Why and How Theology Matters

Taken from the Theology Matters conference of 2021.

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.

1 CORINTHIANS 4:1-2

I have a secret shame. I always feel better—cleaner, revitalized—after reading theology, even poor theology, as it caresses and probes every crevice of the unknowable.

JOHN UPDIKE, ROGER’S VERSION

We are all together at a “Theology Matters” conference, so I think it’s safe for me to assume that everyone here agrees … theology really does matter. Because we all agree that theology matters, I can assume that we meet regularly with colleagues to probe the depths of the gospel and do our own theological work in preparation for teaching the faith in session meetings, confirmation groups, adult education classes, and, of course, worship. Perhaps most importantly, I can assume that each of us feels better, revitalized by our theological work because it is vital to our stewardship of the mysteries of God, central to our trustworthiness as ministers of Word and Sacrament––ruling as well as teaching elders.

Because I don’t have to convince you that theology matters, I’d like us to talk a bit about why and how theology matters in the life of the church. I will begin by telling you something about myself, not because I am all that interesting, but because it shaped my earliest understanding of how and why theology matters.

I did not grow up in the church. My parents were not church-goers; my Sunday mornings were spent on my bike riding dirt roads to deliver the New York Times, Herald-Tribune, Boston Globe, and Springfield Union to widely separated farms and houses. If you’d asked little Joey Small if he believed in God, he would have said, “Sure, doesn’t everyone?” How, then, did I get from there to here? It took a religious studies course in college (because I thought it would be easy), which led to what I thought would be a “gap year” of studying patristics before heading to law school, wonderful professors, including Markus Barth, Dietrich Ritschl, and Ford Battles, and an assigned year at the Wesley Center African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in the Hill district of Pittsburgh. Then, on an early Spring morning of that first year I realized that I believed it all.

Providence of God or dumb luck? Part of me would like to think that God’s hand was in all of this, but then what do I do about the things in my life that didn’t turn out well? Was God’s hand in that unpleasantness, or does God direct the good things in my life while setting me loose to take wrong turns on my own? I’ve been “called” to three pastorates, and to positions at Pittsburgh Seminary and the General Assembly Office of Theology and Worship. Were my calls and the calls of other ministers always God’s doing?

Church life is full of loose talk about “what God is doing in the world” and “God’s leading in my life”—talk that frequently results in God conveniently doing what we want to do and leading where we want to go. How do we know what God is doing in the world, and what God is doing in each of our lives? Can we be certain that our prayers for guidance are answered by the Lord’s whisper rather than by the echo of our wishes? Is the decline of mainline churches in North America part of God’s providential purpose? God’s judgment? God’s abandonment? The precursor to God’s reforming grace?

These are not questions asked only by ministers and elders. Church members and those outside the church ask them as well. And this is only one aspect of broader questions about the real presence of Christ and the blowing wind of the Holy Spirit. I’ve spent decades thinking and praying about the providence of God without quite getting to a neat answer. Even so, it is a question that merits my theological seriousness so that I can respond honestly and helpfully to others who also ponder the presence of God in the world, in the church, and in their lives.

Is It True?

Before Karl Barth became the Karl Barth of the Church Dogmatics he was the pastor of a small congregation in a small Swiss town for ten years. Toward the end of his pastorate he published a commentary on Romans that made him something of a celebrity. He became a professor and frequent speaker at pastors’ conferences. In one address, “The Need and Promise of Christian Proclamation,” Barth drew on his pastoral experience to talk about what happens on Sunday mornings”

On Sunday morning as the bells start to ring, calling the community and the pastor to church the moment heaves with anticipation of a great, meaningful, even decisive event. The anticipation has nothing to do with how strongly the people feel it … The anticipation is real; it permeates the entire scene. …

Here are people, perhaps only two or three as is the case in this country, but perhaps a few hundred, who stream into this building driven by an odd instinct or will––where they seek what? The satisfaction of an old habit? Perhaps, but from where does this habit come? Do they seek entertainment and instruction? A very strange entertainment and instruction indeed! Edification? … In any case they are here and their presence already points to an event which they anticipate . . . Above all, here is a [pastor] upon whom the anticipation of that imminent event rest in a very special way. …

