Theology as Reasoning Prayer
I was recently struck by a line from Peter Leithart’s review of Vern Poythress’ recent book, The Mystery of the Trinity. At the end of the review Leithart offers what he deems to be high praise for Poythress:
Each chapter of Mystery of the Trinity ends with a prayer. Poythress and Frame want theology to speak to ordinary people in ordinary language, rather than become a playground for professionals who bandy intimidating technical terms about to keep the riff-raff off their turf.
On a first read, it is difficult to disagree with Leithart’s point. The kind of academic language games that so narrowly define (or, rather, confine) particular sub-disciplines and sub-sub disciplines, serving not only to keep riff-raff off their turf but also most other professional academics, can be maddening. This is all too often true of the academic discipline of theology (though, I hasten to add, not so true of when what the late Webster called theological theology is practiced).
So, at that level I agree that if the use of theological technical terms and ways of speaking are deployed simply in order to create and fence in a playground, well, let those who wish to play there, play. The rest of us who have put away childish things will be busy about the kingdom of God, which does not consist in word but in power.
But upon further reflection, Leithart’s comment sits a little ill at ease with me. Perhaps it was unintentional, but the juxtaposition of prayer and ordinary language, on the one hand, with technical theological language, on the other, seems to me hasty and a bit careless.
Prayer and Theology
John Webster says that at the heart of every theological endeavor is the “act of beseeching God for instruction”:
Such prayer is not merely ornamental for theology; it is of the essence. In prayer reason looks to God, confessing its inadequacy and its need to be led into God’s truth, and trusting confidently in the Spirit’s instruction. (Holiness, 24)
Similarly, Karl Barth (from whom Webster takes his point):
The first and basic act of theological work is prayer… [T]heological work does not merely begin with prayer and is not merely accompanied by it; in its totality it is peculiar and characteristic of theology that it can be performed only in the act of prayer. (Evangelical Theology, 160)
Any theology done that is not prayerful, is not theology appropriately done. I’m not speaking here just about form. That is, I’m not saying that all theology must be written in the form of a prayer. It is not as if, when I, say, write in an exposition of Paul’s letter to the Romans I write, “By δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ Paul intends…” that I ought to write it as a prayer. Or, when I write an essay attempting to show that a proper understanding of divine simplicity does not entail modal collapse, that essay does not need to be addressed directly to God. In cases such as these, I’m consciously thinking about what Paul means by such terms, or what a particular doctrine means, and about how I might explain that to others.
Prayer is of the essence of doing theology not as a genre of written composition but as a mental habit. Prayer ought to encase and suffuse the practice of theology. Prayerful theology, we might say, is the mental disposition of the theologian whereby she is conscious that her thinking and speech about God is always done in the presence of God.
That disposition consists of an ever-present awareness of one’s need for God’s revelation of himself and for His Spirit of enlightenment, of an awareness of the ethics of doing theology (that we approach it in faith and eschew pride and idolatry), and of a deep desire for union with God (that is, that our theologizing is not merely about acquiring information or solving puzzles, but of being ourselves conformed to the image of Christ, who is the image of God).
As such, prayer is not opposed to technical theological language any more than it is to ordinary language, because it is not so much about language. Technical theology is not, by itself, disqualified from being prayerful theology. Let me here sketch a case for prayerful, technical theology.
Prayer and Reason
Following the definition offered by John the Damascene, Aquinas says that prayer is an act of reason whereby we raise our minds to God and are moved by charity toward union with him (ST, II.II Q83 A1 ad2). That is an all-encompassing definition of prayer. There are, of course, many ways we pray, many ways we, moved by our love for God, raise our minds to God. We do so for solace in communion with him, to seek his direction, to ask for his sustenance and blessing, to mourn, and so on. As the seventeenth century Reformed theologian, Herman Witsius, puts it: “Prayer is the address of the rational creature to God, expressing to him the desires of the mind, with the hope of obtaining them.” (Sacred Dissertations on the Lord’s Prayer, 8).
Suppose, then, that one of the desires that we as rational creatures have is to come to know God. Suppose that we have a similar desire as that of Anselm who admonishes himself: “Speak now, oh my whole heart, speak now to God: ‘I seek thy face, thy face, oh Lord, do I desire’ (Ps. 26:8) (Proslogion, ch. 1).
In the pursuit of such a desire we soon find a marvelous difficulty:
But surely thou dwellest in ‘light inaccessible.’ And where is light inaccessible? Or how shall I approach light inaccessible? Or who will lead me and bring me into it, that I may see thee there? And then, by what signs, under what form, shall I seek thee? I have never seen thee, O Lord my God; I do not know thy face…He pants for the sight of thee, and thy face is too far from him. He desires to approach thee, and thy dwelling is unapproachable. (Anselm, Proslogion, ch. 1)
As the remainder of the Proslogion makes clear, Anselm is here speaking about ‘sight’ and ‘approach’ metaphorically to indicate coming to know God, a major part of which involves the difficult process of coming to understand. This coming to understand is ultimately a gift of God (he has come down to raise us up). But it is a gift which does not circumvent the natural human process of coming to understand—it is not as if God “zaps” us with knowledge. Rather, the gift establishes and perfects that natural process.
It is precisely here where the use of technical language can be of service, and that in two ways. In the first place, ordinary language is shot through with ambiguities. Careful attention to the structure of proper reasoning, logic, and to terms and modes of expression, then, can help to alleviate many places where shadows had previously obscured the full light. This careful attention to terms and reasoning will only be effective if the normal elasticity, even fluidity, of language is tightened up. That is, careful attention to these matters just will eventuate in a more strict and technical language.
And yet, even the more intellectually capacious amongst us will find that even still shadows remain, well, in the shadows; that is, individual blind spots abound. So, progress in understanding is made much more efficient, and in some cases even possible, when done communally. Thus, secondly, the technical language that develops out of our careful attention will be used not only for individual progress in understanding but for communal understanding as well. First, so that everyone is on the same page, and, secondly, as a way to note in shorthand fashion the achievements of that longer process already completed. Technical language can make dialogue and debate more efficient. This, for example, is what scholasticism did for nearly 700 years.
All this is to say that technical theology has a legitimate place in the fulfillment of our desire to know God. By its functions in the individual and communal process of learning, it can help bring clarity where once clouds only resided.
Here, to reiterate, we may say that the hard work of theological reasoning is not per se prayer, but interlaced with it. Insofar as God may only be known by revealing himself to us, theological work is the mind’s attempt to reach out to God that must always be accompanied with the prayer that God fill our hands, or we grasp at air.
Technical theology is not the whole of theology. It is not—I want to be clear on this point—it is not even the highest form of theology. As if ‘ordinary language theology’ is ok, but if one really progresses in their Christianity they will do ‘technical theology.’ God forbid! Again, the kingdom of God, which we are to seek first, is not in word but in power.
But technical theology has a legitimate place in the pursuit of understanding God and God’s world. So, rather than uniting prayer with ordinary language theology in an attack on technical theology, let us pray that God would grant his church academic theologians who practice their technical theology prayerfully. That in the day when God brings all to light, they will be found as having been a useful, however small, part of the body.