Theology is the encounter between gospel and culture. This still happens today. But we need to remember that it also happened in the past. In fact, this gospel encounter has a long history that reaches back through time and across cultures. This particular series of articles introduces the important relationship between theological scholars, lay people, and pastors. Today’s article focuses on theological scholars, who keep us connected to this long history of the gospel’s encounter with culture.
I find it helpful to think of theological scholarship in four areas. Biblical theology explores the meeting between gospel and culture in Scripture. Historical theology explores the meeting between gospel and culture as Christianity spread around the globe. Contextual theology explores the meeting between gospel and culture in contemporary contexts. Systematic theology explores all three in order to build a more coherent theology for a particular point in time.
So why do we need theological scholars today? I find several reasons.
These scholars devote themselves to the heavy lifting required to master the different disciplines of theology. This devotion involves years of intense study in order to master the languages and cultures found in Scripture and Christian history. This heavy lifting connects us to a wealth of important knowledge from the past.
Additionally, without these lessons from the past we inevitably will end up in error. To be sure, tradition can exercise an unfair amount of unquestioned authority. But our modern era threw off the shackles of tradition, often without discretion. As a result, “History became legend. Legend became myth . . . And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.” (Tolkien, Lord of the Rings) Tradition is a cruel master; however, it makes a pretty good servant. This heavy lifting connects us to important lessons from the past.
Finally, scholars can identify best practices from theology past for theology present. As mentioned earlier, theology has a long history of gospel encounters across a wide range of cultures. Scholars help us see how we’ve navigated in the past between the dangers of biblical error and cultural irrelevance. They can sharpen our vision of the unique roles of scholars, lay people, and pastors in this encounter, while outlining the complementary relationship between all three.
Theological scholars play a unique and vital role in theology; they keep us connected to our rich history of gospel encounters across a wide range of cultures. Next week’s article focuses on the important role that lay people play in this encounter.