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 1:5-11

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Introduction: In my first post, I introduced the book of Habakkuk, and meditated on the first four verses.

The Lord’s Answer

5 “Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more fierce than the evening wolves;
their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
9 They all come for violence,
all their faces forward.
They gather captives like sand.
10 At kings they scoff,
and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
for they pile up earth and take it.
11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
guilty men, whose own might is their god!”

Observations: In these verses, YHWH responds to Habakkuk’s complaint about Israel’s abnegation of justice and persecution of the righteous with a surprising solution: use a pagan, idolatrous evil nation to judge the righteousness of Judah. YHWH says it himself that this is an extraordinary work, one that is unbelievable. He goes on to describe the kind of nation the Chaldeans are: In summary: hasty, evil, ravenous, violent, and idolatrous. They are a vice-filled nation yet, God raises them up for his purpose of bringing justice on the unjust in Judah.

Theological Comments:

The first thing we must note about this passage is that God is revealing what he is going to do to Judah in response to Habakkuk’s plea for justice. Habakkuk is given a peek into the hidden providence and orchestration of God’s will. God uses nations to bring judgment on other nations. For Israel, this was not for the destruction, but for their discipline. In God’s covenant with Israel, he gave clear direction on what would happen if Israel broke covenant with him (see Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28). To modern eyes, the judgment and the instrument of his judgment may seem harsh, but we must not forget that basically from Israel’s creation out of Egypt they had been in constant rebellion. God graciously forgave them, gave them instructions on how to live with a Holy God and how to live holy with the holy God (the law). Even still, they rebelled and sinned against God. In his response, God shows that he is not looking idly on the sin of Judah, but preparing their judgment.

A question arises in this passage: should we seek to interpret the movement of nations and wars as God’s judgment? I would suggest that the context of this passage leads us to a negative answer. First, we must remember that Habakkuk is a prophet. He has a particular vocation to speak the Word of God to Israel for a specific purpose. Second, God gives Habakkuk insight into his otherwise hidden providential ordering of the world for a specific purpose: to show that God will bring judgment on Israel’s sins. This is a specific revelation of God’s work in the world. In other words, That God uses other nations to judge the sin can be deduced from this passage, how and why and who must be left to God and is not open to human knowledge.

More significant and central to this passage we see that God uses evil and wicked people to bring about his end goal. We can trust God, in the midst of the chaos of the world, that he will bring about his good purposes, and that his purpose is good because he is good. This is not something that is always easy to swallow. As we will see in the rest of the book, the righteous must wait and live by faith.

And yet, there is something deeper revealed here, in light of the whole story of scripture. God uses an unbelievable and indescribable evil to bring about the judgment of evil and the vindication of the righteous, and this signifies the incredible work of Jesus Christ on the cross. God used the epitome and sign of death, torture, and evil: the cross, to accomplish his judgment of sin and the salvation of all those who believe in the one who died.

Yet, unlike the Chaldeans, Jesus is the loving and patient savior, who came to earth in humility and weakness, taking no place for his home. He was mocked and despised and looked to his Father for justice and vindication. He walked in humility, he was slow to anger, and continually had his face turned to his Father. In his death gathered the captives of sin and freed them for true life in the new creation. As the true king of the world, he reigns in justice and humility, with no need to prove himself he does not scoff at rulers but judges in true justice and save. He conquers the fortress of the Evil one not with might or pride but through humility and death. He is the innocent one who dies for the guilty. He is the God-Man who, after his glorious resurrection we call “my Lord and God” (John 20:28). Jesus in his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension brings God’s judgment and healing mercy to the world. Jesus comes most surprisingly and reveals the judgment and mercy of God on the most unlikely of Thrones: the Cross.

Jesus is both the righteous one who is surrounded by the wicked (1:4) and God’s judgment on the wicked and the vindication of the righteous (5-11). Unlike the Chaldeans, he brings justice perfectly and mercy more abundantly for all who put their faith in him.

From this passage, we can see that God really cares about bringing justice to the oppressed and judging evil and sin. We also see that he uses surprising means to bring that judgment about: The most surprising way is Jesus Christ.

