Bruce Marshall on “The Theologian’s Ecclesial Vocation”

Among life’s better experiences is an unhurried reflection on whatever is the most recent edition of First Things, a magazine that publishes short pieces on issues at the intersection of religion and public life.  In the October 2013 edition, Bruce D. Marshall’s “The Theologian’s Ecclesial Vocation” caught my attention.[1]

Marshall, Professor of Christian Doctrine at Perkins School of Theology, tells the story of a national meeting of Catholic theologians. They had gathered to discuss what they perceived as the Vatican’s intrusive attempts to enforce Catholic teaching in the theology departments of Catholic institutions of higher education. “One after another, the theologians rose to voice their indignation at the very idea that the Catholic Church had the right to pass any sort of judgment on their fitness to teach theology. One member of the panel . . . observed that requiring Catholic theology professors to profess the teachings of the Catholic Church didn’t seem like all that much to ask” (pp. 41–2). Marshall notes that the audience was less than enthusiastic about this person’s observation.

Marshall notes that this story illustrates a common assumption among many academics: because theology is a science and science is an intellectual endeavor—as the argument goes––intellectuals should be free to pursue and publish their findings, whatever they may be. Under this view, “Theologians must be free to follow evidence and arguments wherever they may lead, unencumbered by outside interference, especially the interference of those who––like most bishops––are not themselves intellectuals” (p. 42). In other words, intellectuals often balk at the idea of any sort of restraint being placed upon their teaching and writing, especially when that restraint comes from confessional communities.

Marshall argues that this errant conception should be corrected. “Precisely as an intellectual, the theologian’s calling and task are from the Church, and so his responsibility is to the Church . . . Theology exists to serve the Church . . . The intellectual and the ecclesial belong together.” The full truth according to Marshall, then, is that because of the very nature of theology and the Church, those teaching theology necessarily serve the Church.

This in no way denies the scientific nature of the task. Marshall notes that theologians provide a necessary service for the Church. They provide the reasons the Church believes what it believes and does what it does. “Faith seeks understanding,” Marshall writes. “It starts to become theology when it searches out reasons for the truth of what it believes. . . . [The theologian’s] task is to give reasons and thereby help the learner begin to see the light the teacher already sees, the light shining from the Christian mysteries themselves” (p. 42). The ecclesial nature of the theological task does not somehow render the task less serious.

The author also argues that theological efforts (like theologians) exist in community rather than in isolation. “Every intellectual activity is responsible to a community, and not only to the ingenuity or insight of its individual practitioners.” There is an inherent difficulty (for theologians) in this truth: the community consists of many stakeholders who are not intellectuals. Marshall writes, “The community to which theologians finally answer [after their peers] is the Church. But the Church is made up mostly of those who are not intellectuals and who do not practice theology. How can this be?” (p. 42) Marshall argues that this can be because, “accepting the judgment of the Church belongs to the very nature of the theologian’s vocation, just as accepting the ways of the sea belongs to the vocation of the fisherman” (p. 43). As for why the church is equipped to critically assess the theology of a particular theologian, Marshall argues that the answer lies in the nature of Christian community: “Neither the act of breathing nor what one breathes is communally mediated at all, but the act of believing and what one believes are” (p. 43). That is, what defines the Christian community is the public truth (i.e. the gospel) that grounds and norms the belief of each individual in the community and thus makes the community what it is.

One might object that this suppresses the prophetic role of the theologian, his role “to criticize the Church and so change the Church for the better . . . .” If not, won’t the theologian simply uphold the status quo? Marshall anticipates this counterpoint and responds: the conscience (of the theologian) must be followed but the conscience may be wrong. “We sin if we fail to follow our conscience, but heeding its voice is no guarantee of virtue.” Moreover theologians may fall to the sin of pride (“a studied ingratitude”) by not allowing other “ordinary Christians” to correct their sinful speculations, which take the form of “intellectual freedom” (p. 43).

Intellectual freedom and conscience are important values for both Church and theologian, Marshall notes, “but they are not absolute values” (p. 43). Theologians must, by the nature of their role, distinguish between faithful and false dissent. To do so, Marshall sees the proper ordering of faith and science (or reasons) in theology as essential. “Faith and reason are not opposites, to be sure, but there is a definite and ordered relationship between them . . . Faith perfects reason . . . It is not reason that perfects faith . . . ” (p. 44). What do theologians do in the case of deep disagreement with the Church?

Theologians must, then, engage in loyal dissent: “faced with a conflict between the teaching of the Church and his own conscience, should accept the right of the Church . . . to judge his teaching, even though his judges may not be his natural intellectual equals.” This is no different for any other Christian. As Marshall rightly notes, “By calling us to life in his Church, Christ bids every Christian to have an ecclesial appreciation of her or his vocation” (p. 44). In this way the theologian privileges the right of the Christian community, for Marshall the Catholic Church, to point him or her back to the God and community he or she serves. Marshall rightly concludes that, “this surely requires a high view of the Church” (p. 45).

In response, I’ll make two points. First, although Marshall’s ecclesial context is different from ours, such that we must speak of Baptist churches (plural) rather than the Baptist Church (singular), his central point remains valid. Academic theologians who teach at Baptist colleges, universities, and seminaries must realize that they are responsible to the churches that created and nourished those institutions. Although theologians teach and write for various audiences (including church, academy, and society), it is the church who called their institution into existences and the church who ultimately has the right to judge their teaching.

Second, as Marshall noted, certain theologians equate theology with science and then hurriedly conclude that their (scientific) investigations should be unfettered, and certainly should not be restrained by those who are not themselves intellectuals. In addition to the correctives to this view which Marshall provided, I add this: theology is a “science” which has God’s revelation as its data. There is first of all God’s word for creation by which the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork (Ps 19:1). There is second of all God’s Word Incarnate, who perfectly images God and who is the key to the meaning of creation. And finally, there is God’s Word written, which is our indispensable theological guide. Theology is disciplined reflection upon God’s Word written, which itself provides corrective lenses which enable us to see clearly his word for creation and his Word Incarnate. Further, theology is a science (scientia) which has wisdom (sapientia) as its end, a wisdom which issues forth in worship and mission. In sum, any theology which is not a disciplined reflection on God’s self-revelation, and which does not issue forth in worship and mission, is not a theology from or for the church. Thus it is one that should be judged as deficient by the church.

[1] Bruce D. Marshall, “The Theologian’s Ecclesial Vocation” (First Things, Oct 2013): 41–45.