But what is the meaning of this situation? To what kind of event does this anticipation point? … No, we cannot suppress it any longer: the question burns, is it true? Is it true, the vision of unity for those who are scattered, the anticipation of a steadfast pole amid the flight of [events], a righteousness that does not lie somewhere beyond the stars but within the events that make up our present life. … Is it true, the speaking of the love and goodness of God who is more than some friendly deity of transparent origin and short-lived dominion? Is it true? This is what people want to hear, to know, to understand. Therefore they grasp, not knowing what they do, at the unheard of possibility to pray, to open the Bible, to speak of God, to listen, and to sing. Therefore they come to us, placing themselves into the grotesque situation of Sunday morning. …

This is not something that people cry out, least of all into the ears of pastors. But let us not be deceived by their silence––blood and tears, the deepest despair and highest hope, their passionate desire to grab hold of that which, no, rather him, the one who has overcome the world because he is its Creator and its Redeemer, the Beginning and the End, the Lord of the world. They passionately desire to have the Word spoken to them, the Word, which promises grace in judgment, life in death, the beyond in the here and now.

This is what stands behind our churchgoers, no matter how spiritless, bourgeois, or commonplace their desire seems to be in so-called reality. … They expect us to understand them better than they understand themselves.

I was a pastor to three congregations, in Towson, Maryland, Westerville Ohio, and Rochester, New York. In my experience, Barth was on to something. People in those churches brought the question––“Is it true?”––to worship, study groups, session meetings, and mission trips. They expected more from me than religious bromides and friendly evasions. It was also my experience that theology––the wisdom of Christian centuries––is the expression of the desperate situation Barth described and the question of any pastor who dares to take up the task.

Serious, sustained reading and thinking and talking about the faith is essential work for ministers of the Word and Sacrament—not just for our own sake, but for the sake of people who come to us in the expectation that we will help them discover if it’s true, and why it’s true, and how it’s true. Because you and I know that, I assume we all engage in regular reading, thinking, praying, and talking the Faith because, along with Karl Barth, we know that theology really does matter for the life of the church and each of its members

But we also know that many of our colleagues in ministry do not know that and do not do that. Why is that? There are a host of reasons, ranging from the way theology is taught in seminaries to the constant pressure on pastors to stem the ebb tide of membership loss. But today is not the time for critique, but for talking more specifically about why and how theology matters, beginning with the question Karl Barth and Joe Small say that is on the outer edge of consciousness for the people who decide Sunday after Sunday whether to go to church or stay home, read the New York Times and drink mimosas: “Is it true?”

Thinking the Faith

My youngest daughter and her husband are both physicians—she a neo-natal pediatrician and he an emergency room doctor. Both read medical journals, attend seminars on developments in their fields, go to conferences, and must be examined periodically to maintain their licenses. The requirement for continuous education is also true of lawyers, social workers, and many other professionals. This is necessary for them to keep abreast of developments in their fields. But that is not why Christian ministers need to engage in serious, sustained study. We are not keeping up to date on advances in diagnostics and pharmaceuticals, or changes in tax law, or benefit adjustments. Theology’s task is not to not to keep abreast of changes in the gospel, but to probe more deeply into the mysteries of God.

We all know that when Scripture and tradition talk about the “mysteries” of God, they are not speaking about puzzles to be solved. When Eucharistic prayers announce, “Great is the Mystery of faith” and the congregation sings or says, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” this does not mean we are praying about an enigma. No, the mystery of faith means that the more we understand the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross, the reality of Christ’s risen presence among us, the hope of Christ’s consummation of all things, the more we know that there is more to understand. The deeper we go, the more we realize there are still depths of understanding that will lead us to fuller adoration and praise, more faithful preaching, intensified prayer, and expanded participation in God’s mission to a church and a world in desperate need.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. The mystery of faith embraces past, present, and future … and then points to an even wider horizon, from Creation to the new Jerusalem. Let me read an excerpt from the sadly neglected Confession of 1967 that opens us to some of the depths of the mystery:

God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways. It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again, it is ransom of a slave, payment of debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God’s love for humankind.