Running Theological Thoughts on Scripture: Habakkuk Chapter 1:1-4

 

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Introduction:

Good Christian theology is based on excellent and faithful exegesis. As a pastor-theologian my vocation is deeply bound up with the exegeting, interpreting and applying of Holy Scripture. My own inclination in thinking, writing, etc., is to look at the big picture of Scripture and think about how it all relates to God and his works. However, the source of theology is the divine revelation of Scripture, so to do theology well I must be a good exegete.

Being a good exegete requires that I am sensitive to two realities: the literal meaning of the text, what we will call the horizontal meaning. And what the text communicates about who God is, what he is like, and what he calls humans to do, what I will call the vertical meaning of the text (for more on this consider reading Participatory Exegesis by Matthew Levering). In this series, I will offer some theological readings of specific books of Scripture in a running commentary with an eye on the axis of the horizontal and vertical dimensions of good exegesis. To begin this series I turn to a minor prophet, Habakkuk, to discover what the book is about and how it speaks about God, Christ, and humanity.

Instead of offering a detailed introduction to the book of Habakkuk, I suggest you watch this video, made by the brilliant people over at The Bible Project.

It is important to note the time of the prophecies of Habakkuk: Around 626-586 B.C. Israel was divided into two Kingdoms, the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. In 722 BC the Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria. Between 626 and 586 BC The southern Kingdom was slowly conquered and brought into exile. The final destruction of Judah and the Temple came in 586 B.C.

The structure of the book, as we saw in the video, is made up of three basic sections: section 1: A dialogue between Habakkuk and YHWH (1:1-2:1); section 2: YHWH’s 2nd response and judgment on the Chaldeans (2:2-22); and section 3: A Psalm of God’s deliverance (3:1-19).

In this first post, I discuss Habakkuk’s first complaint.

Habakkuk 1:1-4: Habakkuk’s first complaint:

The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.

Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.

Verse 1:

Observations:

We know nothing about the prophet Habakkuk, expect that he is a prophet. One who the Holy Spirit has called, set apart, and ordered to hear and proclaim the Word of God. This is no lite calling, we need only look at other prophetic callings to see that (Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1-2). As a prophet,  not only does Habakkuk speak the Word of God to the people, but he speaks to God for his people; for the righteous (see 1.4;13; 2:4). As a prophet of God, he mediates between God and humanity. As a prophet, he puts to voice the complaint of the righteous and confesses the sins of those who have rebelled against God. As a prophet, he speaks of God’s judgment and deliverance. Habakkuk speaks only what he sees. Everything in the book of Habakkuk is something that the prophet “saw” (v 1). This presents to the reader the fact that Habakkuk did not simply make this stuff up, his complaints, the vision of woes, and the deliverance of God are all things he perceives and proclaims from God.

Theological Comments:

Habakkuk’s ministry as a prophet signifies several things about God and the economy of Salvation. First, the Lord God reveals God to humanity. We cannot gain access to who God is and what he does expect through God’s revealing of God.  Second, The office of prophet as one who reveals and mediates points us to Jesus Christ. He is the true prophet who is the very Word of God and the true human who reveals God to humanity and reconciles humanity to God through his infinite life in his death and resurrection. Thirdly, Habakkuk’s receptivity as a prophet, being one who sees, reminds us of the way that Jesus Christ, in the form of a servant (Phil 2:6-9), did only that which he saw the Father was doing (see John 5:18-20). As the Son of God Jesus is equal to the Father, even as he is eternally from the Father, yet, in the form of a servant, he receives and does the will of the Father (which is the will of the triune God). Finally, Habakkuk’s role as a prophet, as one who receives and speaks what he hears, points to the Christian’s vocation as one who witnesses to who God is and what God does.  Christians are called to be witnesses who hear and receive and speak only what they receive and hear from the Triune God.

Verse 2-4:

Observations:

Habakkuk’s complaint opens by calling on YHWH. In using the covenant name of God the whole of who the Lord is and what he has done for Israel is set before the reader. YHWH is the One who rescued Israel from slavery and death, brought them through the Red Sea, made a covenant with Israel. YHWH is the One God who has patiently guided Israel as a rebellious child for hundreds of years.

