Why We Need Impractical Theology Classes

Some of the most important questions asked in class are bad questions. Despite a common prejudice against the expression “bad questions,” I simply must allow it, for I judge many of the most important questions I have ever asked to have been very terrible. Let me give you an example of a bad question I once asked: Isn’t the Father at war with the Son on the cross because it says somewhere that God cannot look at sin, and when Jesus was on the cross doesn’t it say God turned away His face? When I say this was a bad question, I do not mean it did not need an answer. What I mean is that I once asked this question in a Civics class, and in a Civics class, such a question is about as useful as a crystal hammer.

Every classical teacher has, I wager, received a similar question— a question born of startling theological confusion and staggering unfamiliarity with Scripture. I am regularly impressed by the sheer volume of people (only some of whom are students) who object this or that idea is “not Biblical,” but also confess they do not read or study the Bible on any regular basis. In the classroom, nine of ten questions which invoke the expression “filthy rags” sound oddly sympathetic to moral nihilism. Of course, when such questions are posed, the average teacher has neither time nor means to answer well, and a bad answer is worse than no answer at all.

And why? The bad answer to such a question is one which assumes the question is fair, that the person asking the question has a sufficiently strong understanding of all the relevant terms in the question, and that such questions can be answered easily if only you can find the right person to ask. The bad answer misleads the student into thinking that talking about God is a simple task, and that the simple of heart are best-suited to do so. Just read your Bible, believe what it says, and you will be far better off than all the talkative theology snobs and philosophers out there who want to overcomplicate things just so they can keep their jobs.

However, the Bible was written by theologians and philosophers who only show occasional concern for speaking simply and unambiguously. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” is hardly straightforward, though it is the opening claim of “the beloved apostle,” not “the needlessly esoteric apostle.” The Church would need the better part of three hundred years to sort out the implications of John 1:1. The verse is not one to “just believe.” If you would like to go into the back of the theology sausage factory and see how dogma is made, observe Catholics and Arians of the 4th century slaughtering one another over the proper interpretation of allegedly Trinitarian passages of Scripture.

Not every man is called to be a theologian. The requirement to “give an account for the hope that is in you” does not mean that Otto the Christian Plumber needs to be capable of explaining to Drew the Atheist Philosophy Prof how God can paradoxically “dwell between the wings of the cherubim” in the tabernacle, and yet “not dwell in temples made with hands.” Not every man is called to be a theologian, but some men are, and if your classical school has Dante, Augustine, Calvin, Barth, and Luther, you need to offer some fancy theology classes.

Not just any theology class can satisfy the importance of the bad question. I am unequivocally in favor of practical theology classes, however, if Athanasius, Anselm and Boethius are to be taught, you need impractical theology classes, too. Theology is the study of God, but some of the most important theology classes a young person will take are not about studying God, but studying the study of God. The student of an impractical theology class will not learn much about God, but instead learn just how complex, how difficult, and how baroque an art talking rightly about God can truly be. Impractical theology is not the study of Scripture, but a patient examination how great minds study Scripture; if the student learns his lesson, he will not depart this class knowing the Bible, but being capable of approaching the Bible with trembling awe, for the Bible is not merely a correct book, but the Sacred Oracles of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The impractical theology student understands that “the pure of heart will see God,” and that “the casual of heart” should not expect to see God nearly so well. The impractical theology teacher knows that familiarity breeds contempt, and so he strives to reveal the bizarre otherness and unapproachability of God. The impractical theology teacher knows that the average American is very comfortable with Jesus saying, “Let the little children come to me,” but positively offended when He says, “Do not touch me.” The impractical theology teacher aims to heal such wounds of offense.

Years ago, I snickered at the idea a Presbyterian teacher could neutrally present monergism and synergism to a class of sophomores and then tell all the students to “believe whatever your church does about the issue.” But the longer I teach, the more sympathetic I am to such possibilities. However, I don’t believe a neutral presentation on this doctrinal issue is actually going to do much in determining what a student believes about the matter by the time he is 40. However, what can be impressed on a student is just how precious, how nuanced, how refined are the intellects of men shaping arguments for either position. It might be enough to graduate students who understand why, “Calvin’s doctrine of predestination is right because St. Paul uses the word predestination” is not a theological claim, neither a theological argument, but simply a misunderstanding of what language is and how it works.

Practically speaking, the impractical theology class is a junk drawer into which all the unanswerable questions (at least unanswerable for the moment) of an education can be safely tucked away. Early in high school, give students a week-long tour of a fancy theological matter, like, say, the doctrine of divine impassibility. Pass out a bevy of articles. Play them a Clark Pinnock debate. Give students a sense of just how far down this thing goes. Bring them to understand that, on occasion, in class, they will bump into a deep mystery, and that often enough the best approach to such things is, for the time being, to simply maneuver around them quietly, as though they were sleeping mountains. Having familiarized them with such a debate in such a manner, students will have a reference point ever after for all the massive questions they ask. When, in the middle of Biology or History class, a student asks a loaded, haphazard questions about free will, atonement theology, or divine wrath, the teacher can say, “That’s an impractical theology question and we cannot really do it justice at the moment. It is the kind of matter which needs a deep level of attention.” A teacher need not always resort to such a reply, of course, but should he choose to employ it, he will not strike the students as lazy or uninterested, but full of respect for the sublime task of theology. This option is far better than the teacher making up an answer on the spot, or pretending as though a single passage of Scripture tidily encompasses the student’s question.

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