In his new book, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology, Dr. Kelly M. Kapic tells readers that, “True theology is for all God’s people.When we slip into the idea that theology is just for those with graduate degrees, then we have misunderstood what theology is all about.”
We pursue theology, Kapic explains — whether we’re teachers, doctors, lawyers, or pastors — because “there is no such thing as a disembodied theology. All theology is lived. … There is this inescapable back-and-forth dynamic that exists between our experiences and our thinking.” And this, Kapic says, is where theology really matters: “in the midst of real people and real circumstances.”
ByFaith editor Richard Doster spoke with Kapic about his book and the place of theology in the lives of ordinary Christians.
You begin by telling readers that theological questions surround our lives whether we know it or not, and that our “concepts about the divine inform our lives more deeply than most people can trace.” Can you illustrate that for us? And can you explain why this should encourage us to be more attentive theologians?
Many of us tend to imagine that “theology” is for academics or pastors, but not for the rest of the church. In some ways this is understandable since we rightly put our future pastors through rigorous training in seminary which most folks in the pew don’t receive. But true theology is for all of God’s people. When we slip into the idea that theology is just for those with graduate degrees, then we have misunderstood what theology is all about.
We are all theologians because, at its most basic level, theology is just a word (logos) about God (theos). We all need to become better theologians, not because we want to win arguments or pass exams, but because we are called to faithful communion with and communication about our Triune Creator and King.
Theology is about worship, and humans were designed to be worshipers. So the question is not if we will worship, but who and how? Will our worship be faithful or false? Will we worship the one true God, or will our hearts be damaged and broken by idols? Here is why theology is no less important for the young mother than the old professor. “Concepts of the divine” matter because our theology shapes the decisions we make, emotions we feel, and energy we expend every day.
Too often we end up imagining a god that reflects an abusive relationship from our past rather than the tender Lord of Scripture who knows us intimately, giving us dignity through His forgiveness and life-giving commands. Or we live as if we serve a tyrannical and arbitrary dictator rather than a gracious King who has brought His liberating kingdom. Good theology is life-giving to our own souls and those around us.
When we pray, for example, our understanding of our Heavenly Father — our theology — powerfully shapes how we view the act and results of prayer. Is our Father angry and distant, reluctant to hear our requests, or is He the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who sent the Son out of His love for us? Do we imagine the Holy Spirit brings conviction to our hearts merely to make us miserable and guilty, or does He convict so that we might experience the joy that comes from a life of repentance and true flourishing?
We all have a theology. Whether we know it or not, we use our theology every day. The question then is not “are you a theologian?” but “are you a good one?”
You explain that “our knowledge of God must grow over time,” which is why some of the best imagery used to depict the theological enterprise is that of pilgrimage. How should we — as ordinary Christians who live and work in the secular world — think about pilgrimage, our knowledge of God, and our everyday lives?
Pilgrimage is classic imagery used to remind us of a basic truth: We’re not there yet! None of us has arrived at that “better country” about which the author of Hebrews speaks (11:16). Unfortunately, however, much of our practice and speech betrays the fact that we imagine we have arrived at the “better country,” as if we know all the answers. This is dangerous to us and to others. We need to always remember that human reflections about God — even when informed by Holy Scripture (Deuteronomy 29:29) — are always limited by our finitude and sin. Sometimes we come across as if we understand everything about God and His world; in truth, we are often entangled in complexity that is far beyond us. This is not an excuse for silence or lack of conviction, but it is a call for humility as we seek understanding.
Speaking about our pilgrim state, the great Puritan theologian John Owen once said: “We speak much of God. … the truth is, we know very little of him.” Then later he adds, “We may love, honour, believe, and obey our Father; and therewith he accepts our childish thoughts, for they are but childish. We see but his back parts.” Owen, who devoted his life to the theological enterprise and to preaching, did not think he was wasting his time, but he never forgot that it was God he was talking about. He is simply reminding us that there will come a time when we see God “as He is,” but that time is yet to come (1 John 3:2).
Recognizing we are on a pilgrimage rather than at an end point should not make us silent or despairing, but it should increase our capacity for graciousness toward others. Part of this challenge is developing both deep conviction and authentic humility. Humility without conviction is rudderless, while conviction without humility is destructive.
What we are really advocating for is a crucial aspect of what we might call a lived theology. God has wonderfully revealed Himself to us, but we remain finite and fallen creatures. Worship — individual and corporate — has a way of putting conviction and humility together in a beautiful and life-giving way.
Part of what is striking about the pilgrimage imagery is that it reminds us how much we need others. Pilgrims look for signs and markers from those who have traveled the paths before. Earlier pilgrims not only alert us to the possible pitfalls we will face, they highlight promising trailheads and point us to refreshing waters that can sustain us along the way.