He is the God who Israel has cried to again and again with the same kind of cry that Habakkuk utters: “how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear?” In these verses, Habakkuk asks three questions as the prophet of God about the injustice and evil in the people of Judah (v 2-3). Judah has wrought violence and iniquity, and all God has done, according to Habakkuk is the look on idly. Judah is in a state of chaos; they are in a state of continual abnegation and perversion of justice, disobedience to the law, and the persecution of the righteous (v 4).

When we consider the canon of Scripture we can see that Judah is in a state of chaos and rebellion much like the time of the Judges. Yet, there remains a righteous contingent who are being oppressed by the wicked. It is on behalf of these righteous few that Habakkuk calls out to God. There is such an overwhelming force of evil that prevents the righteous from following the law (it “is paralyzed”) and doing justice (it is perverted and does not go forth). We will have more to say about the righteous in another blog post. We can gather from this verse that the righteous are those who are persecuted and seek God in the midst of abundant evil.

The mention of the righteous in the midst of evil brings to mind people like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Joshua. People who God had chosen to show forth his goodness and glory in the midst of the chaos and rebellion of the World. These righteous people are made righteous by their faith in God. In submitting to God’s goodness and plan they join in his work of redemption and salvation.

Yet, the life of the righteous is not an easy one, because they seek the kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdom of the earth, in the midst of the world of chaos and evil. This chaos is found on two levels: The world and Habakkuk’s own people. Habakkuk’s cries out as one of the righteous men who deeply desires to see God bring his justice, goodness, and holiness to bear upon the evil in the world (see chapter 2). In these verses, Habakkuk also cries out on behalf of the righteous for God to deliver them from the evil surrounding them in Judah.

Theological Comments:

In these first few verses, we can see that God is patient with those who are sinful and unjust. He is not quick in his wrath towards injustice. He is patient and waits to the point where the righteous feel as if the injustice and evil have won and overwhelmed the day. God’s patience is not like our patience which quickly wanes thin; he knows his purposes and the end for which he intends his plans to go, the ultimate end and purpose being communion with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

These verses reveal that in this world the righteous suffer as they wait for God. This reminds me of Augustine’s concept of the City of Man and the City of God. Those who are of the City of God are on a long pilgrimage to the heavenly city where justice will reign, and the righteous will shine like the noon-day Sun. On this pilgrimage, the City of God and Man are mingled, and those in the City of God walk alongside the city of man. They suffer in the world, in the church, and in their own hearts.

God uses these trials, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to make us like his Son. The eternal Son of God, the truly righteous one, the true prophet and mediator between God and humanity Jesus Christ. In these verses in Habakkuk, we see Jesus Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection as the righteous one surrounded by the wicked. But he was not swallowed by it. Though justice was perverted in the death of Christ – he died as a guilty man though he was innocent – and the law used by the evil one to bring forth more injustice (see Rom. 7 and Galatians 3); God in Christ destroyed death, Sin and the Devil and brought true justice in his death and resurrection.

Those who are in Christ, though they are surrounded by the wicked and unjust, pray for God to bring about his justice just as he did in the unexpected and new-creation resurrection of Jesus Christ. We cry out to our Covenant Lord, Yahweh who, though patient, is not idle, and though quiet is always at work in bringing about his plan for the good of his people.

In our next post, we will see how God responds to Habakkuk’s complaint.

 

Theological Thoughts on Ecclesiastes 5:2: Let your Words be Few

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Ecclesiastes 5:2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.

Talk about God is so blithely thrown around in church and the broader culture, that this verse and its warning seems almost impossible to abide. In the wider culture, the forces of secularity have reduced talk about God to a sarcastic joke, meme, or worse. In the church, we suffer from speaking too much, or too poorly about God, much like our culture we’ve lost our ability to speak of God without catchphrases or cliches.

In this verse, the preacher of Ecclesiastes warns his readers of two things, gives them two reasons for this warning, and concludes with the result of listening to this warning. He urges his readers to not be rash or hasty in uttering a word, either externally (mouth), or internally (internally) about God. Why? 1) because all our words are ‘before God’and 2) ‘God is in heaven and you are on earth.’ For these reasons, our words should be few.

