Theology as Catechism and Criticism

R. Michael Allen
John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

Inflation hits in more areas than your bank account. Recent months and years have made life far more expensive. Just as surely, recent events and crises have seemed to make the work of theological education seem far more costly. Pandemics. Wars. Injustices. Polarization. Scandals. A whole host of challenges beg for attention, each upping the ante on what’s involved when we step back and look up, when we slow down and ponder, when we turn off the screen and turn again to God’s Word. I can’t promise fewer crises or point to deflationary forces, so I want to take these few brief moments at the beginning of this year to attend again to the purpose and principles of what we are doing here. Other scriptural texts and themes could and should be considered, but this morning we will attend to the words of this prophetic summons as one crucial lens for understanding our calling to engage in theological education. We are called to the context where God’s prophetic Word has its way, and that’s a space that involves repentantly being put to death and faithfully made alive. It’s a Word that itself offers criticism even and as it invites us to the task of catechism.

Theological Education as Dying

The same God who speaks truth also defines the goal or aim of our ministry of that Word. We know from the prophets that this word does not return void, but we must ask what it aims to accomplish. Here the prophet Jeremiah is given six infinitives to depict and constrain its end, to norm and limit its purpose. This word comes “to tear down and pluck up, to destroy and overthrow, to build and plant” (1:10). These infinitives come in two sorts. Four aim to kill followed by two that make alive.

We should begin with that deconstructive or mortifying aim of theological education. Studying theology involves being put to death (and having your falsehood continually crucified). We dare not assume that religious rhythms guarantee covenant fealty. Jeremiah later conveys: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’” (Jer. 7:3-4). The status quo is never simply acceptable and to be assumed, and so the Word has to call it – to call us – to account. And I emphasize that word us; Jeremiah is called to address nations and empires and them, but his word begins with the house of the Lord.

Note that the Word of God delivers this ministry of death. Now there are moments where the church may have grown calloused. There are episodes where a Pharaoh or an Abimelech has a better sense of husbandly duty than does Father Abraham (Gen. 12:18; 20:3-7). There are times where a Jonah’s alertness to good sense only follows the prior impulse of pagan sailors (Jonah 1:6). And Jeremiah itself conveys how God may employ Nebuchadnezzar to convey judgment and cultivate good, repentant sense in Israel (Jer. 21). Such moments are to our shame, but they may also be gifts whereby we are pin-pricked by the moral moments of non-Christians and inspired by their commitments to return to true and good paths. Non-Christian philosophy or politics can sometimes attest elements that are worthy and wise, and there we are wise to plunder the Egyptians where treasure may be found. But we are also always in exile in this life, and it is God’s Word that intervenes to tear down and pluck up, it is God Word that speaks to destroy and overthrow. Theology is critical and does not need supplementation from elsewhere to attain that kind of prompt. “To the extent that the Christian community is possessed by its Gospel, it will be protected against social conformity.”[1]

Theology has a critical task, though it dare not drift into cynicism. It is premised on the hope that God will discipline and transform us. Theology has an inquisitive end, but that cannot be confused with an ironic posture or valorization of curiosity for its own sake. Its searching, bruising method takes its momentum from the life-giving provocation of God’s own Word. The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12), and so theology alerts us to the ongoing challenge of the gospel which kills that which embodies the old Adam and enslaves us.[2] Theology begins and ends always with the axiomatic first commandment that God alone is the living and true Lord, and all else remains captive to his lordship and called to repentance by his Word.

Theological Education as Rising

Theology’s purposive path does not stop with the critical moment. Other images like cultivation and maturation vividly portray the notion of a flowering and a furthering of the Christian and the church. And here Jeremiah’s prophetic call also speaks of building and planting.

Building plays a foundational role in placing together parts where they belong. In one sense, the structure is as strong and appealing as ever when move-in ready, before anything has busted or broken. Planting, however, suggests an investment in that which will slowly accumulate size and strength and only eventually reap benefits. The Word not only brings us to new life as marked by baptism; the Word continues to grow us so that, just as we are called to God’s table again and again to receive his body and blood, so we would also gain nutrients and strength from his Word day by day.

