Aquinas and Webster on the Studious Pastor-Theologian

Is curiosity a good or bad thing? If anything it is complicated. On the one hand, we encourage our children to be curious, to explore and discover. On the other hand, the old adage, “curiosity killed the cat” still has currency; usually when parents don’t want to explain something.

I was surprised to discover that the Christian Tradition actually has something to say about curiosity, namely that it is a vice. The virtue that contrasts curiosity is studiousness. In this blog post, I will consider curiosity and studiousness in relation to Theology and the Christian life by examining John Webster and Thomas Aquinas on the topic.

John Webster, following and expanding on Aquinas, defines studiousness as follows:

A strenuous application of the powers of the creaturely intellect, the end of which is to come to know something for the first time, or to apprehend under a new aspect or with a new interest some object already known… Studiousness refers to the activity of the well-ordered creaturely intellect coming to know. (The Dominion of the Word, 194).

This is how Aquinas defines studiousness: “Properly speaking, study denotes keen application of the mind to something.” (IIa IIae 166.1). Curiosity, by contrast, is a vice-filled pursuit of knowledge that Aquinas brilliantly dissects.

First, Aquinas argues, the desire to study and pursue knowledge may be right or wrong. If right, Curiosity can take that right desire down a vice-filled path in two ways: 1) either by taking the pursuit of knowledge to gain pride in one’s knowledge, or 2) to study something in order to sin.

Second, the desire to learn itself can be improperly ordered which results in four further forms of curiosity: 1) a person studies something that distracts them from the thing they should be studying i.e., facebook scrolling instead of homework. 2) when a person learns from a source that is evil or unlawful, i.e., an untrustworthy authority or evil spirits. 3) When a person seeks the truth of creatures without seeking their source and end: God. 4) When a person seeks the truth that is above or beyond his intellectual capacity which easily leads to an error (Aquinas, Summa Theologia, IIaIIae 167.1).

Aquinas’s thoughts on curiosity and studiousness apply to all areas of study, but what of theology and the vocation of Pastor-Theologians and Christians?

According to John Webster, curiosity rears its head in at least five ways in the pursuit of the knowledge of God.

  1. Curiosity appears when Christians forget they are under the instruction and teaching of God. Curiosity detaches the mind from the source of Theology: God.
  2. Curiosity seeks the novel and avoids the discipline of the particular object of theology: God and all things that come from God. Webster says, “In acute form, this becomes a species of intellectual promiscuity, driven by addiction to novelty and a compulsion to repeat the experience of discovery” (Dominion of the Word, 198).
  3. “Curiosity in theology stops short at surfaces, and so inhibits theological intelligence in running towards God.” (Dominion of the Word, 198).
  4. “Curiosity debases the manner in which theological work is undertaken, causing the theologian to adopt a posture at odds with spiritual vocation.”(Dominion of the Word, 199). What does this mean? Basically, theologians can be lured by pride, the desire for new knowledge, fame, and isolation from the church and worship. This can be true of any Christian, the desire to know God and love God is a spiritual and communal endeavor.
  5. Finally, “Curiosity disregards the proper end of theology, which are contemplative and apostolic.” (Dominion of the Word, 199). See my blog post on this topic.

This is Webster’s autopsy of The Curious Theologian, what is the remedy? Webster points to the work of the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit, whose mission is to perfect creatures in realizing the divine purpose for them, secured by the reconciling work of the Son is the fulfillment of the Father’s will. In the Spirit’s original work, the intellect is made new; in the Spirit’s governing work, the intellect is maintained and directed on its true course” (Dominion of the Word, 199). In other words, the Holy Spirit sanctifies the intellect by mortifying and vivifying it, bringing it into alignment with the mind of Christ. Webster outlines three aspects of theological studiousness:

  1. “Christian Theology is an exercise of sanctified studiousness, the work of persons whose intellectual acts are marked by the Spirit’s regenerative presence” (Dominion of the Word, 200). The person becomes studious as they are trained by the Holy Spirit who redirects their desires towards their proper end: God.
  2. “Curiosity falls away as Christian theology directs itself to its singular matter with a definite interest” (Dominion of the Word, 201). By which Webster means God and everything in relation to God, including the whole scope of theology from creation to consummation (see my blog post on the proper order of theology).
  3. “Mortification of curiosity happens as theology is directed to its proper end, which is love: Love of God who gives himself to be known, and love of the saints and the not-yet-saints by communicating what theology has come to know” (Dominion of the Word, 201). In other words, studiousness while concentrated, and full of effort is not for oneself, but for the worship of God and the edification of others.

