In which we pause to think about ’theological method’ or how we do theology, while listening to two women thinking out aloud together.
[Two women, Cathy and Becky, are chatting in the sunshine after their book club has met. Kevin, a small child, wanders around happily in the garden before them. Note: all similarities to any Cathys or Beckys, living or deceased are purely coincidental, though as both women strike me as thoughtful Christians, resembling them might not be such a bad thing.]
Cathy: You know, I really enjoyed Wendy’s book, but I can’t help feeling it’s a bit messy.
Becky: Oh? How do you mean?
Cathy: It’s not a criticism, I’m just struggling a bit with the sense that there are heaps of loose ends, you know what I mean?
Becky: I think I might — like there are lots of things that don’t quite fit together?
Cathy: Yeah. Though when you put it that way it does sound like a criticism!
Becky: Actually that’s one of the things I like about the book.
Cathy: Really? You like it?
Becky: Yes, because it means that she's really doing theology. It’s not a kind of cookie-cutter thing where everything ends up being super neat with no loose ends. Those kinds of books are helpful too. But I really liked the way Wendy’s was a bit untidy because it captures the reality of doing theology.
Cathy: That it isn’t neat?
Becky: More that it’s a struggle. You have to keep working at it. You never finish doing theology. You never have God that nailed down that you really understand everything about him.
Cathy: But we know God in the Lord Jesus.
Becky: Oh, yes! I didn’t mean that we didn’t know him at all. I meant that if we thought that we knew everything there was to know about God saving us, for example, there would still be more to know and understand. We know that God saves us because Jesus died for us and we respond by believing that and trusting him to keep his promises. But there is still a lot more to think about.
Cathy: Yeah, I see what you mean. It's like I can explain to my Kevin that God saves us because Jesus died for us and we need to trust him, but I understand it more than Kevin and that's good for me. I know, for example, that Jesus died for me when I was his enemy.
Becky: Yeah, that probably is fairly advanced for a four year old.
Cathy: Kevin wouldn‘t think so — he thinks he‘s all grown up! But getting back to my better understanding of salvation — it actually helps me appreciate God more.
Becky: I think so too. It means that we don’t take things for granted and that we take God as seriously as we might take having a major operation or something really big. We don't just muddle through as though it doesn’t matter. We find out the facts, even when we feel out of our depth.
Cathy: Yes, Wendy was saying that at the beginning of the book. I seem to remember something about short devotional sayings …
Becky: Oh, yeah. She really doesn’t like them!
Cathy: I can kind of see why though. They might be helpful but they don’t help you really think something through to the end. You just get bits. I mean, I found it really helpful to think about what the Bible says about prayer from reading Wendy's book.
Cathy: Yes, I realised that I wouldn’t really know where to go in the Bible to back up what I think about prayer.
Becky: So, the Lord’s Prayer as a basis was really helpful?
Cathy: Absolutely. And more than that, actually thinking about why I might use the Lord’s Prayer rather than, say, the prayer of Jabez …
Becky: Heh, she really doesn’t like people using that as a model!
Cathy: Yes, I remember that bit. But when she says that the whole Old Testament points to Jesus and that is how we read it, that really changed things for me. So when I read things about prayer in the Old Testament, like Gideon or Moses, I don’t necessarily need to see them as a model for my prayer.
Becky: Well, that’s true. They didn’t know God as Father for a start.
Cathy: Yeah, and that completely changes prayer.
Becky: Totally. And the context is different as well. I mean both Gideon and Moses were leaders of God’s people at really critical times. We’re not.
Cathy: So we’re not like them.
Becky: But we can still learn from them.
Cathy: I liked how Wendy brought that out when she quoted that verse from I Corinthians about us using them as examples. But we have to really think about how we might learn from them, because we are in such a different place because we know Jesus.
Becky: And that is so helpful to keep in mind as we read the Old Testament.
Cathy: Exactly. I found that really useful because I’ve often thought the Old Testament seems to flatly contradict the New Testament. When I think about it now, I think about how different things are in the Old Testament because Jesus hasn’t come yet. And that everything in the Old Testament points to him and his coming and death for us.
Becky: I love how that makes Jesus’ death for us even bigger: everything has been leaning forward, pointing towards that big event!
Cathy: Yes, it’s not just a kind of back up plan, but God’s big plan of salvation over all time and history. So, it makes sense that if I want to know where to start when thinking about prayer, that going to the Lord’s Prayer is a great place.
Becky: Because it’s Jesus teaching his followers about prayer.
Cathy: Which is what we are, so it makes sense for us to take that as our starting point.
Becky: And add in other things from other parts of the Bible.
Cathy: Which is probably what you are getting at about it being a bit messy. You start and then you add things in, because the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t say everything about prayer. And sometimes it’s obvious how they everything fits together …
Becky: And sometimes it really isn’t.
Cathy: So, theology is all about reading the Bible well, and constantly. And prayerfully trying to think things through.
Becky: I agree — and thinking about how different issues in the Bible fit together, without distorting the overall message. That’s huge. We couldn’t do it at all without knowing that Jesus was at the centre and that his Spirit helps us do this kind of thinking. But it’s going to look untidy as we do it.
Cathy: Yes, that makes sense. So messy isn’t bad. It can mean that real theology is in progress.
[Enter Kevin, covered in mud and carrying several worms, which he waves in his mother’s face with all the enthusiasm a four-year-old can muster. He has exciting observations regarding natural science to impart and this brings the conversation to a conclusion.]