I hate to get too predictable, but you can imagine how I responded when I saw the following in a recent advert from Paternoster Press:
James McClendon is right to assert that Theology is ‘not merely a reading strategy by which the church can understand Scripture; it is a way—for us, it is the way—of Christian existence itself’.
Disclaimers: (1) I do not know where James McClendon says this, therefore I do not have a larger context for interpreting what “theology” means here. (2) I do not know who this “us” is of whom he speaks.
Let me also say, first and foremost, that there are some ways that I can see myself affirming this sentence. If by “theology” you mean, “Jesus, the crucified Messiah, is resurrected Lord,” then I agree that this mini-narrative of Christian theology provides both the hermeneutical lens for making sense of scripture and provides us with the way of Christian existence itself.
If this is the life of Christ, after all, then we who are dubbed “little Christs” are called to renarrate this life in our own.
But of course, my concern is that this is not what the phrase means at all.
My concern is that it has taken a typical Evangelical mistake (relying on the Bible as though the Bible is THE thing, rather than Christ being THE thing) and pushed it back one further level from the appropriate target, landing on Christian theological articulations as THE things that determine faithful Christian faith and practice.
“The way,” of course, is Jesus.
The Bible testifies to Jesus as the way God has provided for the life of God’s creatures. It is one step removed from the person and his narrative, but is the access we have and the God-given interpretation of the saving story.
Theology in the traditional sense is a second step removed, as it reflects on what the Bible has said about Jesus who is the way and the God who provided Him.
If I’m reading the paragraph fairly, the claim that theology is the way of Christian existence is a door to a world in which theology forms the hermeneutic, identity, and praxis of a community. In such a world, articulating the correct theology becomes its own good–the very faithful practice God hopes for from Christians.
If theology is the way of Christian life itself, then mental constructions and statements of right belief become the markers of Christian life. And in so doing, following Christ along the way of the cross, being ambassadors of the message of reconciliation, feeding the hungry, caring for the parentless, embracing the outsider–all of these become second-order responses, and lie far from the center of faithful Christian practice.
But perhaps we can just agree (hard as it is for my inner 8 to say such a thing):
The theology by which we understand scripture is that Jesus is God’s messiah, given up on the cross and then raised and enthroned at God’s right hand.
This theology of the Christ is our way of life, because it means that all of our life should be a giving up of ourselves in order that all creation might live under the freedom of the risen Christ’s lordship.
Now that’s a “theology as the way of Christian existence” I can get behind–a theology in which theology itself is eclipsed by the Christ of whom it speaks.