Presbyterian churches to form the Uniting Church of Australia. In essence a bit like yours in the US where UMC was formed from a number of different denominations.

On a last note, thanks for visiting my blog!

Pax in +

1:14 AM, February 12, 2007  

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