Curiosity is the unnatural state of human knowledge; it is intellectual pursuit post-fall. We can only become truly studious when we are reconciled to the Truth. We become studious as we are taught by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, who orders our intellectual endeavor and the purpose of our endeavors to their proper end God and others. Studiousness is a virtue that takes practice and effort to attain, an effort that is preceded and followed by the mortifying and vivifying work of God the Holy Spirit.

A question I have, and one I cannot follow up right now, is how Aquinas and Webster’s analysis of Curiosity and Studiousness obtains in other intellectual disciplines and the process of education in general?

Running Theological Thoughts: Habakkuk 1:12-2:1

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Habakkuk’s Response/second complaint

1:12 Are you not from everlasting,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
the man more righteous than he?
14 You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
15 He brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
so he rejoices and is glad.
16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
and his food is rich.
17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net
and mercilessly killing nations forever?

2:1 I will take my stand at my watchpost
and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

Observations:

Following the Lord’s response to Habakkuk’s lament about the sin and injustice in Israel, Habakkuk responds to the judgment of Judah through the instrument of the Chaldeans. In verse 12 he begins by acknowledging the person and character of God: he is everlasting, the Lord God, the Holy One, in the form of a question. In response to this question, he says, “We shall not die.” Even in the rightful judgment coming from the Chaldeans, Habakkuk is convinced that God is faithful. He is the Lord and Rock who has established judgment and reproof. Yet, in verse 13, Habakkuk ask God, who cannot abide seeing evil, why he sits idly looking at the sin of the Chaldeans who oppress the righteous. Verses 13-17 describe the violence, injustice, idolatry, and extreme luxury of the wicked Chaldeans. Chapter 2 begins with Habakkuk standing, awaiting God’s response to his plea for justice for the righteous who are oppressed by the wicked Chaldeans.

Reflection on Chapter 1: It is worth noting that Habakkuk has now asked God to bring justice to the unjust and wicked in Judah who oppress the Righteous, and the unjust and wicked Gentiles who God uses to bring about the judgment of the wicked in Judah. As we approach chapter 2, we see that neither Jew or Gentile can be righteous or just in their own strength.

Theological Comments:

Habakkuk uses several significant descriptions of God in verses 12-13. In 12a he describes God as everlasting, the covenant LORD, and Holy. He follows this with the statement, “We shall not die.” How do these connect?

God is his eternal, self-sufficient, infinite life. He is totally different from humans, both ontologically, and morally – he is holy. He is the “I am who I am” who has created the world out of nothing, choose Israel out of nothing, and saved Israel out of death and slavery. He is the everlasting covenant God of Israel. Because God is eternal and everlasting because he is self-sufficient and holy, he is free to create and save humanity. Because he is God who is free and loves, “we shall not die.” Habakkuk trusts that the righteous will live because God is who he is.

In the face of God’s righteous judgment, it takes real faith, hope, and love to believe that we shall not die. Habakkuk trusts that even though the judgment, God will be just to the righteous; he will bring justice even as he uses the unjust Chaldeans to bring judgment. Habakkuk as the mediating prophet looks to who God is and sees the infinite and eternal one and puts his faith in him, finds hope in him, and loves for God and his people. How does he love God and God’s people? He loves God by confessing who he is and trusting in him, he loves his people by crying out for justice and salvation; by standing at his watch-post awaiting God’s response (2:1).

Habakkuk’s honest trust in God subverts how many people approach God. We often approach God either as a projection of our worst fears and self-hate, or a placid reflection of our own self-aggrandized prideful goodness. Habakkuk’s honest trust points to the reality that he is actually talking to and interacting with a personal reality: The infinite personal God. God reveals himself to Habakkuk and Habakkuk interacts with him in honest trust. Habakkuk’s honest trust looks to God to preserve his people even as his people deserve judgment. And God in his infinite life and love does just that.

