Theology in the Real World
It’s been said that Martin Luther was an occasional theologian. Luther did theology as occasions arose. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t doing theology otherwise. It simply means that theology for Luther wasn’t some abstract thing removed from daily life and the people around him. I suppose the same could be said of Jesus. Jesus often taught to specific situations or people. Most preachers, too, if they are honest, will admit their sermons suffer when they aren’t out listening, hearing confessions, absolving, counseling, visiting the sick and dying, rubbing elbows, even with the most broken. The parish is a powerful teacher, precisely because it forces pastors to do theology in a context and not in the abstract, not merely to say it right, but to say it to and for actual people, wherever they’re at.
In systematics, the study of doctrine, we sometimes speak of theology as a habitus practicus. What’s that? You can see some English words in there. Theology is a practical habit—that is, an aptitude cultivated to be applied in the real world in daily life. It’s not speculation for speculation’s sake. In fact, theology ought not be speculative at all. Christian theology is rooted in revelation. Theology is immersion in the Word of God—being taken captive by it. The Word reads us, sifts us, rears us, and then calls us to be occasional theologians, whatever our vocations.
Theology becomes a dangerous thing when it deals in abstractions. Two fatal mistakes take place. First, the theologian (all Christians should be theologians, by the way) forgets who he or she is. He or she loses sight of his or her own sin and need of grace as a sinner-saint whose old Adam needs constant mortification and discipline. Second, the theologian deals with abstract sinners and abstract sins—the easiest to judge, the easiest to deal with unlovingly, the easiest to disparage and slander—because they aren’t real to you, none of your theologizing is personal. This becomes especially easy to do online, but can happen within the hive of the church, a circle of friends, or a life lived among people half-known and poorly served, as people who are people to us but not neighbors.
Theology in abstraction isn’t theology at all, because Christian theology, at the end of the day, deals with God as He is, revealed to us, which is God for us—for you, for me. If our theology becomes a ‘crossing of t’s’ and a ‘dotting of i’s’, a quest for a system or ideology thoroughly clean and without contradiction, it’s lost its power and purpose and, likely, we’ve become a caricature and the cross a mere conception.
Luther said the cross alone is our theology (crux sola est nostra theologia), and, if that’s so, if Christ crucified for sinners is the heart and center of it all, then the distinction between Law and Gospel, both living and breathing, becomes the only way to make sense of the Scriptures and the backbone of Christian preaching, teaching, and life.
Theology doesn’t belong in a vacuum. We don’t do theology to win an argument, teach someone a lesson, maintain our personal purity, or make sure we get the math right. We need to be concrete theologians, occasional theologians, Christians to whom God has revealed Himself, who then apply that revelation where and with whom we find ourselves, in real situations, with real people, with real love, with a real desire to see sinners—sinners like us—forgiven and saved. Our end is never to fix the sinner, solve the problem, protect our institution.
Our end is to make known the God who has made Himself known, to point to the Christ to Whom others have pointed us, into whose death and resurrection we have been immersed in Baptism, along with its benefits, even Baptism by sprinkling. God calls us to do theology concretely, as real sinners, for real sinners, as declared saints, for those God declares saints through His absolution.
If you find yourself worked up about sin out there, committed by faceless sinners, or sinners whose face is but a reflection for you of some wrong you need to right, some evil you need to vanquish, some criminal you need to condemn, pray the Lord to deliver you from your theology of abstraction, to pour some concrete, to steady your feet again and set your eyes and intentions right. Start with yourself and work out from there.
Have your sins become abstractions? Have you become an abstraction? Have the Means of Grace become abstractions? Are you just doing math, connecting dots, getting the facts straight, all at the expense of your own repentance and the repentance and forgiveness of people who need yet to become your neighbors? Repent, and rejoice to have a concrete Savior, Who saves sinners, real people, in real places, with real faces, and real needs. When we do that, then we’re ready to turn to others, we have something concrete to offer, and we have a perspective and mindset in which to offer it.
Christ Jesus, He who saves, make us occasional theologians, for our good, and the good of our neighbor. Lord, cement us in Your undeserved love, together with our neighbors, broken as they might be. Amen.
This post ran formerly as “Occasional Theology” on December 4, 2017