The other day I was talking on the phone with my Doktorvater (doctoral advisor) from my Ph.D. program, and we got into a bit of a debate on a theological topic. I understood his concerns with my position, but I did not think he was hearing what I was trying to say (most likely a result of my poor communication that day). Though we ended the conversation in disagreement, I felt strongly edified by the experience. Why? Because this conversation made me think more deeply about the Gospel, it made me rethink the way I express my point of view, and it held me accountable to the faith handed down to the saints.
This conversation reminded me that I cannot do theology alone.
Theology is a number of things, but it is, I think, three things fundamentally: 1) Discourse about God, 2) the Science of God, 3) and Faith Seeking Understanding. I think theology is most fundamentally #3: faith seeking understanding. When we have had a salvific encounter with the Triune God, we begin to reflect on that experience and make sense of it. We try to understand what just happened.
Since theology is fundamentally faith seeking understanding, then it is fundamentally a spiritual discipline. Theology is concerned with understanding the Triune God who saved us and what he means for understanding everything else in all creation. Our knowledge of who God is and what he expects informs his creatures on who they are and what is expected of them.
Part of our spirituality is our communal nature. God created humans to be in community because he is in community with himself as the Triune God. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit is the love that binds them all together. Since humans are made according to the image of God, they are expected to reflect this same communal nature. We have been created for community, and this is inseparable from our spirituality.
In the First Testament, God called Abraham to be the one through whom he would create a people for himself and with whom he would fellowship. This people was Israel, who grows into the Church in the New Testament. God’s intention to create a people to fellowship with, not an individual. Sure, communities are made up of individuals, but they are more than their individuals. Wholes are always more than the parts that make them up, though they are not less. This is very much true of the Church, which Wolfhart Pannenberg defines as “the fellowship of individual believers.” Our communal nature is essential to our spiritual nature.
Since our communal nature is essential to our spiritual nature, then it follows that theology, which is a spiritual discipline, should be a communal endeavor. The church does theology in community.
That theologians should do theology in community is not unique to the discipline of theology, nor is it unique only to the Church. All scientific disciplines are done in community. Physicists converse with other physicists. Mathematicians check their theories and equations with other mathematicians. Historians check their facts with other historians. All science is done in community, because it is within community that there are checks and balances.
Checks and balances are needed in scientific disciplines in order to preserve what is best for the discipline. If a physicist messes up an equation and there is no one else to correct her work, then her work gets published, and others see her work and take it as fact, then a large number of people have been led away from the truth after an error. The Church provides the same sort of checks and balances for theology.
If theologians do not practice their discipline in community, then they are liable to say just about anything whether it is true or not. Without the Church, i.e. the theological community, to provide accountability in the discipline of theology, the possibility for being led astray in error grows exponentially. Yes, theology is the scientific study God, and this fact demands that it be done in community.
Both the spiritual nature and the scientific nature of theology necessitate the community of the people of God, the Church. We cannot do theology alone.
Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 99.
I highly recommend Stanley J. Grenz’s and Jay T. Smith’s book on this topic. Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015).