Even in light of God ordaining evil men to bring about his just judgment, Habakkuk trusts that the Lord is the Rock; the steadfast one who brings judgment and mercy. Habakkuk’s declaration of God’s character and trust in him figures Jesus’s own faith in the Father. Jesus, the Rock of our salvation, received the judgment of our sin for our salvation. Jesus could do this because he was fully God – holy, self-sufficient, the covenant God of Israel who saves, sent from the Father as the eternal Son of God – and fully man – taking our sin and judgment through his death on the cross. Because Jesus is the Holy One, the everlasting God, the Lord who creates and Saves, “we shall not die.” In his death, the Triune God does not look idly on sin but deal with it. This brings us to our next topic.

Verse 13 offers us a bit of a puzzle. In 1:3 Habakkuk asks, “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you look at wrong?” And yet, Habakkuk then says in vs. 13: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” God is simultaneously too pure to see evil and look at wrong, yet he idly sees evil and remains silent at wrong.”

It is common to say that God is too holy to behold evil, but this is unhelpful because he obviously does see evil, he does behold the traitor. It would seem better to see this metaphor of not beholding evil as both a confirmation of God’s utter holiness and a call for him to act against evil. God’s holiness cannot abide evil, and yet he idly looks upon it. That is the problem; God’s seeming inaction against evil both in Judah and the Chaldeans. How could God abide the evil of the Chaldeans who worship idols, persecute the righteous, and murder by the thousands? Habakkuk is asking God to bring his holiness to bear on the evil in the world, to bring judgment and restoration. What will God do?

To see how God responds to this call, we will turn to Habakkuk chapter 2 in our next post.

Contemplative Apostolic Theologians: A Quote from John Webster

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If the Pastor-Theologian’s job is to proclaim Christ and his Gospel in every aspect of his life, i.e., to know the one big idea, (see: The Pastor-Theologian as A Hedgehog) then the Pastor-Theologian will need to approach the task of theology in a particular way. The quote below summarizes this way quite well.

Towards the end of his essay “Theology and the Peace of the Church,” John Webster offers this reflection on the dual discipline of the theologian in the church as both contemplative and apostle.

Theology is an aspect of the church’s intelligent participation in the order of peace. We are rational creatures whose actions are to be regulated by the intellect so that we may come to enjoy what Augustine calls ‘the well ordered harmony of knowledge and action which constitutes… the peace of the rational soul.” In fulfillment of this, theology is both contemplative and apostolic. Contemplative first, because whatever it may offer to the church derives from sustained and disciplined and unselfish attention to divine revelation in its limitless depths and scope; everything depends upon contemplative absorption in God and the gospel of peace. Apostolic second and by derivation, because the rule of charity in the church requires that gifts by communicated, not hoarded, such that theology is part of the flow of love, what John Owen calls a ‘contribution of supplies of grace, and light, and help of obedience, unto other members of the body. Theology, then, serves the church in its imperfect state by attending to and speaking about the God of peace and the peace of God. (Dominion of the Word, 164).

For Pastor Theologians, the discipline and drive towards contemplation is always called out to be apostolic, to be for the church in love. In ministry, it is tempting to be either contemplative, or apostolic, but pastor theologians must train themselves to be both a contemplative and apostle.

In meditating on this quote, I want to distinguish between contemplation and theological contemplation. Theological contemplation involves submission to God and his Holy Scriptures, sanctified reason, rigorous inquiry, prayer, studiousness, and intellectual engagement with the subject of theology: God and his works. Contemplation as a prayer discipline is a sub-genre of theological contemplation, where the pray-er seeks to engage in quietly being present to and meditating on Christ and his scriptures)

To be a contemplative theologian is to attend Christ and his Gospel in a disciplined, open, patient, and humble posture. As I wrote in another blog (The Patience of God in Theology and the Parish), theology takes time and patience. And more than time, the communication of theology and its hearing involve submission to the Triune God. We must read, talk, walk and think at God’s pace, because, in our very thinking, reading, talking and walking, Christ is actively sanctifying our thoughts and actions through the Holy Spirit. Theology must be contemplative and in being so it must be disciplined and submitted to the one we contemplate. It must be absorbed in, enthralled by, and rationally disciplined in exploring the depths of the God who creates and redeems us. All that is to say that theological contemplation, for the Pastor-Theologian is a vital task for the church (What that looks like in detail, will be worth considering in another post).

