Part One - A People Without 'Laity and Clergy': Chapter 1 - Doing People Theology
Beyond Unapplied Theology
“To most ordinary people formal academic theology seems abstracted from life, a matter lamented by Lesslie Newbigin who notes how the work of scholars makes it appear to the ordinary Christian that no one untrained in their methods can really understand anything the Bible says. ‘We are,’ he says, ‘in a situation analogous to the one about which the great Reformers complained…’ What would recovering a theology for the whole people of God mean?” (10)
This is the question Stevens explores in this second section of Chapter 1. He offers three major observations.
First, Stevens points out that we have come to perceive theology as a “delivery mechanism.” We persuade people of the truth and then of their need to act on it. You learn the theory, bank up some knowledge, and then go out and apply it.
Stevens argues for joining doctrine and ethical practice. “The only theology that is truly Christian is one that has been applied…” and you can’t truly do theology without engaging yourself in the love of God and neighbor. Stevens points out that the Hebrew word for ‘know” and for ‘intercourse’ are the same word and it is only at this relationally intimate level that we can truly do theology.
Second, Stevens observes that the split between theory and practice has been a relatively recent development. He summarizes a concern of Ellen Charry by saying, “She calls for a recovery of ‘sapience’ – engaging God in love so that knower and known are connected emotionally, something largely lost in modernity when theology became the intellectual justification of the faith.” (11) Stevens says that theology in the primitive Church, up until the twelfth century, “…related to practical issues and questions arising from the liturgy and life of the people of God. It was a practical habitus – the disposition of the soul, lived truth, phronesis – practical wisdom. It did not separate theory and practice."
Beginning with Aquinas, theology become increasingly speculative and dominated by rational formulae. Theology began to fracture into systematic theology, applied theology, ethics, missiology and other sub-topics. It largely took theology out of the hands of the people. One impetus of the Reformation was to restore theology to the people. (Stevens quotes Luther “True theology is practical … speculative theology belongs to the devil in hell.” (14)) However, Stevens says the divide between moral theology and pastoral theology was made by the eighteenth century and by the nineteenth century “…clerical captivity of applied theology was almost complete.”
Third, Stevens points to signs that we are recovering the idea of theology as phronesis – practical wisdom. He points to the emergence of the liberation theologians and their attempts to “live” their way into a new theology instead of “thinking” their way into a new theology. Without necessarily endorsing all that these theologians stood for, this aspect of their communities is evidence of people beginning to reorient theology in this way. Stevens asks:
If all the disciplines of the theological academy were consistently taught in the direction to which the Bible points – faith active in love – with theory and practice interdependently linked, rather than merely placed in a linear way, would there be any need for a separate discipline called applied theology? (15)
In short Stevens says that a theology that is for the People of God “…explains and empowers the life of the ordinary believer in the world. …it sees acts of faith as not only applying but discovering doctrine.” (15-16)
It strikes me that these issues are at the very heart of the Emerging Church conversation. When I look at the state of most congregations and Christians in our culture, no matter what the stripe, I think it is this disconnect between “theory and practice” or “knowing and doing,” that has delivered theology into the hands of a caste of “degreed” Christians and devastated the effective witness of the Church in our world.
What do you think?