In the academy - universities and seminaries, to whom I owe both my training and my current employment - often separate theologies into various categories: biblical theology, historical theology, systematic theology, practical theology, homiletics (the theology preaching), liturgics (theology of worship), theological anthropology (theology of who we are as human creatures), and so many, many more. In other words, certain divisions focused on theological theory, while others focused on practical matters of ministry.
For a time, I railed against the artificial divisions between the theoretical theologies and theologies of practice. It seemed, and stills seems, that an unpracticed theology is no use at all. As Delores S. Williams, brilliant Womanist author of Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, reminds us, theology is nothing more and nothing less than God-talk, talking about God. Here's my thesis, then. If the way we talk about God doesn't inspire and in fact necessitate action, then it is not talk worthy of God. I wanted all theology to be weighed against the plumb line of practical theology. Yet, as a person whose research time is spent almost exclusively in matters of practical theology, I have noticed that just the opposite has happened. The tendency toward theory, with no need for practice, has infiltrated the fields focused on practice as a debilitating virus.
Faith without works is dead.
Many Christians, Lutherans chief among them, remain desperately wary of such proclamations on at least two grounds. The first? A theology of glory. Any focus on what we've done, are doing, or should do brings the concurrent danger of pride in that work. It can make us believe we deserve praise that's rightly reserved for God alone. Somewhere, a Lutheran reading this just hummed "soli Deo gloria." Demands for action - and make no mistake, this is a demand on my part - often sound like appeals to works righteousness. Rather than a focus on deserving praise for the work that we do, works righteousness assumes that we're made holy by our actions, that we earn salvation via our activity. Of course, this denies the completeness of grace, that God's grace is enough for us, that it is by grace alone that we've been saved. Somewhere else, a Lutheran confirmand just recited the other three solae. Well done, friend.
Luther, Bonhoeffer, and a host of others in the tradition rightly develop the theology of the cross to counter theologies of glory and works righteousness. Yet, they also insisted upon faithful action as well. They simply made a clear demarcation between how we are saved - by grace through faith for Christ's sake, not by our works so that none may boast - and what kind of living is required of us in light of that truth. See Luther's "Freedom of a Christian" and Bonhoeffer's "Discipleship" for more in depth looks at how they expected behavior to follow from experience of salvation.
Be doers of the word.
Yet, appealing to authorities within my tradition or cleverly punctuating a blog post with references to the Epistle of James doesn't make my case. Why should should all theology be active theology? The few theses below suggest a starting point, albeit a compelling one in my view, to further a discussion on the need for active theology to operate as the central foci of theological education and Christian communities writ large.
- The theology of the cross is an active theology, a theology that looks to God's action that brings salvation to all people.
- The belief that God became human in Jesus is a belief in an active God, who moves to become human and through humanity continues to act. Incarnational theology is active theology.
- The scriptures call people to an active faith, and through them, God does the same. A faith without action ignores the voice of God who calls out to God's people.
- The name Christian implies a follower of Christ. One cannot remain still and simultaneously follow. Jesus calls disciples to follow and to lives of obedience. Action is requisite of discipleship.
- The prophets, especially Amos and Isaiah, critique God's primarily for their inaction or their unfaithful activity. A lack of belief does not condemn them. A lack of action in line with their faith leads to temporal judgement.
- Paul, the original New Testament theologian, builds a theology that declares salvation to people and yet entails specific expectations in relation to their behavior, centered on the law of love.
- Perhaps most importantly, scripture is not natural to the theoretical realm. Said another way, no Biblical theology calls for inaction. Sometimes the proper response is prayer or reflection, fasting or silence, but as an active response to the acts of God.
To begin, I said we need an active theology. That's not precisely right. More accurately, the only proper theology, the only theology true to God in Christ, is active theology. Theoretical theology, theology that doesn't intersect with humanity, reveals a disinterested God disconnected with the plights and pleasures of humanity. Whatever that is, it is not Jesus.