Theology and Ministry: Language in Community

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Church
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Theology is a part of everyday life, whether we acknowledge it or not.  We live, act, and react out of our convictions and beliefs.  Theology has an intricate, integral role in ministry.  You can either do it well or poorly, but either way you will practice theology when practicing ministry.  The question we face is: What role does theology have in ministry today and how we do accomplish that?

This paper will show that theology is language that shapes our ability to relate in community.  We will also explore the necessity of good data and the function of doubt in theology.  Next, this paper will argue that theology targets both insiders and outsiders to the community of faith.  Finally, we will discuss how theology is integrated into ministry, referencing Wesley’s hermeneutical circle.  We will see how Experience, Scripture, Reason, and Tradition all contribute to building solid theology which must then be tested in the “crucible of life.”

Language is Relational

Theology is typically how we describe “the study of God.”  The word “theology” is comprised of two Greek words which translate quite literally to mean “God words” or a “word about God.”  Theology, simply put, is the language we use to talk about God.  However, God, by His very nature as God, is transcendent above our vocabulary.  We cannot fully describe God by the use of our words.  He is wholly Other.  If theology is such a tenuous study, then what is the purpose for pursuing such seemingly vain endeavors?

All language is used to describe our experiences in community.  Theology is the language we use to relate to God in community.  We understand that describing God with anthropological terminology has its shortcomings.  Furthermore, to describe God anthropologically, as any analogy, requires understanding the limits of our analogies.  However, it is this very language that allows us to share our experiences of God in terms that can be understood and evaluated by others.  Theology is geared to allow us not simply to make statements about God but to relate intimately with Him.  We can only do so through what we know or experience (in Wesley’s sense), which is deeply informed and influenced by our language, both positively and negatively.

Understanding theology linguistically pertains to how knowledge is used.  Theology is not a knowledge that allows us to manipulate God how scientific knowledge allows us to control our environment.  There is a different knowledge that is intimately connected with theology – wisdom.  Wisdom does not allow us to manipulate and control God but to surrender to Him.  Again, knowledge is relational.  Therefore, knowledge about God should inevitably lead us to deeper connection with God.

Does good data matter?  Theology is not always a matter of right and wrong.  Usually, it is a matter of adequate or inadequate, good or poor knowledge.  For instance, if we were to describe God as Love without referencing His holiness, we might visualize a God who is all mercy and no justice.  In fact, it might even cause us to abuse grace because, we might reason, “where sin abounds grace abounds even more” (Romans 6:1-2).  However, this would not be biblical, as the apostle Paul points out.  Good data is important because it allows us to relate genuinely in community to our Creator.

We understand that our knowledge cannot fully describe God.  If the object of theology is to simply acquire the right data and knowledge about God, the gap between our understanding and our ignorance will be threatening.  In contrast, if the object of theology is to relate deeper with God, then the gap between our understanding and our ignorance is an invitation to grow deeper with God.

We often confuse certainty with Truth.  Certainty is subjective, Truth is objective.  We can feel “certain” about something that is entirely false.  Our evangelical milieu has come to believe that doubt is dangerous.  Doubt seems to threaten our very self and is seen as opposing growth rather than initiating it.  Yet, doubt is a function a faith.  It causes us to wrestle and search, rather than wander haphazardly with little or no motivation to grow.  As such, theology is willing to be honest and humble where Truth should call for examination of our own paradigms.  Doubt is only a threat if Christianity is about obtaining the right information rather than promoting relationship with God.

Although we desire to gain Truth and to understand it, we must not believe that theology is simply the pursuit of right data sets.  Theology, at that point, becomes legalistic and dead.  Not to mention, this brand of “Christianity” becomes very abrasive and condemning, even of other viable Christian traditions, of any opposing Truth claim.  That is not to say that there are not issues that require a solid, moral stance.  But, the pursuit of Truth must be a means to an end, namely promoting right-relatedness.  The purpose is not to have acquired Truth, which we only know in part (1 Cor. 13:12), it is the way in which Truth shapes and permeates our lives daily that is most significant.

The Audience of Theology  

A debate among theologians has traditionally wrestled between two schools of thought: Narrative theologians and Public Theologians.  These two schools, generally headed at Yale and the University of Chicago respectively, argue for two very different audiences that theology targets.  The target audience dictates theologians’ understanding of how language should be properly employed.