The Confession of 1967 overcomes silly talk about “theories of the atonement” that encourage us to choose between two or more mutually exclusive options. But C67 also calls the church, especially its ministers and elders, to avoid easy formulas. Instead, we are called to put ourselves in the company of those who have lived and died the faith before us as well as contemporaries who have thought long and hard about the mysteries of faith … in order to help us think about the mysteries of faith … so that we can help congregations understand what Jesus’ suffering and execution have to do with their lives and deaths, how Christ is really present now in Word and Sacrament, how hope in Christ’s return has anything to do with their hopes and disappointments.

People come to us wanting to know if it is true, and, if it is true how it is true for them. That is why theology matters. Pastors who fail to engage in serious, sustained theological reading and thinking and teaching must assume either that Christian convictions do not much matter to their ministry and their congregations, or that the smattering of theology they received in seminary is enough to sustain them for four or five decades. It is curiously arrogant.

Douglas John Hall, a Canadian theologian, was one of the earliest to analyze the significance of the end of Christendom in North America. Beginning with Lighten Our Darkness in the mid-1970s, Hall probed the reality of the church’s loss of cultural prominence and the implications for the church’s witness. His major work is a three-volume exploration of “Christian Theology in a North American Context”––Thinking the Faith, Professing the Faith, and Confessing the Faith. In his preface to the first volume, Thinking the Faith, he gets to the core of the church’s current situation.

Everyone here is now aware of the church’s cultural disestablishment, its loss not only of members and prestige, but its loss of interest by more and more people. It is not that people are hostile to Christian faith and its churches, but that they are indifferent. Denominations respond by devising slogans for their latest recycling of standard programs, and congregations struggle to be more attractive. Hall says that our reliance on pollsters and consultants and popular sociologists to provide the key to ecclesial rebound “is symptomatic of the churches’ incapacity to confront the deeper malaise,” for “the crisis behind the crises cannot be submitted to computer programming. For that rudimentary crisis,” says Hall, “is a crisis of thinking.” He goes on to say that “only a thinking faith can survive.”

To be sure, “thinking the faith” is inseparable from “praying the faith” and “living the faith,” but it is likely that without thinking the faith, praying the faith will be reduced to occasional requests that God solve problems, and living the faith will devolve into conformity to the conventions of social and political sub-groups. Theology is thinking the faith in company with others, living and dead, who are participants in a deep tradition that spans time and space. Theology is not only asking, “Is it True?” but probing deeply into what the “It” is.

Four or Five Questions

Theology is thinking, speaking the faith. Theos, God … logos, word. Theology is using words to talk about God. In one sense, that makes all Christians theologians, because we all think and talk about God in the prayers we pray and the hymns we sing as well as the words we read and speak. But many Christians––ministers and members and those we call “theologians”––are very bad theologians, insufficiently aware of or attentive to the word of God that bears witness to the Word of God.

But in another sense the church has surrendered the word “theologian” to people who have earned graduate degrees, who write books, and teach in universities and seminaries. Most ministers would think it presumptuous to call themselves “theologians” even though they get paid to talk about God in sermons and hospital rooms, in public prayers and private counseling, at weddings and funerals, at the Baptismal Font and the Lord’s Table. Do the words we speak express the Truth that helps to answer the implicit question that surrounds these events? In all the pastoral tasks we perform regularly we ministers are stewards of the mysteries of God, and in all of these we are either helping people answer the question implicit in their very presence or we are abandoning them to the imagination of their hearts.
I’ve come to the conclusion that there are only four basic theological questions. There are countless theological questions, of course, but all are refinements of the four. It doesn’t matter if you are Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth, Joe Small, or the average church member; all of us must ask and strive to answer the same four questions.

Who is God? … Really!

The first question: “Who is God? … really!” Not, who do we hope God is, or fear that God is, or wish God would be. Not God who is just like us, only bigger and better. Who is God and how do we know who or what God is? The Westminster Confession tells us that God is “infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute,” and on and on. Robert Jenson, in what Stanley Hauerwas calls the most nearly perfect theological sentence, says “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.”

The Torah tells us that God himself says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex 3:6). Moses presses further, asking for God’s name, that is for God’s identity, receiving the enigmatic “I am who I am [or I will be who I will be]” (Ex. 3:14). John the Evangelist tells us that the “Word was God” and that “the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:1, 14), and later says briefly, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). The Nicene Creed affirms that the One God is Father Son Holy Spirit. Are all these truthful answers to the question “Who Is God?” Are some truer than others? If they are all part of the truth, how do they fit together?

