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Theological Competence

After shamelessly soliciting friends for comments on this blog, I received an email from someone, who wrote,

I have given [your blog] a read-through. I did enjoy it. I had planned on making a comment. The thing is… I don’t think I write NEARLY well enough to appear… I fear any comment I make would look stupid. Besides the fact, I am not nearly well-read enough to be intelligent on any of your points. In short – I really don’t wish to sound like an idiot. I have gotten so accustomed to it, that I really am becoming quite bored of it.

Thank you for your interest, O Mr. or Mrs. emailer who shall remain anonymous. The funny thing is that I have exactly the same fear with nearly every blog post or comment I make. I think it has to do with the competence we feel we have in the things we talk about.

I think it is interesting to observe the process of developing competence in something. There are at least four distinct levels of competence:

  1. Incompetence – You have no idea how much there is in a particular discipline that you do not know, so you refrain from commenting.
  2. Pseudo-competence – You have started to learn something about the discipline, and in beginning to interact with it you make a lot of mistakes. You can easily become impressed with yourself in how much you know. “A little knowledge in the wrong hands can be dangerous.”
  3. Semi-competence – You now know enough to get around in the discipline, and perhaps more important, you know what you don’t know, so that you can keep yourself from making major gafaws.
  4. Full competence – You know what you’re doing. Rather than seeming impressive, knowledge of the discipline is taken for granted.

Ironically, those who care least about looking stupid are generally those at level two. It is most enlightening to watch them, especially when the interact with people at level four. I remember when my daughter was learning to read, she was especially excited that she could recognize the name of our town, “Delafield.” Every time we would pass a Delafield sign in the car, I knew she would demonstrate her knowledge and let us know where we were. It was cute at first, but after twenty-five times it gets a little old.

I remember a time working in a printship when a woman with a church background wanted to demonstrate her competence in the Bible. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but she said something like, “There’s a verse in Thessalonians, I think, about how God works all things together for good.” I have so many things I wanted to respond: Did you know there’s more than one book of Thessalonians?; The verse you have in mind is in Romans; the reference is 8.28; and the verse goes on to say ‘for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purposes.’ Moreover, I don’t think any of that knowledge is particularly impressive (other than maybe knowing chapter and verse), but I assume it is just base-level knowledge for anyone who knows the Bible.

In learning foreign languages, it seems that one or two semesters generally gets someone to level two; it takes three or four semesters to get to level three; and real competence is only developed by lots of practice in actually using the language.

The biggest danger, for me anyway, is assuming that competence in one area transfers to competence in another. I remember what a paradigm shift it was for me when I learned that competence in the Bible did not transfer into competence in New Testament scholarship. More recently I learned that competence in the American Evangelical sub-culture is quite different from competence in Christian theology.

As a theoblogger, I hope I have moved from pseduo-competence into semi-competence. That means I’m just now becoming somewhat confident in my use of standard academic and theological vocabulary, concepts, and arguments. For those who in either category one or four, the usage of this language can seem pompous and obnoxious. But for those of us who are seeking to gain competence, we’re just trying to make sure we are able to talk the talk.

In the meantime, no matter what level of theological competence you may be at, please please PLEASE do not feel you cannot leave comments here. We are all friends here. 🙂

Categories: Academics
  1. J. K. Jones
    June 26, 2007 at 12:52 am

    Good post.

    The issues raised are why I often refer to myself as a contry-boy, industrial engineer with a hobby.

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