If you will allow me an overly general observation, there are fundamentally two kinds of theology with two corresponding ways of thinking about ministry. One is a theology from above which moves from revelation to experience, context being secondary and sometimes irrelevant to the overall task of constructing an internally coherent web of ideas. Theology then, is a task completed before ministry. Ministry in this approach is an application of an already settled content. The questions about God are answered in the pastor’s office and subsequently conveyed to the congregation as the authoritative results of theological investigation.
The second is a theology from below which moves from experience to revelation and back to experience. Here, the congregation and its environment is more than a place to apply the settled results of previously determined theology, but is actually a source for theology, proceeding on the assumption that a living God is active in the circumstances of our lives. Ministry, then, is a practice of discernment, attending to the life of the congregation and its environment while living in the historical practices of the church. While the first kind of theology looks for complete statements about God, tying one idea necessarily to another, the second is confessional, carrying its claims about God more provisionally, subject to further review.
Again, these are massively simplistic renderings of what in practice are complex realities. Gadamer and others have taught us that all knowledge is circular. Theory is always informed by experience, and our experience is always being interpreted in light of traditions passed down to us. These things are always happening simultaneously, even though we might be able to distinguish between theory and practice in the various moments of coming to understanding. For Gadamer, the issue is not whether or not there is a “hermeneutical circle,” but how we enter it.
I will also say that both kinds of theology are important and have their place. While I fashion myself as doing the second kind, practitioners of the first kind populate by book shelves and help me check my work.
Ok, with these caveats and apologies offered, I want to say that the Bible is fundamentally doing the second kind of theology. There are no big summations of theological ideas, no systematic treatments of topics like the Trinity, Christology, soteriology (salvation), or ecclesiology (the church). Instead, every writing is responsive to an occasion. The impetus for writing is related to the facts on the ground and the need to say something meaningful about God’s involvement in the circumstances confronting churches. And that is still what ministers attempt to do everyday. This, in my estimation, is the first vocation of the theologian/pastor.
As I’ve been pointing out in the last few blogs, this is just as true for the gospels as it is for Galatians or Titus. Jesus, in the case of the gospels, is not reduced to an abstract set of principles, as is the case with atonement theories and the like, but rather the details of the narrative elements of Jesus’ life find their importance for the writer in light of the challenges facing actual congregations. It’s not enough to say that God became flesh in Jesus, but to place the event of Jesus’ birth in a lowly place surrounded by lowly people in Luke’s case, or to put Jesus’ birth in the context of Herod’s political machinations reminiscent of Pharaoh to underscore that God is with his people (Immanuel) even to the end of the age. Jesus’ death is not simply a way for sins to be forgiven for Luke, but happened in a certain way to unmask the injustice of keeping the peace through violence, through the state sanctioned power of violence as opposed to the kingdom of God’s reliance only on the power of the Holy Spirit. My point here, is that the details of Jesus’ life are important, not just in some general sense, but in relation to the pastoral needs of congregations.
Going forward, I hope to suggest how the big themes in each gospel seem to correspond to an occasion. Some of this will be working backwards, the occasions being reconstructed by the identification of the themes. This has the disadvantage of being hypothetical work. But I proceed on the premise that the church consistently affirmed the importance of the diversity of the gospels, of having four gospel, and not just one big gospel that rules them all. I hope to show that this diversity is related to the ongoing need for discernment related to a living God, a risen Christ, and a Holy Spirit.