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Good Theology

"Our worship is not a stage show" -- St. John Chrysostom

By Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Special to Virtueonline
September 28, 2021

Good theology is both an art and a science. Mastery of all those elements which stand behind theology is indispensable, but it isn't everything. Discernment is also required. Discernment rests upon a clear understanding of the harmonious combination of various theological precepts into a single design. It requires nuance and sensitivity; an almost inborn feeling for the field. Feelings, however, will remain unproductive unless sound judgement is also applied. In other words, feelings and discernment have to mature into knowledge and there are few shortcuts. For this reason, there are no born masters of theology; but education, both self-education and the more formal process, may lead, in time, to some mastery of the subject, or at least the ability to discuss some aspects of theology without embarrassment.

Just as there are no born masters of theology, there are also no born teachers of theology. Now, I understand that there are those who will describe someone as a "gifted teacher". Most of the time, however, they are usually saying that the person in question is a charismatic speaker. That is, they hold people's attention while they are speaking. They tell funny stories that are memorable. They may even be able to move people to tears. We might, however, pause and consider that these are the qualities of a performance, and there is a difference between a performer and a teacher. A performer need not have the qualities of discernment, judgement, education and knowledge mentioned above. It is enough for a performer to have a feeling for the task and the charisma to hold his or her place on the platform. As this is all that is required, such persons often have little background in the actual discipline of theology as it has been understood throughout two thousand years of church history.

Yet, the issue of confusing performance with the teaching of theology has, I believe, impoverished many Christian communities in a variety of ways. Chief among these is a lack of theological engagement by the laity. Yes, I know that there might be engagement on the level of hymns and worship choruses, but I'm talking about long term theological engagement and growth. I was recently reminded of a very obvious fact about the early church that is easy to forget. Ignatius, Clement, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Cyprian, Athanasius, Basil, Ambrose, Augustine and most of the rest of the early church fathers were pastors of congregations. They were not in some rarified solitary state spending their time thinking great thoughts and writing. In fact, much of what they wrote was in response to the concerns and questions of their congregants. Theirs were theological dialogues of depth and beauty that involved and engaged the laity.

It is estimated that Augustine delivered some 8,000 sermons over the course of a long life. Over 400 of these sermons have come down to us. He speaks to the congregation and about his congregation, their questions, their concerns. It is probable that only about ten percent of his hearers were literate. Nonetheless, week by week, year by year, Augustine poured out a wealth of theological insight. His was not a performance. Augustine used his sermons to engage his congregation and to truly teach. He realized, along with the other church fathers, that the task of theology required participation in the life, sacraments and liturgy of the Church.

Performance is not participation. Good theology requires something more than feelings.

Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
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