Honest Theology

Many years ago I took a course on the theology of missions.   It was in the opening lecture of that course that the professor, a very wise and seasoned missionary practitioner turned scholar, said, “missions is what keeps theology honest.”  It is an insight which, I think, is self-illuminating for anyone who has actually taught in a Seminary.  The point, of course, is that theological reflection has a tendency to drift towards the safe harbor of theoretical abstractions rather than stay out on the rough sea of real life application.  This overly theoretical theologizing is sometimes called disdainfully, “ivory tower” theology.  Bolaji Idowu, the Nigerian scholar, calls it “book theology” as opposed to a “living” theology about the living God in meaningful interaction with the His creation.  This is not a criticism of the vital role theologians play in articulating and defending historic Christian doctrines.  It is simply acknowledging that theological reflection must always serve the church.  Theology cannot exist in some hermetically sealed vacuum, blissfully ignorant of the real and difficult cultural and contextual particularities of our world.  Thus, one of the great ways that missions has served the theological community is by forcing theologians to address real challenges and answer many new questions which we might otherwise find more comfortable to simply ignore.  Thankfully, the missionary community keeps bringing these thorny, sticky issues to the theological table.  It is this great service of missionaries to theologians which is the basis for this wise professor saying that “missions is what keeps theology honest.”


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