Home > Academics, Theology, Vocation > Theology is not Knowledge

Theology is not Knowledge

I so totally don’t get theology right now. This is another perennial issue that I revisit every so often. Right now I am working through Vanhoozer’s Drama of Doctrine, which is generally a very stimulating book. But I find myself butting up against two internal obstacles that keep me questioning the validity of the entire theological project – not Vanhoozer’s specifically, but Christian Theology in general. So I decided to blog about it, not to advance an argument against the discipline of theology, but to try to articulate the reasons that lie behind my involuntary emotional reactions. I hope, perhaps with the help of some commenters, to make some sense of it all. So here, to the best of my ability to discern it, is why I get frustrated with theology:

1. Theology is not knowledge. Knowledge, at least the concept I have in mind, is inherently public. It can be confirmed or denied by others. Theology, on the other hand, depends on certain judgments made by a private community, the church. Now I think there is such a thing as private knowledge, knowledge that is legitimately held by only one individual, but these are typically about personal matters (personal health or sex life, for instance). If the claim to knowledge refers to something in the public domain, then I don’t think it can be called knowledge if it is only held by a private individual or community.

By way of contrast, Biblical studies, whether Old or New Testament, deal with knowledge because they are essentially historical disciplines. Regardless of what private views people may have about God, they may all equally discuss Paul’s view of God as presented in the New Testament – the data is publicly accessible. Likewise, philosophy of religion counts as knowledge because it is dependent on the laws of logic. Regardless of people’s private views, they may all equally discuss whether certain beliefs are logically consistent. Perhaps a shorthand way to express this is to say that if you can’t teach it at a public university, it’s not knowledge.

2. Closely related is the notion that theology is speculative. Now I know that theoretically theology is not speculative, but theologians define a method and then follow that method to produce results. Yet I still get the feeling that what Karl Barth did was sit around and think up cool ways to think about God, and he made everyone go, “Wow, that’s deep.” But it’s still just thinking; it’s still just speculation. The real work, it seems to me, is being done by the biblical scholars, who continually work to help us get a fuller sense of what the biblical texts mean.

On the other hand, the main reason why any of this matters is because Christians believe it and want to order their lives accordingly. Thus I could make a case that the work of theologians is vastly more important than the work of biblical scholars. That is the main reason I sometimes feel a pull to pursue vocational theology. But I am not excited about the thought of devoting my life to a discipline that is speculative and doesn’t result in knowledge!

I suppose the way through this is either to redefine theology, or to redefine knowledge and the value of speculation. It seems that my objections to theology are themselves theological , and I suspect they are somehow self-referentially defeating. The point of this exercise, though, was not to advance an argument, but to sort out my life. I welcome your thoughts.

Categories: Academics, Theology, Vocation
  1. Tom Moorewood
    November 21, 2007 at 2:34 am

    I would certainly agree with you that theology is not knowledge. Theology is contemplation of the nature of gods and religious tenants. As these topics are supernatural and therefore unknowable, theology reduces to a self referential structure built on speculation, misinterpretation of the nature of reality, and magical thinking. This is not to say that theology cannot be valuable to some people, but I tend to think of it as philosophy without the rigor.

    Biblical studies is a valid historical field, theology is akin to…I want to say fan fiction here but that isn’t fair to theology. What I mean isn’t new fictional stories based on an original fictional work, but rather something like the “physics of Star Trek” embellishments on the original or the invention of a full Klingon language. Something real and, at least to some people, valuable to study has been created but that doesn’t validate the original work as true in the sense of a correct description of current reality or historical accuracy.

  2. victoria vanzile
    November 27, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    sometimes i think we make theology too complicated. we talk too much ABOUT God instead of talking TO God. (i’m saying this as a wife of a former seminarian who got tired of hearing about theology ALL the time).

    Maybe that’s why having the faith of a child is regarded so highly by Jesus. Kids just know that God is good and we should be nice to other people, without all the theological gobbeldy gook.

    (then again, i really like deep theological discussions. it’s fun trying to figure out who God is.)

  3. Daniel McLain Hixon
    November 27, 2007 at 5:36 pm

    I am wondering what definition of “knowledge” or what sort of epistemology you are assuming here? The Enlightenment tried to shrink knowledge down to that which could be demonstrated scientifically – through repeatable experimentation – and (though perhaps to a lesser extent) that which could be demonstrated logically (thus Descarte’s attempt to demonstrate logically his own existence: “I think, therefore I am” is buying into this same notion of what knowledge is). It might not be going too far to say that the goal of the enlightenment in this department was to reduce knowledge to “facts” (that which can be known by the above methods) and so “fact” became, in popular thought, synonomous with “truth.”

