Learning to Read Theology Charitably

Excerpted From
How to Read Theology
By Uche Anizor

In his final lectures, Karl Barth sums up a lifetime of theological work, memorably describing his vocation in this way: “Evangelical theology is concerned with Immanuel, God with us! Having this God for its object, it can be nothing else but the most thankful and happy science.”

Those who know the God of the gospel should need no convincing that theology—the contemplation of this God—has great value and is a source of great joy. Yet if we are honest, we recognize that as much as theology is the “happy science” in theory, many do not experience it as such. For example, Helmut Thielicke, in his famous Little Exercise for Young Theologians, locates the source of unhappiness primarily in the theological student.

In a chapter titled “Unhappy Experience with a Theologian’s Homecoming,” he recounts the story of a young seminarian who returns home “horribly changed” after his first semester of formal training. The simple and passionate faith he once had was replaced by hubris resulting from the new and fascinating ideas he has learned. After three semesters he becomes effectively useless for ministry in the church, being unable to condescend to the level of the average layperson. “The inner muscular strength of a lively young Christian,” Thielicke concludes, “is horribly squeezed to death in a formal armor of abstract ideas.”

Pride, immaturity, inexperience—these can convert a happy science into a somewhat suspect discipline. For while the young theologian found some form of joy in theological study, the desired beneficiaries of his learning experienced his joy as misery.

One response to this unhappy state of affairs could be to ignore the supposed cacophony of erudite voices—that is, the study of theology—in favor of the simple melody of Scripture alone. But that option is not available to us. In fact, the happy science must be carried out by theological students of all stripes in learned dialogue with theologians of the past and present. That is, we must read theology. Indeed, Barth points out that theological study must consist of at least two conversations: a primary and a secondary.

The first involves the student directly engaging with Scripture to discern what God is saying to her and her community in her time. Of the secondary conversation Barth writes, “The student must permit himself indirectly to be given the necessary directions and admonitions for the journey toward the answer which he seeks. Such secondary instructions are gained from theologians of the past, the recent past and from his immediate antecedents—through examination of their biblical exegesis and dogmatics and their historical and practical inquiries. … No one, however, should ever confuse this secondary conversation with the primary one, lest he lose the forest for the trees.”

We come to know God as we converse with fellow readers of the Bible. Yet this is precisely where another set of problems emerges, not so much for church members (as in Thielicke’s tale) as for the practitioners themselves. As a seminary student it was not uncommon for me to encounter a theological text and have absolutely no clue what to make of it. There was a strangeness to it, and it was not always evident how I could profit from it on my journey of faith seeking understanding. This sometimes resulted in frustration: with my professor for assigning such difficult and “unclear” readings, with the writer for being obscure or “unbiblical,” and with myself for being dull and “missing something.”

My situation is not unique. I remember giving a brief lecture on liberation theology to upper-year Bible and theology majors where the students repeatedly asked, “So what?” They were uncertain how these black, feminist and Latin American theologians could possibly be helpful to them, especially considering that (in their eyes) these theologians offered nothing discernibly biblical, or at least exegetical, in their formulations. Why spend time studying them? A fine question, I think, but somewhat misguided. On the one hand, the students were correct to assume that some writers are better guides into Scripture and the knowledge of God than others. On the other hand, they incorrectly assumed that if the text’s value was not self-evident and immediately experienced, the theology had little worth. In light of these concerns, if we are to read theology, how might we engage it profitably?

Obstacles to Intelligent Charity

To love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is an impossible task. Moreover, how does this all-encompassing command intersect with the particular activity of reading theology? Although the meaning of Jesus’ twofold love command appears fairly straightforward, it does require some elaboration, particularly if we are to apply it to the act of reading theology.

The attempt to bring this commandment into dialogue with the reading of texts is no new thing. Augustine, applying Christ’s twofold love command to the interpretation of Scripture, famously writes, “So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine Scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. Anyone who derives from them an idea which is useful for supporting this love but fails to say what the writer demonstrably meant in the passage has not made a fatal error, and is certainly not a liar.” The point for Augustine is that a reading of Scripture is good if it results in love for God and neighbor. Love is not primarily the disposition or driving motivation in reading, but more the outcome of proper interpretation, even if the interpretation is de facto wrong.

Alan Jacobs, in A Theology of Reading, extends Augustine’s inquiry into the field of literary hermeneutics, asking how Jesus’ command might shape our reading of literature. What might it look like to read with “intelligent charity”? he queries.

His essay is an extended theological reflection on the obstacles and challenges to, and the promise of, reading texts charitably. My concern, building on Jacobs, is to narrow the focus of such an inquiry to the field of theological literature.

Some contemporary philosophers also attempt to delineate a “principle of charity” for their discipline, consisting of tenets that encourage us to, for example, understand a point of view in its strongest form, assume coherence and attempt to resolve apparent contradictions. While quite helpful, these principles may not be radical enough. The love of neighbor that Jesus enjoins us to practice is a reflection of God’s love for us, revealed in Christ’s self-offering. This love involves giving oneself to another, intentionally pursuing another’s good with no expectation of reciprocation. The specific shape of this neighbor love is spelled out throughout the New Testament through positive and negative examples of what it means and does not mean to love others as ourselves. In what follows, we will examine a small sampling of New Testament passages that deal directly with love, with the aim of discerning potential obstacles to love before applying these observations to the act of reading theology. Specifically, we will look at the obstacles of pride, suspicion, favoritism and impatience—what I would call the “enemies of love.”

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Excerpted from How to Read Theology by Uche Anizor, ©2018. Used by permission of Baker Publishing BakerPublishingGroup.com.

Uche Anizor
Uche Anizor

Uche Anizor is associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University in La Mirada, California.