[This post is the fourth in a series of posts on what could be called “Newbigin’s marks of the missional church” as outlined in his book Foolishness to the Greeks. The previous posts can be found here: introduction, mark #1, mark #2.]
“The missionary encounter with our culture for which I am pleading,” Newbigin writes, “will require the energetic fostering of a declericalized, lay theology.”1 Upon returning to England after years of missionary service in India, Newbigin observed that theology in the modern West had become largely isolated from the lives and concerns of average Christian men and women. He attributes this development to a two-stage historical process. First, theology became the specialized domain of priests and pastors, who tended to focus on “spiritual” concerns pertaining to the inner life. While theology remained within the sphere of the church, it had less and less to say to the average Christian at work in the world. This development was further complicated by the rise of academic biblical criticism with the result that “the Bible has been taken out of the hands of the layperson; it has now become the professional property not of the priesthood but of the scholars.”2
Expanding upon Newbigin’s observations, it could be argued that in modernity biblical scholars and theologians have become professionals who stand first and foremost in service of the academy, and secondarily perhaps, but not necessarily, in service of the church. There seem to be at least two consequences of this development. On the one hand, “academic” theology has become increasingly obscure and inane, as theologians, driven by the concerns of their academic guilds, frequently find themselves writing for other theologians. On the other hand, at the grassroots level, pastors and their flocks, having grown frustrated by and alienated from the world of “academic” theology, have taken the Bible back in hand. However, they often engage in ways of reading Scripture that show little evidence of theological reflection and therefore remain in captivity to the prevailing sensibilities of the modern imagination.
Newbigin is insistent that the practice of theological reflection must be returned to the people. He observes that “while there are occasions when it is proper for the church, through its synods and hierarchies, to make pronouncements on public issues, it is much more important that all its lay members be prepared and equipped to think out the relationship of their faith to their secular work.” “Here,” Newbigin says, “is where the real missionary encounter takes place.”3
As I observed in the post that launched this blog, in the context of my teaching and preaching ministry I have perceived a hunger among Christians to think more deeply about the life of faith. There seems to an increasingly prevalent recognition that loving the Lord with all of one’s soul and one’s strength is inseparable from loving God with one’s mind. However, if the work of theological reflection is to be returned to the people and those who are hungering to enter into that work, there must be pastors who both model such theological reflection and are able to equip the saints for the work of theology. While it may perhaps be somewhat counter-intuitive at first glance, the development of a “declericalized theology” is dependent upon theologically-equipped pastors committed to nurturing the art of theological reflection.
I would be interested in hearing reflections from those who are committed to thinking out the relationship of your faith to your secular work and also from those who are called to the ministry of equipping people for this task.
2 thoughts on “Series: Newbigin on “The Call to the Church” – 3. A Declericalized Theology”
Amen! Thanks, Rob. You’re right to observe the deep interest among many Christians to find ways to integrate religious commitments with daily life. They may recognize some connection, but unsure what that means or looks like, and why. I feel strongly that the church needs to equip a new breed of leaders willing to commit to the task of “nurturing the art of theological reflection” for the priesthood of all believers. Not an easy task; and grassroots work is from from being a glamorous job–who would like that? But it’s sorely needed; to simply offer a Golden Rule kind of Christianity (although that has its place) is to leave the church impaired to fulfill its mission in the world.