    This is a huge problem for several reasons. I can, for example, truly KNOW that I am in love, but not demonstrate it logically or empirically. Thus, it could be true, but not factual. Or, think of historical knowledge. That Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president or that J. Caesar crossed the Rubicon cannot be demonstrated by pure logic or experimentation. The rules of “having knowledge” in the realm of history or personal relationships (and we might expand that second one into ‘politics’) are different from those of mathematics or physics, yet we can still have KNOWLEDGE in those realms (relationships and history).

    It seems to me that theological knowledge is much more akin to relational or historical knowledge than to knowledge in physics. God’s giving of revelation is a relational process (between he and Abraham, he and Israel, he and the Church, etc) and it occurs in history. So we can start with historical investigation of an event – say especially the Resurrection of Jesus (see here especially N.T. Wright’s book “The Resurrection of the Son of God”) and then work through the relational implications of actual occurance of this historical event (and there are many since people don’t ususally rise from the dead in newly glorified bodies). And this is theology. It is what St. Paul was doing. Which brings up the communal part – other people (like the apostles in the New Testament or the Church more generally through history) have already been both recipients of and thinkers working through the implications of God’s historical actions/revelation. So we take into account what they’ve said and learn from them. So maybe a redefitional of knowledge is in order. I think William Abraham (an Oxford-Trained philosopher of epistemology and somewhat charismatic Christian as well) has written at length on this stuff.

    And maybe a re-definition of theology is also in order. We (ESPECIALLY in the West) tend to think of Theology as something that university men (or women) do in libraries or whatnot. The Eastern Orthodox tradition has always said that we do theology when we pray the liturgy of the Church and that one must be a saint to truly be a theologian because a theologian is one who learns who God is (whereas we see someone as a theologian if they have the right credentials: degree from a good school, publications in the right journals, etc. – their personal holiness is not usually our first concern).

  4. Ryan Jones
    November 28, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    Thank you everyone for the great comments. I intend to respond, but I’m still pondering. I am becoming aware of the fact that I am treading in an area that I know little of, specifically epistemology. I took an epistemology of religion class last year, and it was everything I could do to stay afloat!

    Vicky, thanks for the comment. It’s always good to have old friends come to visit my blog!

  5. J. K. Jones
    December 2, 2007 at 7:29 pm

    If theology is not knowledge, why do you talk about it?

    Communication is by definition a way of transfering knowledge.

    Are you talking and writing in vain?

  6. Ryan Jones
    December 3, 2007 at 9:21 am

    J.K., I have absolutely no idea what you are trying to say. It seems you are saying that anything that is communicated is knowledge by definition. This would mean that any proposition that is ever communicated counts as knowledge. I suppose this is true in the sense that I now know what the other was attempting to communicate, but this has no bearing on the truth-value of the proposition itself.

    If you are asking why would I waste my time writing about something that is not knowledge, then all you have really done is reiterated the thrust of my post. If I am going to devote my life to vocational theology (which I mean to be distinct from vocational ministry) then I have to sort out first why my entire life’s work won’t boil down to speculating about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin!

    I would appreciate your help in developing a view of theology that allows me to see it as knowledge, or a definition of knowledge that includes theology. Your comments were not particularly helpful for this but instead came across more like badgering me to shut up and tow the party line.

    To everyone: I am really planning to formulate a response post soon. It’s just that, you know, life keeps getting in the way.

  7. Ryan Jones
    December 3, 2007 at 9:26 am

    Just a point of clarification: I mean to distinguish between vocational theology and vocational pastoral ministry, both of which are ministry.

  8. J. K. Jones
    December 8, 2007 at 11:16 am

    Ryan, you said:
    “I would appreciate your help in developing a view of theology that allows me to see it as knowledge, or a definition of knowledge that includes theology.”

    You might want to read some of these and comment:



    I’d love to discuss this further with you. Please keep in mind that I condier argument to be the best way to learn. My comments are often short and pointed.

    By the way, my comment above was terse. I apologize.

    J. K.

  9. J. K. Jones
    December 22, 2007 at 10:24 am

    After some thought, I don’t have to convey information in sentences about God that comports to reality. I just have to convey information in those sentences.

    Determining the reality of the situation can be done best by argument. And we have the tools to argue as soon as we have information content in our sentences.

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