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Yet, theological contemplation must lead to apostolic preaching and teaching, because the very person theologians contemplate is love and pushes us towards the love of God and others by sharing the fruit of rigorous theological contemplation. Further, the theologian invites and hastens the body of Christ into the contemplation of God through their teaching, preaching, writing, and living. Contemplation is not for oneself only, though one must be changed by it for it to truly benefit others.

Note that according to Webster, the apostolic is grounded in the contemplative, and cannot be had without it. This is a severe rebuke to the church which almost always values doing over being. Christianity is grounded, not in our action, but in our reception of God’s saving triune action for us, it is grounded in the Gospel of Christ and Christ who is the Gospel.

Pastor-theologians are focused on one thing: Christ and his Gospel, and for us to be contemplative apostles, we must contemplate the mystery of the Gospel: God of peace and the peace of God.

Thankfully, Christians throughout church history have exemplified this pattern of Contemplation and apostolic ministry. In a future post, I will share one example of this way of theology in the life of Augustine of Hippo.

Desiring the Renewal of the Church? Look to the Trinity

 

222c640e641f279fafa30226a67e6f26.jpgIn my reading this week I skimmed Gordon Fee’s God’s Empowering Presence to see how he frames and articulates the person and work of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s writing. In his conclusion, Fee argues that the path for the church’s renewal is the living experience of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, including, but not focused on the gifts of the Spirit. Here is an extended quote:

A genuine recapturing of the Pauline perspective will not isolate the Spirit in such a way that “Spiritual gifts” and “spirit phenomena’ take pride of place in the church, resulting in churches which are either ‘charismatic’ or otherwise. Rather, a genuine recapturing of the Pauline perspective will cause the church to be more vitally Trinitarian, not only in its theology, but in its life and Spirituality as well. This will mean not the exaltation of the Spirit as such, but the exaltation of God; and it will mean not focus on the Spirit as such, but on the Son, crucified and risen, savior and Lord of all. Ethical life will be neither narrowly, individualistically conceived nor legalistically expressed, but will be joyously communal and decidedly over against the world’s present trinity of relativism, secularism and materialism, with their thoroughly dehumanizing affects. And the proper Trinitarian aim of such ethics will be the Pauline one – to the glory of God, through being conformed to the image of the Son by the empowering of the Holy Spirit. 

In recapturing the dynamic life of the Spirit there will also be the renewal of the charismata, not for the sake of being charismatic, but for the building up of the people of God for their life together and in the world. What must not happen in such a renewal is what has so often happened in the past: holding the extraordinary charismata in such awe that they are allowed to exist untested and undiscerned (Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 902). 

Having spent a lot of time wrestling with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, the renewal of the church, etc., I found this turn to the Christian life as a life in relation to the Trinity as very refreshing to the extreme. Further, because Fee contextualizes the gifts of the Spirit in the Trinity, and opposes isolation or emphasis of the gifts for their own sake, the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church is ordered to the end goal of transformation into the image of Christ to the Glory of God the Father. Thus, charismatic gifts are for the good of the church and should be desired because they have a particular purpose: to make us like Christ to the glory of God the Father.  This means that we must be free to question and test the extraordinary charismata, to see if they are fulfilling their Trinitarian end goal.

Do you want to renew the church? Seeking the happy land of the Trinity in prayer, worship, and study are where it begins. Because in seeking it, you’ll find, if you are a Christian, it is the happy land you’ve always been in ever since you said: “Jesus is Lord.”

 

 

J.I. Packer on the Christian Life

Packer’s book Growing in Christ is a beautiful book on the basics of the Christian life. He offers brief meditations on the Apostles Creed, The Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, along with a helpful section on Baptism.

