Is something rotten in the state of theology?

I’m currently doing some thinking about decline in the importance of theology within the our churches. I reckon that the fact that people happily go ‘church shopping’ across a range of denominationalGregory of Nyssa ‘brands’, is a sign that the theological differences between churches are regarded as only relatively important and might be outweighed by other considerations (how close to the beach, for example).

Contrast the contemporary situation, where people have very little theological passion with that of 4th century Constantinople as described by Gregory of Nyssa:

“The whole city is full of it, the squares, the market places, the cross-roads, the alleyways; old-clothes men, money changers, food sellers: they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask “Is my bath ready?” the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing.” Gregory of Nyssa, On the Deity of the Son [De Deitate] 121.7-12, quoted in Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, The Orthodox Church, (London: Penguin Books), 1993, 12.

Clearly the doctrine of the divinity and eternal generation of the Son deeply divided the city and the theological debate had filtered into popular discourse.

A more recent example, slightly closer to home, is the oath administered to Lachlan Macquarie by Judge-Advocate Ellis Bent on Macquarie’s appointment to the Governorship of New South Wales. Rather bizarrely to modern sensibilities, Macquarie was required to swear that he did not subscribe to the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation. The oath was required of all Crown appointments under the settlement reached during the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and was only abolished by the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. Throughout this period, and well into the 20th century, most members of British society would have an opinion regarding the doctrine of transubstantiation (with highly varying degrees of sophistication) and the doctrine functioned as a clear demarcation of identity.

Ronald Knox, the brilliant Roman Catholic apologist of the first half of the 20th century offered his own particular account of the decline of doctrine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his interest in highlighting Catholic successes in the face of what he perceived as a steady Anglican demise, Knox highlights the loss of dogmatic authority as a factor in the popular perception of theology. He writes:

“It is the common assumption of all these modem prophets, whatever their school, that religious truth is something not yet determined, something which is being gradually established by a slow process of testing and research. They boast of their indecisions; they parade their dissensions; it shows (they say) a healthy spirit of fearless inquiry, this freedom from the incubus of tradition. Such sentiments evoke, I believe, no echo of applause outside their own immediate circles. The uneasy impression is left on the average citizen that “the parsons do not know their own business”; that disagreements between sect and sect are more, not less disedifying when either side hastens to explain that the disagreement is over externals, rather than essentials; that if Christianity is still in process of formulation after twenty centuries, it must be an uncommonly elusive affair.” (Ronald Knox, The Belief of Catholics, 1927)

Knox draws upon the unstated understanding that theology has a role to play in guarding and guiding the core beliefs and identity of the Church. If modern academic theology is incapable of fulfilling this function and instead offers to ‘raise questions’ and engage in ‘dialogue’, then the church will suffer and theology will wither.

What d’you reckon?

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