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.