This verse reorients humanity’s pride and arrogance (rash and hasty) to a proper understanding of who we are in light of God’s infinite majesty and creative saving power. What do the two statements about tell us about God?

God is present everywhere and knows everything. God’s omnipresence and omniscience remind us of the utter difference between God and humanity. God is the creator, and we are creatures. The triune God is the creating and sustaining God. To say anything before God, externally or internally, is to stand before the one who made you out of nothing, and who continues to sustain your existence.

In Christian theology, the creation and providential sustaining is the undivided work of the Trinity, but it is often described as the work of each Person, for example, the Father creates, the Son sustains. We see this reality testified to by Paul: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” (Col 1:16). The Word of God, the Son of God, incarnate in the Virgin Mary, and maintaining the world in all its contingent reality, is the one in whom and through whom our existence is preserved and brought to its proper end: the vision of God. 

The difference between God and his creation is reinforced by the next clause: “For God is in heaven and you are on earth.” Heaven is the location of God’s reign, rule, and authority. Despite human sin and rebellion, we do not thwart God’s authority, power, and rule by our ineffective and destructive loquaciousness. God’s Word does not return void in the battle for his creation.

Our foolish speech is silenced, redeemed and reordered by the one who is from heaven and has come to earth: the Eternal Word of God who became incarnate. Our prideful ramblings are made quiet in the face of the one who in himself is the eternally Spoken Word, reveals in humility, both in the cry of a baby and the cry of a dying man.

In Christ, knowledge of who God is, who we are, and how we are to speak of God rightly, is revealed, as Paul said, “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).  In the mission of the Son, the eternal Word of God silences our pride and hasty words and orders them towards God. How? By revealing himself in the flesh, taking our pride and arrogance to judgment and death, rising victorious and true, and sending his Spirit to teach us to think and speak rightly of God. The Holy Spirit takes Christ’s humility (Romans 12:1-2; Phil 2:5-11) and gives it to those who trust in Jesus, confess him as Lord and are baptized into his death.

It is because of Jesus that our words are “few” and not silenced entirely. For the immensity of God, both as he is in himself and God against sin leads us to baffled silence. We observe this in Job’s confession at the end of God’s speech in Job 42:2-6

“I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
    I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes.”

But, when God unites us to himself in Christ his immensity, infinity, and plentitude, leads to the fear and knowledge of God which begins to order our minds and hearts rightly. In light of the mission of the Son and Spirit for our salvation, we slowly become wise as we confess that all things are from God and ordered towards him.

In comparison to the infinite Word of God, redeemed and sanctified talk of God, submitted to the continued mortification and vivification of the Spirit, is minuscule in proportion, and yet it is still invited and encouraged. “Let your words be few.” We were created and redeemed to know God and his Son through the power of the Holy Spirit: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

The church is called to witness to the God who is in heaven, who is in control and who in his infinite love sent the Son and Word of God to save the world. To do this in step with the Spirit, our minds – our intellect, emotions, and wills – must be aligned to Jesus Christ. We must allow the Holy Spirit to order our thoughts, our desires, our wills toward God. We must desire what is truly good and keep our minds on what is truly beautiful and long for what is truly true: we must desire the Triune God of Grace. “Delight yourself in the Lordand he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). When we delight ourselves in the Lord, we discover that he is the deepest desires of our hearts. 

Augustine as Contemplative Apostolic Theologian

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In a previous blog post, I discussed John Webster’s understanding of the Theologian as both contemplative and apostolic. At the end of that post, I referenced St. Augustine of Hippo as an excellent example of this way of being a theologian.  In this post, I’m presenting Augustine’s struggle with the tension between Contemplation and apostolic work, and the way he lived in the tension.

By way of reminder This is how John Webster defines the task of theology as Contemplative and apostolic:

…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…

How does Augustine exemplify this as a pastor-theologian? First, we must acknowledge that Augustine’s Journey into Christianity was one where he sought to be united with God and contemplate him in an intensely intimate and personal way.