We use the word “God” over and over, all the while imagining that we know what we mean, that persons to whom we are speaking know what they mean, and all of us thinking that we mean the same thing. But, of course we don’t all mean the same thing and most of us have constricted comprehension of the Lord of all that is. When pastors speak of God in sermons, what “gods” do we think are conjured up in the minds of our listeners?

As a young priest, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright served as chaplain at Worcester College, Oxford. His welcoming visits to first year students were often punctuated by their remark, “You won’t be seeing much of me; you see, I don’t believe in God.” Wright developed a standard response: “Oh, that’s interesting; which god is it you don’t believe in?” The students were surprised because they regarded the word god as having self-evident meaning. Often, after students stumbled through a few characteristics of the god they didn’t believe in, Wright would comment, “Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god. I don’t believe in that god either.” I think Wright’s story might be repeated if we asked church members––as well as elders and ministers––to tell us about the god they believe in. We might find their responses a bit chaotic.

Apart from theological clarity about who God is––really––people who come to us on Sunday morning are likely to have their understanding of God shaped at least as much by culture as by Scripture. Social historian Robert Lippy characterizes popular religion as “akin to shopping for God in a divine supermarket, for it involves individuals looking to many sources, picking and choosing beliefs and practices that make sense to them, and ultimately constructing a worldview that enables them to make sense of their own lives out of their own experience.” Baylor University’s survey of American religion summarized the four gods Americans do believe in––the Authoritative God, the Benevolent God, the Critical God, and the Distant God. The National Study of Youth and Religion characterizes the beliefs of American Youth (and the churches that teach them) as “therapeutic moralistic deism.” None of this is new or unusual. Calvin described human nature as “a perpetual factory of idols,” for the constant human temptation is the effortless creation of a god in our image. The blueprint for the factory of idols and its product output is provided by the culture in which we live and move and have our being. This is what people bring to us Sunday after Sunday. Yes, they are asking “Is It True?” without knowing what the “It” is that they are uncertain about. This is what people bring to worship, and to session meetings, study groups, mission trips, potluck suppers, and all the other events their congregations make available. Even the most mundane of church activities “heaves with anticipation” of a great event, accompanied by the burning question, “Is It True?”

This includes ministers, of course, so the need for serious, sustained theological engagement is acute. Before pastors can deal honestly and faithfully with the question that is implicit every time the church door opens, the self-interrogation that is at the heart of all theological work must dwell in the depths of the pastoral heart and mind. “Who is God? … really!”

I mentioned earlier the name of a theologian who might not be familiar to you: Katherine Sonderegger. She has published two of a planned three-volume Systematic Theology. Before reading Volume 1, The Doctrine of God, I had not spent time with her beyond one essay and a couple of conference addresses. I decided to read her first volume because I’d been told that she approaches the doctrine of God from God’s Oneness rather than from the current preference for beginning with God’s Triunity, from what God is rather than what God does. I was curious. Very early in the book she writes:

To attempt to speak of the One God whose nature is without form or similitude is to strive to name, approach, and worship the God who is unapproachable Light, Holy Fire, and Goodness; around this One is thick darkness. We pray that God’s entire Goodness may shield us and, in that shielding, pass by so that we may know the mystery of this God. … We hunger to know the Oneness of God, to rest in it, and that hunger is the Spirit’s gift to us, quickening our appetite for divine things, our search into the mystery of God, the pilgrimage of the Christian life.

These sentences not only capture Sonderegger’s commitments and style, but also stand as a lovely indication of what faithful theology is and why it is a central calling of the church. I am now reading the second volume, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Like the first, it draws heavily on the Old Testament, probing the reality that YHWH ELOHIM is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Calvin knew this, and I know this, but I think most church members and not a few ministers imagine that “the God of the Old Testament” was singular, that the Son showed up in Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit blew in at Pentecost.

I’ve been around for a long time and I’ve read a lot, but Sonderegger took me deeper into the mystery, intensifying my understanding, enriching my prayer, and expanding my recognition that Old and New Testaments together bear witness to the One God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. We are stewards of the mysteries of God, and if we are to be trustworthy stewards, we must give ourselves to the work of theological seriousness.

The Other Three Questions

I know you are all dying to know the other basic theological questions. I’ll tell you, but there is not enough time to say much more than name them.

