My first real job in ministry was during the year before I went to seminary, when I worked as a lay evangelist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I had raised my own support, from Congregational Churches in and around Milwaukee where I had grown up, and from the Wisconsin Synod of the Christian Reformed Church. I had no previous connection with the latter group, but for the fact their campus minister Bob Westenbroek wanted me to work with him, and had arranged for me to receive a stipend from that organization. He became my first theological mentor, spending hours with me discussing the significance of theology in a life of Christian faith.
Once he took me to a Christian Reformed ordination exam. The candidate, a recent graduate of Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was being given an oral exam by the gathered ministers of the synod. It was the closest thing to "Luther before the Diet of Worms" that I have ever witnessed. This young man was relentlessly grilled for over six hours. Although I was astonished at both his learning and poise, some of his examiners, obviously dissatisfied with his responses, pushed him again and again to parse the minutest points of dogma. I was astonished at their passion for theological correctness. It was obvious that for some of those men, theology was divisive, a way separate one Christian from another, the pure from the impure. But it was equally apparent that for others, theological truth, truth about God and redemption, far from being an arid academic discipline or a means for dogmatic cleansing, was rather a vital, nurturing pathway into the heart of God.
From that day on, I was acutely aware of this double edge of theology. If it was embraced in a narrow way, it could result in intolerant dogmatism, leading to a brittle, dry sectarianism that squeezed the very vitality out of a life of faith. But if theological truth was received with a generous spirit, with an open heart and open mind, it could become the ground for a vital, flourishing faith. I was determined to learn everything I could about the God I had come to love and hoped to serve. As I began this quest, I wondered how the study of theology itself could be a spiritual discipline. Could understanding and embracing theological truth be a means to develop a deeper intimacy with God?
There is no question that people of faith approach God in different ways. Urban Holmes and Martin Thornton actually developed a grid or map of Christian spirituality, detailing four distinct patterns in seeking closeness to God. As with the four points of a compass, in their scheme the boundaries of piety may be mapped out with two crossing axes. The first axis runs vertically between intellectual and emotional approaches to God, while the second axis runs horizontally across the mid-point of first, connecting mystical and sensual polarities. Those Christians who tend toward the intellectual pole, although not necessarily brilliant or even overly intelligent, are interested in the speculative, abstract side of things. They want to know both what Christian truth is, and why it is the truth. They tend to be disciplined and dutiful, and if not tempered with other kinds of piety, may become dogmatically and morally legalistic.
I have to admit that in my early years of faith I tended to use theology as a weapon to separate “true believers” like me, from heretics, like almost everyone else. In time I learned that faith manifested itself in a variety of theological patterns. And I came to recognize that I personally have a strong bent toward intellectual piety. Not only do I love theology, I find the creedal affirmations of Christian faith to be life giving. Once, when I had been in a new parish after several months, I began to realize I hadn’t met a single person, either on the staff or among the laity, who truly understood and affirmed my particular brand of catholic evangelicalism. It made me feel a bit lonely and disconnected. Then a parishioner whom I hadn’t yet met made a “get to know each other” appointment. As we chatted in my office, our personal histories soon turned into sharing our particular theological visions. As he opened up about how he understood God, the meaning of Jesus’ Incarnation and Atonement, and how the sacraments nourished his faith, I found myself brimming over with the quiet joy of recognition. It felt like being home.
Yet I had long realized that my theological “home” was just one dwelling within the broad community of Nicene orthodoxy. My particular theology, although unique and splendid in its symmetry and vigor, was just one of many within the Church that could be held with complete integrity. There are certainly theological boundaries to Christian faith. People of the Book (Jews, Muslims and Christians) believe things that distinguish them intellectually from those who profess a Natural Religion (Hindus, Buddhists, animists and practitioners of the “New Age”). The biblical religions believe in revelation, a personal God, and grace. And further, there are conflicting truth claims that separate Christians, Jews and Muslims. Only Christians believe in the Trinity, or that salvation rests on the Incarnation and Atonement of Jesus, or that redemption is known through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.
It is those particulars that are declared to be theological truth in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Thus, what is special about the creeds is that they are both inclusive and exclusive. They are exclusive enough so that they maintain the boundaries of genuine Christian faith. Yet they are so inclusive, the theological net they cast is broad enough to encompass French Trappist monks and Brazilian Pentecostals, Nigerian Evangelicals and Serbian Orthodox, American Fundamentalists and Korean Presbyterians. The particulars declared in the creeds provide both what is essential for maintaining Christian unity and what is necessary for Christian identity. Everything else about the Church, especially severe, inflexible interpretations of morality, dogma and ecclesiology, are nonessential. Everything a Christian needs to know about theology is contained in the two-hundred or so words of the Nicene Creed.
Understanding the theological truth in the creeds, particularly that about God and his plan of redemption, is necessary for the health, wellbeing and maturity of every Christian. Why is this so? Because when it comes to spiritual formation, theology cuts two ways. Deficient theology and muddled thinking can prevent people of faith from entering deep intimacy with God. And conversely, understanding and embracing the truth of the Gospel is crucial for anyone who desires to know God. That integration of theology and identity is what constitutes “illumination” in Benedictine spirituality. So the pursuit of Christian theology is a spiritual discipline and not just an intellectual endeavor. The first step toward Christian illumination is to understand the nature of theology itself.