In Confessions, Augustine narrates his conversion experience in light of two moments of contemplation. First, when he was a practicing platonist, he attempted to ascend to God by contemplating created reality to gain access to the divine, but God beat him back (Book VII.16). It was not until he took up and read Scripture, giving his life to God in Christ, meeting the mediator between God and man that he was able to contemplate the true God of the universe in Jesus Christ (see Book XI.24-25). This was only the beginning of Augustine’s contemplation of God. Most of his writing is a rigorous and Holy Spirit infused apprehension of the Triune God, as he consistently sought to find rest in God (Book 1.1). Perhaps this famous quote can adequately express God’s deep passion for Augustine that led him to desire to spend all his time with God, contemplating him and his works:

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new,/late have i loved you!/ Lo, you were within,/but I outside, seeking there for you,/ and upon the shapely things you have made i rushed headlong,/I misshapen./ You were within me, but I was not with you./Tehy held me back far from you,/ those things which would have no being/ were they not in you. You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;/ you flared, blazed banished my blindness;/ you lavished your fragrance, i gasped, and now I pant for you;/ I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst;/ you touched me, and I burn for your peace. (Book X.38).

Augustine’s call to serve in the church prevented him from joining a monastic community, which would have allowed him to continue in contemplation and prayer. This call forced him to deal with and harmonize two proper Christian desires; a single-mindedness towards God and love of neighbors (“Contemplation and Action,” Augustine through the Ages, 233).  N. Joseph Torchia, O.P., in his article “Contemplation and Action” notes how apostolic service aids contemplation. Far from viewing contemplation and apostolic action as mutually exclusive:

He stressed their relationship and interaction. In this regard, he considered action the necessary means to contemplation, both now and in the life to come. As he affirms we find Christ on earth in the poor in our midst, and likewise, we secure a place in heaven by performing charitable works on their behalf. Service to those in need, then, is nothing less than a means to the contemplation of the love of God. (“Contemplation and Action,” 233).

Even so, Augustine struggled with the desire to spend time in God’s presence as he ministered to the Church as the bishop pastor, social mediator, theologian, and teacher. In the end, Augustine concluded:

Although contemplation is superior to action, we must accept an apostolate when the church requires our talents; yet even in the midst of active endeavors, we should continue to take delight in contemplation (Contemplation and Action, 233).

This idea that contemplation is superior is grounded in the fact that it is what we were created for, to behold the face of God. However, we must accept the vocations that we are given, for Augustine it was to be a Bishop out of love for others, while simultaneously remaining in a consistent pattern of practicing the presence of God and seeking his face.

For Augustine, the Christian’s model for this way of life, and the source of strength to live as a contemplative in action is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ who is the eternal word of God the Father, the exact imprint and likeness of the Father, came from the infinite plentitude of the divine life, to save humanity from sin and death, and reveal  God to them. Because The Son became human and was the mediator between God and man, humanity can now contemplate God because God has saved humanity from sin (see Confessions, Book X.67-68, and The Trinity, Book XIII). Taking up the apostolic task, for Augustine and any theologian, is not a distraction from contemplation, but an imitation and participation in the eternal love of God for the world exemplified in Jesus Christ. As we contemplate God in our studies and work, we are called out to share our labor with the church and the world. This is precisely what Webster was getting at when he said that the Apostolic is derivative of the contemplative and is motivated by charity.

Augustine poured out his life for the church, and this was empowered by first the rigorous contemplation of the Triune God and second by participating in the life of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is the pattern of service in the church, this is the pattern for Pastor-Theologians.

While Augustine’s way of life is a good example for Pastor-Theologians, I want to conclude by saying that this pattern of contemplation-grounding-action is the pattern for all Christians in all vocations. We must wholeheartedly seek the triune God, actively live in his presence and do all that we do out of the love that God has for us and the love that God has for others. We do this because God first sought us in Jesus Christ and has filled every Christian with the Holy Spirit. While not all of us are called to be Theologians for the Church, every Christian is called to contemplate God in Scripture, worship, and prayer, and share the love of God that is poured into our hearts by the Spirit in our families, lives, and work.

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.