The second basic theological question is, Who Are We/Who Am I … Honestly. Not who do I wish I were, or pretend to be, or regret that I am. What does it mean to be human, and what does it mean to be the human I am? Where is my identity found? in my work, my family, my abilities? Am I characterized by my sinfulness or by my accomplishments? Saint or sinner or some amalgam of the two? Are zygotes human? Fetuses? And what is God’s will for human life? To borrow from Wendell Berry, What Are People For?

Third question: What Does God Have to Do with Us/With Me? What does it mean to say that the One God––Father Son and Holy Spirit––is my Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. … and the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of other people and of the cosmos? What does it mean to be saved? Exodus, election, covenant, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension … what does all this mean for me, for us, for the world?

Fourth question: What Do We Have to Do with Each Other? Who is my neighbor, and who are my enemies, and who are my sisters and brothers, who are strangers to me, and what do I owe to all of them and receive from them? What communities am I part of? How are we free for, not from one other, and how are we obligated to one other? Ecclesiology, ecumenism, Judaism, Christians throughout the world, other faith communities, mission, evangelism. What does my congregation have to do with other congregations, not in some organizational or invisible sense, but as Presbyterian churches together, and together with Catholic, Orthodox, other Protestant, and Pentecostal churches, and as Christian churches with Jewish synagogues?

These are the questions people bring to us Sunday after Sunday. Yes, they are asking “Is It True?” without knowing what the “It” is that they are uncertain about. Nevertheless, this is what people bring to worship, as well as to session meetings, study groups, mission trips, potluck suppers, youth groups, concerts, and all the other events their congregations make available. Even the most mundane of church activities “heaves with anticipation” of a great event, accompanied by the burning question, “Is It True?”

So What?

There is another question that hovers around all four: What will I do? The four questions lead to a question about what pastors might do to probe the questions because they are the questions asked by the people who continue to come to us, as well as the people who have stopped coming because they find no answer to the question Is It True? and perhaps no help in knowing what the It is. Their questions may not be formed precisely, their sense of the It they ask about may be fuzzy. But as Barth said they expect (hope?) that we understand them better than they understand themselves. Why does theology matter? It matters for the sake of the men and women, girls and boys, who entrust themselves to us.

So, for all the ministers who don’t know this, as well as for us all at this Theology Matters conference, I suggest a simple discipline:

Read: Commit to read one significant theological, biblical, ethical, or ecclesial history book a month for twelve months. Reading should be done at a slow pace, dividing the book into daily reading, done at the same time each day, allowing time to think carefully about what is read. I can even suggest Small’s book-of-the-month club, setting out twelve books to start with.

With Another/Others: Find one or two others to join you in the discipline, so that reading is not done in isolation, but in the company of others. Reading with others not only expands the circle of conversation but also makes us accountable to one another.

Meet: Come together with your reading companions toward the end of each month, away from church buildings, for at least an hour of discussing what you have read. Theology is not a solitary avocation but a communal endeavor in which people of faith enrich one another through their questioning, discovering, confirming, expanding understanding of the mysteries of God.

Ask: In the monthly gathering, ask each other what further questions have been raised by the reading, and where to go to pursue the matters that intrigue you.

Be Aware: Throughout, be aware that you are not doing this just for yourselves, but for the sake of the congregations you serve, for the sake of each person. Serious, sustained study is essential to the pastoral vocation as trustworthy stewards of the mysteries of God.

In conclusion, a few words from Karl Barth to a group of pastors to whom he refers, perhaps hopefully, as “theologians.” Barth says to us as well as to them:

Regardless of whether you feel this way or that, it should be possible for me to talk with you about our situation which I would like to characterize by the following three sentences: As theologians, we ought to speak of God. But we are humans and as such cannot speak of God. We ought to do both, to know the “ought” and the “not able to,” and precisely in this way give God the glory. This is our plight. Everything else is child’s play in comparison.


The Reverend Joseph D. Small has served as pastor, was the former director of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Office of Theology and Worship, and now serves as a consultant to the Presbyterian Foundation.

Joseph D. Small
Joseph D. Small
The Reverend Joseph D. Small has served as pastor, was the former director of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Office of Theology and Worship, and now serves as a consultant to the Presbyterian Foundation.

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