Going on a great pilgrimage by yourself may sound exciting at first, but it can prove to be foolish and destructive. We need others. Those who have gone before us provide reliable maps of the terrain of faith. Our contemporary company of fellow pilgrims who are part of the local and extended church enrich our communion and extend our vision as we travel along “the Way.”
Whether we sell insurance or teach school, as believers we are part of the Body of Christ, and we can lean on one another as we walk this pilgrimage, growing in grace and truth together. We need one another for our worship to be a full chorus of praise. As Augustine once said, “As pilgrims are wont to sing, sing, and travel on. …” If you are making progress you are marching on; but progress in the true faith, progress in right living — sing, and travel on.
Theology viewed as pilgrimage invites us to enter into the singing of the saints through the ages, making the song of faith our song as we aim to direct our worship to the Triune God.
It’s a “modern notion,” you say, “to separate theology as a science from theology as a practical reflection on life.” How — for a salesman or computer scientist — is the study of theology connected to life? And how can we keep this connection secure?
In classic Christian theology there were not separate disciplines of theology and pastoral studies/ethics. Part of this grows out of a recognition that our theology informs our practice, but our practice also informs our theology. Allowing one’s experience to inform one’s theology is not something only folks on the “left” do. We all do this, because as humans there is no such thing as a disembodied theology.
All theology is lived theology. There is an inescapable back-and-forth dynamic that exists between our experiences and our thinking, a reciprocal relationship (like an ongoing tennis match) that exists between our actions and attitudes. Here is where true theology takes place, under the authority of God’s Word and Spirit. Here is where theology really matters, in the midst of real people and real circumstances. And here is where we are moved not only to talk about God, but to cry and sing to Him.
A Christian businessperson, medical professional, or software engineer must strive to live in and out of their theology. In the process, their experiences either reinforce or call into question aspects of their understanding about God, His church, and His world. We need to listen carefully to the concrete questions life experiences raise. Do not shrink back from Providence bringing these questions before you. Face them as you rely upon the gifts of God’s Word and Spirit to make sense of it all in the context of your Christian community, which includes people from every walk of life.
Part of what this means is that, as we disciple folks, we must be interested in them, not merely in conveying ideas. We are ministering to whole people, which is different from merely transferring information from one brain to another. I would say that for our tradition, one thing this should motivate us to recover is a fresh appreciation for the importance of the affections.
Charles Hodge, despite being known for his “scientific” approach to theology, actually understood the inseparability of life and theology in ways that may surprise many people. “If a man’s religious opinions are the result and expression of his religious feeling,” Hodge concluded, “if heterodoxy be the consequence rather than the cause of the loss of piety, then ‘keep your hearts with all diligence, for out of them are the issues of life’” (Proverbs 4:23). We tend to worry only that if you lose precision in your theology you will lose the faith, but Hodge understood this is a two-way street. Practices and affections inform our theology just as our theology informs our practices and affections.
You describe the relationship between faith and reason in a way that might surprise some readers. As we seek to grow in our faith, how do faith and reason inform and affect one another? And why must we be aware of this?
Faith and reason are not designed by God to be enemies, but friends. Faith is not meant to cause us to embrace irrationality, but it invites us to follow our Lord even when we don’t have all of the answers. Thus, I’m advocating an approach I like to call “faithful reason.”
Behind questions about the relationship between faith and reason are concerns about authority and knowledge. How do we know what we know? What — or who — gives us the authority to say we know anything, and what is our relationship to this thing or person? Responding to such questions, it seems appropriate to highlight God’s personal character and His revelatory action in time and space rather than to begin solely with abstract notions about human rationality. This is not meant to disparage reason, but only to put it in its proper place as one begins theological studies.
As G.K. Chesterton memorably said, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” As worshipers, we want to behold the wonders of God, not to speak of them exhaustively, but to receive glimpses into His beautiful reality.
Faithful reason is chiefly a matter of rightly relating to the Maker of the mind, the Creator of cognition. We find ourselves faithless when we see only swirling phenomena of pain and chaos and not the Creator who comes in Christ to redeem this beautiful but badly broken world. Indeed, according to the Gospels, the only way to see and understand the truth of God is by the power of His Son and Spirit. It is the Spirit who draws us in faith to the Father through the Son. The Spirit does not work against reason, but rather the Spirit empowers us, in and through our rational faculties, to acknowledge the truth by redirecting us to the trustworthy God as He has made Himself known in His Word.
Put differently, we do not need to fear using our minds and asking hard questions — let us never forget God created us with mental powers. Yet sin has affected even our minds, and so we need humility and grace as we wrestle with ideas, remembering always that it is our thoughts about God which are under the microscope, not God Himself.
