Thinking About a Theology of Scholarship

No matter how my calling eventually gets worked out, sovaldi whether I end up continuing in my academic studies and going on to be a teacher of theology (either in a college or in the church), treat or whether I end up pursuing my theological passions through creative writing (either fiction or non-fiction), I know that my vocation is oriented towards a life of scholarship and research. I value, affirm and encourage Christians to pursue a “life of the mind”,[1] wherein we are called to think and meditate deeply on the Gospel of Christ and its power to transform not only individuals, but also communities, nations and cultures.

Christianity is smart, and it is mysterious, and serious theological reflection and scholarship allows a Christian, to paraphrase from Gregory of Nyssa, to participate in the never-ending ascent to God.[2] And so, I want to suggest that scholarship, especially theological scholarship, is inherently cross-shaped; it has both vertical components, those aspects that orient towards God, and horizontal components, those aspects that orient towards other people, both scholars and non-scholars alike. The three vertical components are scholarship as a response to God’s action, scholarship as a gift of grace, and scholarship as an act of worship. The horizontal component is scholarship as service to and within the community of faith.

In Evangelical Theology, Karl Barth writes that theology, and by extension, the theologian and Christian, respond to the work and event of the Divine Word. This response is not the same as the Word itself, for the human response of theology is always in light of the event of the self-revelation of God. As such, theology is totally dependent on God’s living Word.[3] The theologian, scholar, or teacher, cannot reveal or uncover God through the human striving of academic inquiry. It is because God has chosen to reveal Himself first that the theologian is able to even pursue contemplating the nature and existence of God. All theology, no matter which discipline (Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, etc), responds to the object of theology, which is God. This relationship between God and the theologian is inherently Chalcedonian. Both God and the theologian are bound together, united-but-distinct, each with their own task, wherein, God “commits, frees and summons the theologian to notice, consider, and speak of Him.”[4] This relationship is irreversible; the theologian cannot do what God does, and vice versa.[5]

Second, the work and call of the theologian is a gift of grace. Barth writes, “To become and be a theologian is not a natural process but an incomparably concrete fact of grace.”[6] And while some may say that this idea lends itself to a sort of arrogance, as if the theologian has been endowed, Barth is quick to point out that this gift of grace is a mystery, for “if anyone supposed he could understand himself as such a receiver of grace, he would do better to bid theology farewell.”[7] The response to this gift of grace is a response of gratitude. With this comes the need for humility. All of our theological presuppositions are grounded, not in the logical consistency of the theologian’s argument, but in the “reality of God’s self-communication to us in Jesus Christ.”[8] As such, theological statements “are true only in so far as they direct us away from themselves to the one Truth in God” and that Truth is Jesus.[9]

Third, theological scholarship can be, and is for many scholars, an act of worship. Research becomes not only a way to learn more about God, but also a way to delight in and praise the work of God. A life of scholarship is not a tedious choice, nor is it merely “busy work.” Instead, it is a way to marvel at the person and work of Christ, as well as to get “lost” in the amazing depths of Christian thought throughout the centuries. The act of research and scholarship not only shapes the mind of the theologian, but also orients and shapes the character, spirit and whole person to a position of humble worship in the presence of the Almighty. It is for this reason that the liturgy, that is, the rhythms and routines associated with scholarship and study, from the initial research, to painstaking formulation of a thesis, to publication, is important.[10] Of course, if the adage is true that “we worship what we love”, there is a danger for Christian scholars to begin to worship the act of scholarship itself, rather than the object of said scholarship. Scholarship is the liturgical tool that assists in worshipping God and not the god that is to be worshipped.

On the horizontal axis, scholarship must be done in and for the church. As T.F. Torrance notes, “The church constitutes the social coefficient of our knowledge of God” and as such theology “cannot but be a church-conditioned and church-oriented theology.”[11] It is impossible to do Christian theology apart from the community. The theologian must participate in the messiness and beauty of the church. As Barth notes, the theologian, as a member of the community of faith writing from within and for the church, “participates in its schisms and in its longing for unity, in its obedience as well as in its indifference.”[12]

It is this emphasis on the role of the community of faith on the life and work of the theologian that I am currently wrestling with as I contemplate future academic studies. There are few confessional schools within Canada that offer doctoral programs in theology. So the question becomes, can theological scholarship be done in a secular university?[13] And even if I can study theology under the guise of “Western Religious Thought” at a secular school, there is still the realization that theology cannot be abstracted from the life and service of the church. Torrance emphasizes this reality when he writes: “the matrix of Eucharistic worship and meditation upon the Holy Scriptures and evangelical experience in the fellowship and mission of the church” are where the “empirical and theoretical components in our knowledge of God are fused together.”[14]

Ultimately, the question becomes, what is a Christian scholar, or what does Christian scholarship look like? Christian scholarship is a life and a body of work that is grounded in, finds its identity in, responds to, and submits itself to the self-Revelation of God through the event and person of Jesus Christ.


[1] See for example, Richard Hughes, The Vocation of a Christian Scholar: How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005).


[2] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).


[3] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, trans. Grover Foley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1963), 49.


[4] Ibid., 90.


[5] Ibid. This fits with Barth’s overall Chalcedonian pattern, for in the Church Dogmatics Barth emphasizes that the relationship between the Divine and human is one that cannot be reversed. That is, we can, and rightly do say “The Word became Flesh”, but we cannot say “The flesh became the Word.” See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. Translated by Geoffrey Bromiley. Vol. I/2 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 136.


[6] Ibid., 73.


[7] Ibid.


[8] Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Evangelical Theology: The Realism of Christian Revelation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1982), 23.


[9] Ibid., 123.


[10] See, for example, James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), chap. 2.


[11] Torrance, 46.


[12] Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 80.


[13] Space is limited, but with this question comes the question of the inherent difference and conflict between Christian virtues and the virtues prized by the secular academic culture. See, for example, George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 107.


[14] Torrance, 49.

Enhanced by Zemanta