Monday, June 8, 2009

What Is "Ecclesial" Theology?

The title of this blog invites further explanation of what it is about "ecclesial" theology that distinguishes it from other approaches to doing theology. "Theology" is of course "ordered thought" (logos) about "God" (theos), and as such it is something that has been pursued by individual Christians and Christians together in the community of the church since the beginnings of Christianity. As theology became a specialized academic field within the modern university, however, it often became a project in which individual theologians proposed their own ideas about God and things related to God in dialogue principally with other individual theologians' proposals about God and things related to God, frequently with little reference to the theology hammered out in the community of the church. There are many exceptions to this generalization, but while a typical modern systematic theology might reference earlier expressions of the church's theology to illustrate the range of options for explaining a given doctrine, most of the space allotted to a particular doctrinal rubric might be given to the original aspects of the individual theologian's expression of the doctrine and how it compares with other modern individual theologians' approach to the doctrine. What is missing in what I've just described is the sense that theology is an ecclesial discipline that is properly done "in" the church, as one who is first and foremost a member of the church and only then a member of the professional academy of theologians; "with" the church, as one who intently listens to what other members of the church, throughout its existence in history and in the totality of its global expression today, have to say about God and things related to God, and as one who actively seeks out opportunities for dialogue with these other Christian voices; and "for" the church, as one whose primary vocation is to contribute to the church's task of "teaching as she must teach if she is to be the church here and now" (the late Baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr.’s definition of the task of doctrine in his Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Vol. 2). If theology conceived as the work of individual systematic theologians and done in dialogue with other individual systematic theologians was a distinctively modern project, the way I've suggested conceiving of ecclesial theology represents a postmodern retrieval of something that was good and proper about the communal dimensions of pre-modern theology.

The contributions of individual theologians are in fact essential to the communal dimensions of ecclesial theology. Theologians have a unique charism as members of the body of Christ by virtue of their calling, intellectual gifts, academic preparation, and ongoing theologial scholarship in the service of the church. Whenever the church refuses to consider the contributions of those who have been given this charism, her task of "teaching as she must teach if she is to be the church here and now" suffers. But the task of theologians also suffers if they refuse to consider what the other members of the church, past and present, have to say in the conversation of ecclesial theology.

In a future post I'll point to a significant modern exception to the way I've characterized the ecclesial deficiencies of much modern theology, whom I regard as a model for the sort of ecclesial theologian I'd like to be.

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