The Yale School of Theology believes that theological language is primarily directed at those already connected and integrated into the community.  They argue that outsiders cannot make sense of the language.  The significance of Christian terminology will be lost on those who do not have the interpretive keys with which to understand the language.  Undoubtedly, this is a true statement.  Part of being integrated into any community is learning to comprehend the meaning behind words and phrases, including those used in Christian jargon.  Furthermore, language helps make a community distinct from other communities.  The goal, as they see it, is to make better equipped Christians within the Church.

On the other side of the argument, the University of Chicago school of thought believes that theology should focus on the outsiders.  It is, after all, the Church’s mission to make disciples of all nations.  How is that possible if language does not connect with the outsiders’ points of reference to experience?  How can they possibly understand, unless theology strives to connect Christian concepts with their framework?  In other words, the Christian community is too exclusive with its language, which does not help the Church fulfill its Biblical mandate.

I believe that both sides of the argument have valid positions to offer.  I affirm the necessity for both, which must be held in a constant tension with one another.  Genuine theology will connect the community together through genuine Christian living.  The insiders in the community will only be as connected as their understanding of the language used in that community.  Also, it is imperative that the Christian community can be distinguished from the worldly culture that surrounds it.  Our language is necessary to give us a common set of descriptors by which we can communicate and function together.  The dynamic must be guarded from becoming too washed out by trying to identify with culture.

However, the Church is also a mission driven organization.  The Great Commission calls us to disciple all nations.  In other words, the Christian community is an open community that brings outsiders in to the fold.  How can outsiders relate if they do not understand our language?  To achieve that goal, theology must be employed in a way that connects with common reference points in human experience.  The apostle Paul understood this well when he employed such tactics in his evangelism.  He used a statue of an “unknown god” as an opening for telling the Athenians about Jesus (Acts 17:22-31).  The language we use in the Christian community must not be so “heavenly minded that it is no earthly good.”

This brings up an interesting point.  The Church is often criticized for being hypocritical, saying one thing yet living another.  In addition, studies, such as those written by Barna Group, have recently shown that biblical literacy within the Church has declined dramatically.  Many people do not even know basic stories from Scripture.  If this is true, then how might they be able to understand more intricate theology unless we begin making connection points with the laity on some basic level.  This underlines the importance of discipleship, which helps people navigate through some of these issues of language.

Martin Luther had an intuition about this when he first posted his letter to the Church.  At that time, Latin was used in every service.  That is very problematic in a Germanic country where the laity would have spoken little, if any, Latin.  Luther believed that the Word should be accessible to all.  While our language must be distinct, it must not be inaccessible.

If language shapes our theology and theology shapes our practice, we might do well to seriously consider how theology is shaping the Church and its impact on the outside community.  All of that goes to say, theology should be geared toward both insiders and outsiders.  Theology must reside within this tension.  Language is a very powerful tool by which we construct our community.  But, it cannot be transformative if individuals are not able to grasp what is being communicated.  Ultimately, our theology must be shown to produce genuine Christian living, it must empower both insiders and outsiders to move toward that telos: right-relatedness with God and others.

Integrating Theology with Ministry

From what point or source does theology start?  How do we determine what is theologically appropriate or inappropriate to say?  Perhaps counter-intuitively for those in the Christian community, we do not start at Scripture but with an intuition that God is transcendent.  I believe it is our experience of the created order that helps guide us in this endeavor.  The created order, as Romans 1 affirms, declares that there is a God who has made Himself known through nature.

After asserting that there is a God, we must next ask who this God is.  The created order cannot fully reveal the nature and character of God.  Therefore, we must either be like Locke and say that knowledge has reached its logical end and can go no further.  Or, we must say that there is another authority that speaks about “trans-sensory” realities and that it has an authority on par with empirical experience.  However, these “trans-sensory” realities are not separate from empirical realities.  They impact one another.

For Christians, the Bible is the other source of God’s self-revelation.  The nature and character of a testimony, which is the very essence of Scripture (testimony about who God is), helps determine what we deem important in theology.  Martin Luther believed Scripture to be the sole authority, not tradition.  While this may indeed be a great starting point, Scripture cannot simply stand alone because it can be twisted to people’s whims.  Luther, although he did not explicitly state this, understood that experience too must help weigh the validity of our conclusions from Scripture.

Since, for Wesley, experience needed to be practical as an experiment, it is little wonder that “trans-sensory” realities were not divorced from empirical realities.  In other words, experience became the great testing ground.  Experience was the venue in which theological perspectives could be assessed.  However, experience was also subject to Scripture for correct interpretation.  Experience and Scripture were two balancing authorities, dependent upon one another for mutual correction.