I suspect that many of us imagine theologians working, studying, and writing in fairly sterile settings: libraries, classrooms, wood-paneled studies. But you tell us that proper theologians get their hands dirty, that they must be involved with the poor and oppressed. I’m having a hard time imagining our favorite writers in those sorts of settings. Would you talk about that?
Well, I know this can be touchy. But as we look at Scripture, again and again we find a connection between knowing God and concern for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the hurting. We find incredibly strong biblical statements which claim that our neglect of hurting people compromises our theology.
Whether one considers the messages of Isaiah or James or Amos, there seems to be a link between neglecting the needy and corruption in our theology. Expressed positively, Jeremiah describes the righteous reign of King Josiah saying, “He defended the cause of the poor and the needy, and so all went well. ‘Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 22:16). Of course, we all tend to agree that caring for the poor or vulnerable is a good thing, but to make this concern as central as James 1:27 may sound a bit problematic or even somewhat extreme to us. But I think this is another example where theology informs practice and practice reinforms theology.
“A Christian businessperson, medical professional, or software engineer must strive to live in and out of their theology. In the process their experiences either reinforce or call into question aspects of their understanding about God, His church, and His world.”
When Judah kept its sacrifices going, kept offering its prayers, kept going to the Temple (all things commanded by God), but failed to seek justice for the fatherless and the widow or neglected the most vulnerable among them, it showed they actually had misunderstood their Lord (Isaiah 1). “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, and my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3). As theologians, we must all be aware of this danger.
Now I strongly believe we are a body, with many members. We don’t all do the same things, praise God — variety of gifts, same Spirit, variety of service, same Lord – but all the gifts must be for “the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). All of us — whether we work in a book-lined office or are running the local recreation department — need to be mindful and moved by those who God is mindful and moved by. When we fail to see them, to extend the church’s love and grace to them, our theology has lost its way. For we are the vulnerable, the needy; we are the ones who live on God’s grace and mercy.
You talk about why tradition and community are keys to good theology. You go on to describe yourself as being shaped by the Reformed tradition but then describe it as a living tradition, not a dead one. What does that mean to us, practically — that the Reformed tradition is a living one?
Jaroslav Pelikan once said that tradition is the living faith of the dead, not the dead faith of the living. And that just about sums it up. It means we each are invited to participate in an ongoing conversation that began before us and will continue after us. We are not simply remembering ancient history here, but are attempting to act as good stewards of the past, in the present, for the future. We are not trying to recreate 16th-century Geneva, but we are trying to respectfully gain all we can from those who have traveled before us on this pilgrimage.
We must be reminded that to be “Reformed” is not to be “Christian” plus something. Being “Reformed” is just our label for a classic expression of the Christian faith we think is vibrant and truthful. Traditions are different ways believers have tried to make sense of the Scriptures and their faith. To be “Reformed” simply means that we think this is the most faithful summary of the biblical truth we know.
Our Reformed tradition is deep, broad, and rich. One of the great lessons we learn is that everyone in our tradition has not always agreed with one another on everything; that alone is a powerful truth to discover. But there are also core biblical insights shared across the tradition that we think wonderfully help us better understand the human condition, the beauty of Christ, the life-giving power of the Spirit, the wonder of God’s forgiveness and grace, and the dignity of human work, etc. In the end, we think this living tradition is helpful because, overall, it offers the most faithful understanding of Scripture, Christian living, and life before the Triune God.
We must remind one another, therefore, that we are not merely trying to win arguments, but our hope is to live faithfully under the authority of Scripture and in the joy of the gospel.
On a practical level, what does this mean? Let us encourage one another to read not just authors from our day, but Christians from the past. Let us learn from those that the Reformers read (e.g., Irenaeus, Augustine, Anselm), and let us read from those who have helped shape our tradition (e.g., Calvin, Owen, Warfield, Packer). Let us pray the prayers of saints from of old; let us recite the creeds; let us be formed by their confessions and liturgies. Not because we want to be stuffy or detached, but because we think their faith is living, and because we think their faith is our faith.
We won’t agree with everything those in the past have said, but it is amazing how often and ably they can speak through the centuries, helping us in untold ways. This goes back to our discussion about pilgrimage, about this journey of faith. We are all theologians and we walk together, but we’re not there yet. Recognizing this with strong humility and strong conviction, we can become worshipers whose hearts and hands love our Creator, love one another, and lovingly care for the vulnerable.
Kelly M. Kapic is professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga. Kapic earned a doctorate in systematic and historical theology at King’s College, University of London, an M.Div at Reformed Theological Seminary, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and history from Wheaton College.