The Four Elements of Good Theology

writingWhat makes for good theology? Or, to put it another way, what makes for creative wisdom?

Recently, I was reading The Future of Christian Theology (2011) by David Ford, the highly respected professor of theology at the University of Cambridge. I was given this book somewhat randomly (thanks Wiley-Blackwell) and decided to have a glance at it, finding rather soon how much I appreciated Ford’s style and insight. One of the things I most appreciated early in the text is what he identifies as the “Four Elements of Wise Creativity,” drawing on some of the most luminous minds of the twentieth century. Now, from the outset, it should be noted that none of these figures is female — Barth, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, de Lubac, Rahner, and von Balthasaar — and most of them are German, but I suppose aside from critiquing Ford’s apparent disinterest in stretching himself to include some women theologians to illustrate his point, I’m not sure what else there is to say about his admittedly idiosyncratic selection of examples.

“For brevity’s sake,” as he puts it, Ford selects these six theologians to highlight how his four elements of wise creativity come to play out in good theology in varying ways among the exemplars. Here I’d like to share the four point, each of which I think is spot-on and say just a few things about each

1. Wise and Creative Retrieval
Ford’s first element focuses on the need to know the historical Christian tradition and to be competent to engage it in an intelligent (i.e., “wise”) and creative manner. The paragon of wise and creative retrieval is Henri de Lubac, who is — in my opinion — the perfect example for this element. Ford summarizes this point by saying, “Christian theology must deal with the past, discerning how best to relate to it so as to resource the present and future. It is what French Roman Catholic theology of the early twentieth century called ressourcement, a return to sources that can nourish theology and life now.”

It might seem unfair to make a blanket claim, but it does appear to me from time to time that this element of good theology is undervalued today in the fields of theology and “religion,” more broadly. Speaking from experience, I love contemporary critical and social theory, I love the creative engagement of experience and other more “modern” resources in theological reflection, but I’m not willing to do theology ex nihilo – in fact, as Ford suggests, that is not really theology at all. For something to be Christian theology, it must give an account of itself in terms of the historical tradition within which it is situated and from which it arises.

2. Wise and Creative Engagement with God, Church, and World
This is where the other hand of the Second Vatican Council’s insightful theological reflection appears – aggiornamento, or the “bringing up to date.” Ford writes: “The double immersion in past and present for the sake of the future is a mark of wise and creative theologians.” Indeed it is. Exclusive focus on the epochal or classic results in the exercise of history alone (which, in itself, is not a bad thing — but it is not, according to Ford — wise and creative theology) and simple exploration of theory and experience results in sociology or some other academic consideration that is not rooted in the tradition. Both are necessary for good theology.

Ford sees this creative engagement with God, Church, and World as that which leads theologians beyond the text or subject toward the world in such a way as to respond to, as Gaudium et Spes would have it, “the signs of the time” in light of the Gospel, tradition, experience, and reason.

3. Wise and Creative Thinking
This might seem like an obvious point, but it is one upon which to reflect more deeply. Ford writes: “Thinking goes on in all four aspects of theological wisdom-seeking and creativity. Some of it is what might be termed basic intellectual good practice: asking appropriate questions, thinking logically, using experience and evidence appropriately, ordering arguments clearly, seeking and testing insights, recognizing the variety of ways in which different discourses can be developed, and acknowledging who are the models of good practice to whom appeal can be made.” Here Ford is really emphasizing the necessity of proper philosophical footing and background in wise and creative theological reflection. He insists that it is “wise for theologians to have their minds trained in such practices and to be aware of the issues that need to be faced in them,” but that theologians should not feel the onus to make original technical contributions to the specific fields of philosophy.

Just as knowing the tradition and being aware of the contemporary concerns, experiences, and sources are important, so too is the method or mode of thinking that informs the theological reflection. Recently, I heard an interview with a man who identifies himself as a scholar of religion who has written a popular book on the historical Jesus. During an NPR interview, it became clear that his understanding of some basic tenets of ancient philosophy lacked what Ford is here advocating. As a result, I — someone who is likely more attuned to these concerns and issues than the average NPR listener — found his conclusions to not necessarily follow in the way he was suggesting. He may have thought he was engaging in creative theological or religious reflection, but there was a noticeable paucity of wisdom in his work and words.

4. Wise and Creative Expression
This is perhaps the element that I find to be the most important! Ford begins this section with this direct observation: “Theology often does not read well.” Amen.

He goes on: “This does not disqualify it as creative theology by the other three criteria, but yet its purpose is not fulfilled unless it is made as accessible as possible. For this, appropriate genres, structures, and forms are needed, together with attractive language. Many academic theologians are not gifted in this respect, and very few are good at more than one or two of the wide range of arts ideally required to communicate theology as widely and effectively as possible…The ideas and images are already enmeshed in language, and writing is itself a creative task, in which fresh theological insights can occur. So good theology can become better theology through being expressed better.”

Ford suggest that for those theologians for whom writing is not a natural gift (and, as he points out, this is widely the case), collaboration with colleagues, artists, writers, composers, etc., might help move the theological reflection from a self-contained and limited expression to a true wise and creative form of theology. I couldn’t agree more. So often theologians — particularly junior theologians and grad students — think that there is a “style” or “form” to “academic writing” that necessitates a dry, boring, arcane, and largely inaccessible expression. This perception is reinforced by the reams of journal and book pages filled with such writing. However, this is simply an untruth. Good writing is good writing. Bad writing is not “academic” or “scholarly” — it is just bad writing.

For theology to be good, this last element must be taken as seriously as the retrieval of the past, the engagement with the present, and the mode and method of one’s reflection.

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5 Responses to “The Four Elements of Good Theology”

  1. Dan, thanks for pointing us to this book! I’m curious whether Ford considers faith to be prerequisite for good theology. I know that folks in academic theology have strong and varying opinions about this…

    • “You can study or teach Christian theology from a wide range of personal positions, Christian, non-Christian, or somewhere between or hard to categorize. It is a strength that the subject can be engaged in from many angles, including being treated as an academic subject like any other: it demands intelligent study but not a particular religious commitment in the student or teacher…It is not helpful to the field to insist on a sharp division between Christian ‘insider’ and the non-Christian ‘outsider.’ Both of those terms include a huge variety of positions that may differ sharply from each other or be held in complex interrelationship; and many people are on a journey between positions, studying Christian theology in order to help make up their minds. Yet it is clearly essential to the field of Christian theology that there are those who are committed to it as Christians” (168).

  2. Father Dan, I appreciate your thoughts with respect to “Wise and Creative Retrieval”. We cannot ignore the foundations from which ideas evolve any more than we can try to plant ideas without ground to support them. Maintaining the delicate balance between the two helps us advance our understanding. I think one of the weaknesses for many Christians today is an overemphasis on the past, even a wish to return to it, rather than using our wise foundations to build a more dynamic vibrancy into our theology.

  3. Thank you for sharing this post Dan! It was a very good read and is really informative. I’ve learned so much from reading it. It would be great to read more articles from you. May God bless you. :)

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