Furthermore, reason serves as a tool which allows these two authorities, Scripture and experience, to interact on level ground.  This is owing to the fact that all Truth is God’s Truth and will not be contradictory, according to the rules of logic.  As such, there are good ways to get information to fit together that are conducive to relationships.  When you approach theology linguistically, words may only be constructed in particular ways.  Truth statements require a certain formula.  If you are talking about God and the world in terms of certainty, it requires diligence and humility.

Furthermore, theology is a dangerous task because we are essentially using analogies with our words to understand a transcendent Being.  Now, the Christian faith also believes that God has made Himself immanent, especially through Jesus the Christ.  However, that in no way diminishes the fact that God is beyond our words.  So, the analogies we use are often tentative and can only be stretched so far.  And, we must be mindful of the analogies we are using, making sure to explain them adequately.

For instance, the analogy that love is like a rose can be either a good or a poor analogy.  Love, it could be said, is like a rose because it is beautiful, delicate, and vibrant.  However, Love might not be best described as a rose if it is thought to be short-lived, thorny, and painful.  Our lived experience may even cause us to have difficulty with analogies we use of God, making it more difficult to relate to Him.  For example, God is our Father.  We can assert many positive attributes of a Father to God.  We can say that God is loving, protective, corrective.  However, some families experience abuse from their fathers, making “Father” a difficult connection for some to make with God (and, in some cases, deterring them from God).  Logic helps us see how metaphors connect and can be used correctly.

Tradition allows us to orient our knowledge on a trajectory.  It is not a source.  It is merely interpretation of those sources: experience and Scripture.  We don’t believe it because someone has simply said it.  However, it does give us a hermeneutic to evaluate truth claims.  It allows us to see how Scripture, reason, and experience connect, hopefully, in practical ways in the lives of those who came before us.  And, it helps us think beyond ourselves, allowing us to access the communal experience of Christians throughout the centuries preceding us.

Karl Barth contended that theology is a conversation among students of the past and present.  Every predecessor of today’s student has already attempted to understand and explain the Scriptures – in his own period, in his own way, and with his own limitations.  To study theology means not so much to examine exhaustively the work of earlier students of theology as to become their fellow student… Serious study means to permit oneself to be stimulated by the views and insights they achieved and proclaimed, and to be guided – by their encouraging or frightening example – toward a perspective, thought, and speech which are responsible to God and man.

For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity is an extra-biblical concept.  It is not formally developed until the Council of Nicea in the 4th century A.D.  However, in order to best understand the Biblical account of who Jesus is, the Christian tradition postulated the Trinity.  Over the centuries since Nicea, many have tried to further understand how Trinity must work.  It is very much a work in progress today.  Traditions, such as the Trinity, help us to understand how others have struggled with the Biblical witness and have synthesized its content.

Miroslav Volf’s book, entitled After Our Likeness, is an excellent example of how each piece of the hermeneutical circle can function together.  In this study on Trinity, Volf closely outlines the Roman Catholic and Orthodox conceptions of Trinity and their resulting ecclesiology.  Interweaving Scripture, experience, and logic together, Volf critiques each of the historical understandings of Trinity.  Next, he uses the hermeneutical circle to re-formulate a working concept of Trinity that coheres with the Free Church tradition.

Scripture and experience are the two sources from which we gain our data.  Tradition and reason allow us to interact between these two sources of data.  Reason helps us piece the puzzle together.  Tradition allows us to see how others have tried to piece the puzzle together, as well as, the benefit of seeing the ensuing results of their theology.  Scripture and experience are two balances on the scale of theology.  If something is Truth, it will be Truth in both arenas.  Finally, theology, as Wesley aptly understood, must lead to genuine Christian living.  If it does not, we must once again wrestle in the hermeneutical circle to refine our theology.


Language is the tool we use to relate in community.  Theology is not simply about acquiring all of the right data sets.  Theology is only good insofar as it achieves the goal of deeper relatedness with God and others.  However, that does not mean that good data is not important to theology, since better information should lead to better relatedness.

Our language, used as a tool to relate, necessarily needs to be understandable.  That does not mean that it should become indistinct from culture.  Our language has two functions: to communicate to the insiders and proclaim the Good News to the outsiders.

Theology can be a dangerous tool.  It requires deep thinking (logic), weighing it against life (experience), constant conversation with past sojourners (tradition), and a consideration of the testimony of who God is in the world (Scripture).  All four elements are important in promoting and building sound, balanced theology.


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