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A Systematic Theology
Because of piety's penchant for taking itself too seriously, theology does well to nurture a modeset, unguarded sense of comedy. Some droll sensibility is required to keep in due proportion the pompous pretensions of the study of divinity.
I invite the kind of laughter that wells up not from cynicism about reflection on God but from the ironic contradictions accompanying such reflection. Theology is intrinsically funny. This comes from glimpsing the incongruity of humans thinking about God. I have often laughed at myself as these sentences went through their tortuous stages of formation. I invite you to look for the comic dimension of divinity that stalks every page. It is not blasphemy to grasp the - human contradiction for what it is. The most enjoyable of all subjects has to be God, because God is the source of all joy.
The subject matter that we cannot finally evade if we pursue a reflection on faith's understanding, is the incomparable Subject, the Living God, the insurmountably alive reality whom Moses heard addressing him as "Yahweh."
Yahweh is a name-significantly, a personal noun, not an impersonal noun describing an object. Yahweh is the name used to address an incomparably encountering personal Subject who breaks through and circumscribes all our category systems (Gregory of Nazianzus, First Theol. Orat. 27; Calvin, Inst. I.13). The Christian community speaks of a conscious, personal reality who meets us in personal terms as companionable divine Subject, as Thou, or in familiar terms: You. The reason you do not say you-all in triune teaching is that God isone.
If we must use some pronoun to point to this reality, it can only be
- Thou, the solemn personal form of the second person singular address, or the more problematic
- him or
- her Note carefully the limited choices: Thou, you, him, her, he, she-all fundamentally based on three forms: Thou, him, and her. The neuter, it or It, cannot adequately convey personhood. We must say either Thou, Him, or Her because we cannot say It if the One with whom we finally must deal is indeed incomparably personal, and if that One's Word speaks to us as a personal address (John 4:1-26; 9:1-12; Augustine, Tractates on John 44.5-6; Tho. Aq., ST 1 Q. 13).
This makes it difficult to use language in an ordinary way about Yahweh. It would be as if one looked at a list of three courses called mathematics, political science, and George. Instantly you can tell that you cannot study a person as you would a thing. The names we have for God (Gott in Teutonic languages and, before that, Adonai, El, Theos, Deus) all point to a personal reality that cannot finally be reduced to objective, descriptive sentences or abstract ideas, just as George is always something more than our sentences or ideas about George.
This is why Christian teaching about God is a different sort of study than any empirical science that deals with measurable objects. Yet theology is not thereby less organized; nor is it lacking in method or wholly without language (Augustine, On Chr. Doctrine 1; Calvin, Inst. 1.6), any more than our interpersonal relations are without language when we are speaking to Miriam or George-for this is where we need language most.
God has left a trail of language behind a stormy path of historical activities. That language is primarily the evidence with which theology has to deal-first with Scripture, then with a long history of interpretation of Scripture called church history and tradition, and finally with the special language that emerges out of each one's own personal experience of meeting the living God (Augustine, On Chr. Doctrine, I; John of Damascus, OF 4.17; Catherine of Siena, Prayers, 6; Thirty-nine Articles 6, 20, 21, 34). This free and personally revealing God is the unavoidable subject matter of Christian teaching. The object investigated is faith's view of God. But to say that alone may be to neglect the more decisive point: the divine Subject who is constantly confronting us in this study is none other than the holy One present in our midst, the living God who calls forth and enables our responses.
What the Study of God Studies
The object of study in theology must be carefully stated. It is God as known in the faith of the worshiping Christian community. This study seeks to know an investigatable reality and thus is not merely speculation. For there actually exists in history a community of persons who hold steadfastly to faith in God. Yet since God is not an object, it is inexact to assert that God is directly, flatly, or empirically viewable as an object of theology. God does not, for our convenience, become a direct object of scientific investigation, since God by definition is not finite and thus not subject to the measurements required by empirical sciences (Gregory of Nyssa, Answer to Eunomius' Second Book; Augustine, CG 10.13; Tho. Aq., ST 1 Q1).
Nonetheless, Christian theology has a definite subject matter to which it devotes disciplined and sustained reflective attention: that knowledge of God as understood in the faith of the community that lives out of Christ's resurrection (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. Lect. 4.1-17). The basis for the study of God becomes confused if theology is presented strictly as a privatized, individual credo, or as a limited confessional statement of a particular faction that views itself as the arbiter of Christian truth for all other communions. Theology is not primarily the repeating of confessional assertions but, rather, the investigation and clarification of the internal consistency of those assertions, their reasoning about their ground, and the way they relate to the problems of daily life. Hence Christian theology has a particular area of research: the worshiping community's understanding of God, viewed consensually from its earliest beginnings and sources. The subject of investigation is not God as such or God as viewed by himself. Rather it is God as known in the faith of the worshiping Christian community.
A Systematic Theology. Copyright (c) by Thomas C. Oden . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.