Martin Luther listed ninety-five theses. My goal is more modest. I stand on these five theses as a teacher of theology.
The first thesis is that theology is central (not peripheral) to the church’s work. A lack of interest in theology leaves the church’s preaching without reexamination and correction. It also entails a faulty understanding of tradition and the church fathers so that the corrective of history is lost too. The church then surrenders to the reign of subjectivism and can fall victim to strong personalities.
Without vital theology, the church has no reply to the questions put to her from the outside, which 1 Peter 3:15 says we should be able to answer at all times. Unfit to meet the ideological and philosophical challenges of its surroundings, the church withdraws and loses touch with reality and with its mission.
The only excuse for the existence of a theologian is that he should be a servant and a critic of the preacher. –Karl Barth
The church pays for its lack of theology by losing a substantial part of its own young generation. The same questions addressed to the church from outside will also be put to church leaders by the young inside the church. If leaders refuse to enter the dialogue, they deny the absoluteness of the church’s message and imply that the faith has no answer to the questions of modern people. A church without theological vitality will lose its brightest young people.
My second thesis is this: There is no final theology, not even for Wesleyans. God’s revelation is final, perfect, complete; but the human task of theological construction is never finished. Theology is not handed down from heaven on golden tablets. It is a human activity—a work of the human mind as the thinker reflects upon faith and seeks to express it in the most meaningful language. The human situation is in continual flux, so that one’s perception of reality is continually modified. Theology must listen to what is being said in the world and speak its message in that language.
This leads to my third thesis: All meaningful theology is modern theology. It has been said that to be modern is to stand at the pinnacle of history and look down on all that has gone before from that vantage point. This is the only worthwhile vantage point for theology. In a sermon called How Modern Should Theology Be? Helmut Thielicke says:
As long as I can discover no connection between the gospel and the problems of my life, then it has nothing to say to me, and I am not interested. And that is precisely why the gospel must be preached afresh and told in new ways to every generation, since every generation has its own unique questions. This is why the gospel must be forwarded to a new address because the recipient is repeatedly changing his place of residence.1
Theology must answer the questions contemporary people are asking. That is why theology can never be too modern in the sense in which we use the word.
The apostle Paul tells us (in 1 Corinthians 1) that when he preaches to the Greeks, he starts with the questions they are asking—questions about the foundations of the universe and what holds the world together. But when Paul preaches to the Jews, he shifts tactics, for they are concerned about the Law and how to keep it. To both Jew and Greek, Paul starts with their questions. However, he does not accommodate the gospel to their ideas but actually contradicts them, showing that God is completely different from what they expected. But he searches them out in terms of their presuppositions and perspectives. Paul is the exemplar of a modern theologian.
My fourth thesis is that theology must be confessional. Theologians must come to terms with, and relate their teaching to, the church’s creeds. A confessional theologian understands that the church’s creeds are its human articulation of the Bible’s message.
The church’s demand for loyalty to the creeds is a demand for loyalty to the kerygma. Creeds guide the church in preaching the Word. And they will be understood anew in their human character by each generation.2
The confessional nature of theology entails a corollary: Theologians must be church people, fiercely loyal to their denomination. But because they are critics as well as servants, theologians cannot be church people in the same sense as church administrators. With few exceptions, administrators make poor theologians, and theologians make poor administrators.
It is doubtless a good thing that among Nazarenes our highest elected leaders have authority to interpret the doctrines of the church. This makes theologians church theologians and keeps them true servants and not masters. But it would be a bad thing if the authority of administrators to interpret church doctrines were ever mistaken for an authority to formulate doctrines for the church. This would amount to an authority to interpret Scripture, and would recreate the situation that called for the Reformation.
To prevent this, theologians, being servants of their denomination and subject to its administration, must also stand prepared to be its critics, if and when doctrinal integrity becomes clouded by institutional expediencies. In such cases, the theologian must be a gadfly, providing what is known in politics as the loyal opposition, calling the church back to the intent of her traditions and the purity of her teachings. And let it be said from the housetops that the theologian who is this kind of critic is a more loyal and loving servant of the denomination than those who merely swivel their chairs and look away.
THEOLOGY IS NOT HANDED DOWN FROM HEAVEN ON GOLDEN TABLETS. IT IS A HUMAN ACTIVITY—A WORK OF THE HUMAN MIND AS THE THINKER REFLECTS UPON FAITH AND SEEKS TO EXPRESS IT IN THE MOST MEANINGFUL LANGUAGE.
My fifth and final thesis is this: Theology must recognize the primacy of preaching. The quotation from Barth, which provides the theme for this talk, says that the theologian should be a servant and a critic of the preacher. Theology stands midway between the Word as its life and the pulpit as its goal. Its only vocation is to keep the message of the Word straight for the sake of the preacher. Theology must be preachable.
This does not mean that the preacher must wait for the theologian to blow the starting whistle before entering the pulpit. Preaching has primacy over theology. Theology merely works backward to investigate the basis of that which it has already heard proclaimed. To be sure, we cannot escape the fact that the one who proclaims is also a theologian, who cannot step out of his or her skin when entering the pulpit. Naturally the preacher brings a theological briefcase along, even when it isn’t dangled before the congregation. But it is precisely when preachers have arrived at some satisfying answers to the basic theological questions that they should beware lest they forget the critical criterion of every theology: It must be preachable, for its very origin is in preaching.
The theologian knows nothing more than the kneeling penitent at the cross, who, in confession of sin and reception of grace, discovers the God of Jesus Christ. And the climax of theology is not with the satisfaction of having solved an intellectual problem but with a doxology to the grace of the God of salvation. Theology, like liturgy, must end in a soli Deo gloria, the glory of God’s majestic grace. The theologian—even as critic—is servant of the listening, proclaiming, and believing church. This is the service and joy of doing theology.
These are my five theses. I post them on no church door. I only hope that they provide guidelines for doing theology inside the doors. For, as Luther said, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”
ROB L. STAPLES was a beloved teacher, theologian, and minister who passed away at age eighty-five on May 19, 2015. He taught theology at Southern Nazarene University from 1963 to 1976, before becoming professor of theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary, where he served for twentytwo years.
Note: This is an edited and condensed portion of Rob L. Staples’ induction address, “The Theologian as Servant and Critic, which was given on December 1, 1976, at Nazarene Theological Seminary.
1Helmut Thielicke, How Modern Should Theology Be? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), p. 10.
2Cf. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), pp. 65-71.