I continually return to this book, and his other books, for clear, simple and faithful articulations of the Christian faith.

The following is probably one of my favorite quotes from him in this book:

“Being a Christian is a blend of doctrine, experience, and practice. Head, heart, and legs are all involved. Doctrine and experience without practice would turn me into a knowledgeable spiritual paralytic; experience and practice without doctrine would leave me a restless spiritual sleepwalker. If Christ is to be formed in me, doctrine, experience and practice must be all there together.” (Packer, Growing in Christ, 127).

I continuously need this reminder that all three, Doctrine, experience, and practice, are necessary for my life in Christ. I hope this quote encourages you to grow in your knowledge of God, your experience of Christ’s love, and the transforming power of his Holy Spirit.

The Patience of God in Theology and the Parish

The deluge of information and competition in our culture provokes a particular kind of vice and anxiety in me; the feeling that I must produce and perform beyond my creaturely capacities. I must present to the world a perfect image of myself with no sense of development or change. I have studied for four years, written a thesis, and I am now in full-time ministry; i feel that I must have something to say, and if I am to be heard I must say it loudly and quickly. Another way to put this is that I am impatient to do theology and to do it well. I want immediate results; I don’t want to have to wait to become a good theologian.

John Webster, a theologian I am coming to enjoy more and more, confronted me with my impatience in an essay where he articulates the nature and interpretation of Holy Scripture. Towards the end of the article he offers this rebuke to any who desire to grow in the knowledge and love of God, though he  orients his comment towards theologians:

“Theological work, including theological interpretation, requires the exercise of patience. This is because in theology things go slowly. We are temporal creatures, we do not relieve revelation in a single moment; and we are sinful creatures whose idolatry and inattention are only gradually overcome…. We must be patient, suffering God’s works, looking for the coming of the Spirit to instruct us in the truth of the Word. Webster, The Dominion of the Word, 31).

My desire to produce theology in a moment of inspiration is grounded in my habitual vice of impatience and my idol of a self-image of someone who has something important to share. In this passage, Webster argues that impatient theology is a rejection of our humanity and our need for redemption. Theology cannot be done in the key of self-created genius, or emotive inspiration, or rational self-propulsion, but only in submission to the one who is my creator and redeemer. Ultimately theology must be done in the context of God’s own patience.

1 Peter 3:9 says, The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

God’s patience towards his creatures is grounded in the plentitude of his love and goodness. Out of the infinite and eternal life of God, he shows patience to his creatures- Psalm 103:13, he remembers that we are dust –  who are in dead in their sin – Rom. 5:6-8, For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—  but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  In the economy of salvation, we are the recipients of God’s patience towards us as creatures and sinners demonstrated in the long-suffering of God and the salvation wrought in Christ, and we are given his patience through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

To do theology well, I must receive the gift of patience and participate in the mortification of my idols and impatience.  Receiving this gift means attending to being patient with my own limitations, accepting that I am a creature who is limited, and I must be patient with the Holy Spirit’s slow work of sanctification. In other words, my growth as a theologian is co-terminus with my steady growth in sanctification.

The gift of the Holy Spirit and the working of Christ’s patience within me frees me from the anxiety to produce something brilliant or worthwhile. I can be free to faithfully seek God in my ministry, my studies, my writing, and my prayers.  Patience in theology means relying on the one who I am called to write about and study; it means resting in his providential guidance of my study as he redeems my desires and intellect, turning them towards their proper end: the knowledge, love, and communion with the Triune God.

Finally, the patience that God has towards me and the patience he gives me in my pursuit of him turns towards my ministry, towards patience with others in the church. Here a whole host of idols and vices arise, like my desire to see lives changed (so that I can be seen as a successful minister). When I do not see the results that I think i should, I grow impatient and bitter. Webster’s insight about theology works here as well. If theology is slow because it is God working out the sanctifying of our minds and hearts, so will the sanctification of whole lives and communities be gradual. This gives me hope as I look to a lifelong vocation of ministry in Christ’s church. If God can be patient with me in my wandering pursuit of him as he mortifies and vivifies my mind and heart, how much more so am I called to be patient with his body the church?