Farmers of Men (by Joel Chopp)

Recently I read an insightfully sharp post by a good friend of mine. With his permission I am reposting his entry:

What are theologians for?

 
 
“I think theologians, like farmers, are here to cultivate something: humanity. To paraphrase our Lord, theologians are here to be and to train farmers of men.” 
– Kevin Vanhoozer
 
Dr. Vanhoozer’s initial answer to the question posed to him in Trinity’s first symposium on Systematic Theology was—riffing on Wendell Berry’s What Are People For?—that theologians are in the business of growing things. Surprising idea, given that contemporary notions of the role of doctrine in the church would suggest rather different metaphors; taxidermist or typewriter repairman would probably be more appropriate. Nevertheless, the role of the theologian is that of one who is in the business of planting, watering, cultivating, pruning, and harvesting. It is not his seed, nor his bounty, nor is it his duty to cause the growth—that last bit, mercifully, is up to God.
 
It is a struggle to think of dogma as that which cultivates life, which enables one to live well. I think this struggle comes on from two fronts—from outside the church, we are told that learning dogma, or doctrine, or (worst of all words) being “indoctrinated” is some sort of process by which Christians more forcibly shove their head into the sand and ignore the reality around them. 
 
I wrote that last sentence before looking up Oxford’s definition of the word, which is really quite remarkable:
 
Definition of indoctrinate
verb
[with object]
 
teach (a person or group) to accept a set of beliefs uncritically: broadcasting was a vehicle for indoctrinating the masses
archaic: teach or instruct (someone):he indoctrinated them in systematic theology
 
There it is: the demise of doctrine, enshrined in the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary.
 
Verbicide—the murder of words—most often occurs not with a sudden hostile takeover of a word, but with a slow and steady decline. As Lewis observed, “[T]he greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative, while still retaining some hint of the sort of goodness or badness implied; and to end up by being purely evaluative—useless synonyms for good or bad.”[1]
 
Thankfully, doctrine does not stand or fall with the demise of the term’s meaning in contemporary English. But it is not merely the word, but the concept which the word refers to which has fallen on hard times; that is to say, it has been pretty rough sledding for both the sense and reference of the word doctrine.
 
The key evaluative descriptor in the above definition is uncritically; from outside the church the idea of learning the doctrines of the faith is presented as an exercise in brainwashing—as if asking critical questions, grappling with texts and their meanings, and struggling through the evidence ‘to see if these things are true’ were somehow inimical to theology. This is, of course, nonsense; if it were true, theologians would be quite out of a job. Consider Charles Wood definition of theology, “Christian theology is a critical inquiry into the validity of Christian witness,”[2]  or Trevor Hart’s definition, “Theology is the passionate quest for public truth about God, about ourselves, and about the world we live.”[3]  The entire theological enterprise consists in grappling with what has been passed on to us, and to be consistent enough to be as skeptical of our doubts as of our certainties.
 
From inside the church, theology is given a suspicious eye for altogether different reasons: doctrine is boring, divisive, unpractical; it is more often ignored than criticized. Doctrine is something people argue over, not something that cultivates life. No doubt many a theologian has done their fair share of contributing to this perception—quibbling over speculations or doing their best to empty the drama of dogma of all its life and vitality. But I suspect that the blame does not lay wholly with the theologians, but with a common misunderstanding about what doctrine actually is. 
 
Christian doctrine is the church’s response to the question, “What do you think of Christ?”
 
“The Church’s answer is categorical and uncompromising, and it is this: That Jesus Bar-Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, was in fact and in truth, and in the most exact and literal sense of the words, the God “by whom all things were made.”[4]
 
Dorothy Sayers in Creed or Chaos, after sketching the drama of the incarnation writes the following:
 
“So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the under-dog and got beaten, when He submitted to the conditions He had laid down and became a man like the men He made, and the me He made broke Him and killed Him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama which God is the victim and hero.
If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore—on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium.”[5]
 
It is precisely because theology is the study of this answer—the terrifying drama of the God-man who we have killed and death could not hold—that it is worth fighting for. The problem with dogma isn’t that it is divisive: the intelligibility, coherence, and faithful witness to what God has done and is doing in Christ is at stake, and it demands that we pay it the respect of thoughtful exclusion. Some teachings must be excluded: they cannot reasonably cohere with the Scriptural attestation of God’s work in Christ.[6]
 
Dogma is worth arguing over, but not all arguments are equally important. It is here that the burden can rightfully be laid on the theologians back: failing to discern which doctrines mandate division and which do not has been a perennial shortcoming of Protestant theology since the Reformation. We have too quickly sold the farm to go searching of untainted fields to plow when we should have held firm, even in disagreement. In spite of this, I think there may be hope—it is not too late to begin mending fences where we can. There is good reason to think that it may soon be an inevitable requirement. The present-day church, standing in wake of Christendom, will likely need to find its allies wherever it can. The growing antipathy to orthodox Christianity in the West may very well end up serving as renewed motivations for unity.
 
Theology is the craft of cultivating humanity, “the craft of living well to God.”[7] To till land and wrestle earth, to pray for rain and trust God in drought, to praise Him in harvest and bless Him in famine—it is for this purpose that Christ calls his disciples.
 
“And straightway, they left their plowshares, and followed him.” 
 
 
 
 
 
 

[1] C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 7–8.
[2] Charles Monroe Wood, An Invitation to Theological Study (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 4.
[3] Trevor A. Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 90. There were a number of other definitions which disputed this misperception: consider: Ian Barbour, “Theology is the systematic and self-critical reflection of a paradigm community concerning its beliefs,” (Myths, Models, and Paradigms, 176) or Tom Oden, “The essential purpose of theology is to study and bring into fitting consistent expression the truth of the Christian faith… This clarification asks for fair-minded analysis, critical reasoning, tolerance, and logical coherence, as well as active listening to Scripture and tradition.” (Classic Christianity, 6).
[4] Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949), 3.
[5] Ibid., 5.
[6] C.f. McGrath’s definition, “Heresy is best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of Christian faith.”Alister E. McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 11–12.
[7] William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, trans. John Dykstra Eusden (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1968), 1.1.

One thought on “Farmers of Men (by Joel Chopp)

  1. Ben, thanks for reposting this! I miss you, brother, and pray for you regularly.

    Joel, thanks for writing this. I enjoyed reading it very much, and was excited to hear the echoes of our conversation on Wednesday evening. I’m so glad you are at First Free and look forward to your participation in tilling the proverbial soil at our church!

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