Theological FAQ:

What is the relationship between your faith and your scholarly work?

This question is usually targeted toward job applicants teaching in the so-called "nontheological" disciplines, but we theology teachers get it too. The distinction between our discipline and the others is a soft one, and in my opinion the question applies even more directly to theology proper.

In my classes I liken theology to basketball. It is not merely a subject to be studied "objectively," but a practical discipline. To study Christian theology adequately is to practice Christian theology, as one practices basketball (whether as a player, coach, referee, commentator, fan, or sponsor). And to study Christian theology well, one must love both theology and the God who is its object, and be prepared to be transformed by them.

The relationship between my faith and the doctrine I teach is, then, like the relationship between a coach’s affinity and enthusiasm for a sport, and his or her work training players. How good could a basketball coach be who disliked basketball, or did not appreciate its intricacies, or who was merely coaching for paychecks?

The relationship between faith and theology reaches into the heart of Christian epistemology and theological method. Jesus did not choose commentators, editorialists, and historians to follow him objectively. He created a community of disciples to play his new game. He called them to commit their lives to his mission. To these he gave "the secret of the Kingdom of God" and, later, the gift of the Holy Spirit. To practice Christian theology truly is to join the official fan club of Jesus Christ and put one’s life on the line for the Master. In class I advocate what I call "Christology from behind": God gives us access to his mystery by granting us the privileged perspective of disciples.

This is not an exclusive privilege. While I deny the existence of neutral, "objective" perspectives from which to evaluate Jesus, I affirm that God has frequently granted so-called "outsiders" insights into Christian theology that the fan club had overlooked. So my faith commitment is not a license to practice theology in isolation from thinkers outside the Christian Church!

Nor is faith commitment a license to isolate theology from those inside the Church, yet outside my professional guild. Doctrine is deeply informed by the insights of the worshiping Church, and by the insights of disciples whose vocations take them into other disciplines. The disciplines of dogmatic theology, constructive theology, historical theology, biblical studies, philosophical theology, and so on are not aloof from the disciplines of any of God’s other disciples. They interact thoroughly with each other. This is all to say that while my faith is an indispensable prerequisite to adequate theological practice, I do not understand my personal experience of Jesus Christ, or the methods of my field, to be determinative for what the Church or my students should learn or believe. In Christ, I am subject to all those God appoints as prophets and teachers and calls into my life.

Yet my perspective as one disciple of Jesus Christ is a specific perspective, and it specifically informs the way I approach theology. I belong to a particular tradition (American evangelicalism) and a particular local church (Christian Assembly Foursquare Church). I am happy and fruitful in both. I make my own location within the body of Christ explicit to my students. But I am what Richard Mouw calls a "restless evangelical," unsatisfied with the narrow communities of inquiry and neat solutions that have sometimes characterized my own tradition (and every other Christian tradition). I go out of my way to stress that there are other legitimate perspectives, whose differences with my own are important. I have learned to appreciate the persuasive power of theological positions other than mine, and the basic consequences for faith and practice that are involved in which conclusions Christians endorse. I try to negotiate the treacherous ground between the opposite ecclesiological heresies of pluralism and provincialism. What makes me evangelical is deeply important to the way I do theology; but what makes me evangelical also keeps pushing me (and my students) into evangelicalism’s frontiers.

In ways like these, my personal and social faith informs my practice of theology. But the converse is equally true: My theological practice also deeply informs my faith, and intends to inform the faith of my students and readers. As the community of worshiping, witnessing disciples is the privileged place from which to engage in enquiry into God’s mysteries, so it is also the privileged object of the fruits of that enquiry. My research and my teaching aim to explore God’s nature and work, with the object of empowering God’s faithful. That means that Christian doctrine empowers Christian worship, maturity, mission, reconciliation, service, and ministry. I originally undertook formal theological education for the simple purpose of becoming empowered to serve the Church in whatever capacity God had in mind for me, and my own relationship with God has benefitted enormously from my academic theological efforts. My study of God has enriched my appreciation and enjoyment of God. So it should for the whole Church and the wider world. The objects of Christian enquiry are as many as the objects of basketball practice (victory, enjoyment, fellowship, discipline, external goods like money and social power, and simply basketball itself). The legitimate ends among these continue to guide my research and teaching agenda.

As a Christian with a calling to scholarly theology, my faith and my work depend upon each other. Both orthodoxy and orthopraxis must be healthy, or neither one is healthy. In my life, this makes my career in theology fun, rewarding, urgent, and glorifying to God. While my readers and students do not necessarily share a vocation in Christian scholarship, their faith and their works are related just as dialogically. So my goal as a teacher is to strengthen both directions of the relationship between faith and career in my students and readers. To return to the basketball analogy, I want to train critical thinkers who, like sports commentators, appreciate the game both through their own experiences of it (faith seeking understanding), and in order to experience it more profoundly (understanding serving faith).

Grace and peace, Telford