We learn from Jeremiah’s prophecy that this building and planting occurs not only by saying the Word but also by obeying the Word. In Jeremiah 29, we see that the exiles addressed by Jeremiah are called to build and to plant (29:5). We plant roots and build up future generations formed by the faith once for all delivered to the saints. In so doing we pursue theology’s second great task, that of catechetically passing along the Word of God, removing neither jot nor tittle. God’s Word is read and is proclaimed – has been and will continue to be proclaimed – and we are to receive that proclamation gratefully and to pass it along expectantly.

Theology has a catechetical task, though it dare not drift into assuming we have yet arrived. God’s presence and proclamation have arrived, however, and revealed himself with power and grace. God’s Word has caused ripples which have spread through the ages and around the globe. So we aim to prepare “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt. 13:52), and theology awakens in each new generation a devotion to that good deposit and deepens in us a commitment to the fifth commandment: an appreciation for honoring our spiritual fathers and mothers by being faithful to the Word they have passed along.[3] “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8); therefore, we will “remember our leaders, those who taught us the Word of God, considering the outcome of their way of life, and imitating their faith” (Heb. 13:7).

Theological Education as God’s Prophetic Activity

Tearing down and building up are high callings. To practice crucifixion and resurrection is a lofty summons. To honor the first commandment which leads away from idolatry and to keep the fifth commandment which leads toward taking up and passing on the faith once for all delivered to the saints are weighty challenges. The final thing to perceive about prophecy is that it is not self-generated. Formation and instruction. Cultivation and maturation. Other educational terms can each speak of self-prompted protocols. Cultivating a new skill, forming a new habit. Each of those images is crucial, but they can be easily (mis)perceived as something we do on our own. That said, prophecy is obviously and emphatically a gift from beyond. The call to Jeremiah signals this emphasis with the enacted parable of the hand putting God’s own word in the prophet’s mouth (1:9). The litany of loving provision appears in our passage: from “I am with you” (1:8; also 1:19) to “I have put my words in your mouth” (1:9) to “I am watching over my word to perform it” (1:11).

Prophecy comes from above. Prophecy involves God placing his life-giving Word to human lips. At the end of the day, that’s what makes crucifixion and resurrection words of hope and not of judgment. The God who can touch the mouth is the God who can also call the dead child out of the lifeless abyss: “Talitha cum” (Mk. 5:41). Theology that follows God’s prophetic Word can follow the warning that “God is not summoned into the presence of reason; reason is summoned before the presence of God.”[4]

Faith and Repentance in the Classroom

Simone Weil spoke of our modern need for roots amid a terrain that seems to be superficial and changing. She went further to address our constant call also to astonishment, lest rootedness be purchased at the expense of restlessness (see her book, The Need for Roots). We are called to instill the shape of the faith and to guard the good deposit, and yet we dare not ever find solace in the status quo. We are to seek the sanctification not only of that world out there but also of our insufficiencies in here. In our studies just as much as in our sanctuaries or out on the streets, God’s Word is enough. As the first of the Ten Theses of Berne (1528) calls us to confess: “The holy Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, abides in the same, and does not listen to the voice of a stranger.”

Costly as it is, may what we do here be one more instance in the way of faith and repentance, of laying down not only our life but our ideals, imagination, and ideas and finding that in that surrender God gives us new life, new hope, new knowledge. May we find too that not only in our churches and in our communities but also here in these classrooms that Christ’s Word is enough, enough to kill and enough to make alive, enough to begin and enough to grow, enough to give grace and enough to bring us to glory. May not only our selves but also our studies find his gracious Word and his glorious works always to be enough. Amen.

[1] Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 226.

[2] See especially John Webster, “Reading Theology” Toronto Journal of Theology 13 (1995), 59.

[3] See Webster, “Reading Theology,” 56.

[4] John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 17.