David Bentley Hart on the Discipline of Theology

David Bentley Hart writes:—

Now, as it happens, theology is actually a pitilessly demanding discipline concerning an immense, profoundly sophisticated legacy of hermeneutics, dialectics, and logic; it deals in minute detail with a vast variety of concrete historical data; over the centuries, it has incubated speculative systems of extraordinary rigor and intricacy, many of whose questions and methods continue to inform contemporary philosophy; and it does, when all is said and done, constitute the single intellectual, moral, spiritual, and cultural tradition uniting the classical, medieval, and early modern worlds. Even if one entirely avoids considering what metaphysical content one should attach to the word “God,” one can still plausibly argue that theology is no more lacking in a substantial field of inquiry than are history, philosophy, the study of literature, or any of the other genuinely respectable university disciplines.

Moreover, theology requires far greater scholarly range. The properly trained Christian theologian should be a proficient linguist, with a mastery of several ancient and modern tongues, should have formation in the subtleties of the whole Christian dogmatic tradition, should possess a considerable knowledge of the liturgies, texts, and arguments produced in every period of the Church, should be a good historian, should have a thorough philosophical training, should possess considerable knowledge of the fine arts, should have an intelligent interest in such areas as law or economics, and so on. This is not to say that one cannot practice theology without all these attainments, but such an education remains the scholarly ideal of the guild. And, as Stoner rightly notes, the absence or near-absence of theology from the general curriculum has done incalculable harm to students’ ability to understand their own fields. This is perhaps especially—or at least most obviously—true in the case of literary studies; but, in fact, it would be hard to name a discipline outside the hard sciences or mathematics that can be mastered adequately without some degree of theological literacy.

The more that I study theology, the more aware of my limitations I become. Being persuaded that over-specialization is an especially dangerous tendency within this field (above all others) and seeking to keep my studies as broad as possible, I continually find myself frustrated by my inability to attain to the level of scholarship that I believe that the discipline demands of me. Theology calls for a degree of personal commitment, intensity of focus and dedication and investment of life that I feel utterly incapable of. Occasionally I wonder whether I should be doing something entirely different; Theology demands more than I can give. However, despite my frustration with my incapacity, I know that no other discipline could inspire me in the same way.

The last several months have been particularly unproductive and I have failed to meet a number of the targets that I have set myself. I am firmly persuaded that the coming years will prove crucial in my personal development and for the standard of my continuing studies. Whilst I know that I do not have what is required to be a great theologian, I wish to be the best that I possibly can be. Over the next few months I hope to progress beyond the haphazard and indisciplined character that my studies have had to this point, to cease to be a dabbler and become a true scholar. I must address my deep-seated slothfulness and bring my somewhat mercurial temperament under a greater degree of control. I am uncertain as to the direction that this blog will take and the part, if any, that it will play in my future plans. I would appreciate all of your prayers over the next while.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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5 Responses to David Bentley Hart on the Discipline of Theology

  1. John Boggis says:

    Hart’s picture of the ideal academic (professional) theologian is probably correct and there have been a good number of them since the beginning of the Christian era but most of us who are utterly committed to thinking and living and being theological, do not have those natural gifts which may be honed by dedicated discipline to making a good theologian who can assist the Church of Christ as a whole in its pilgrimage and evangelical mission to the world. Most of us will simply struggle to live as Christians with a ‘faith that seeks understanding’ and make a picture with certain and faltering strokes, as best we can, from the multiple options on the palette at our disposal. We are likely to start over many times and even more likely never to finish the work. So it seemed to the apostle Paul (1 Cor.13:12-13).

    Theology is for living (according to Sally McFague). With that I would whole heartedly agree. As a mere intellectual or academic discipline or activity, I believe it will become distorted no matter what the starting point or inner disposition of those engaged. It can only be for living when it is a vision that fills one’s heart and mind with the Glory and love of God revealed in Christ. Personally I think Hart’s sometimes difficult writings are worth engaging with even when one misses a lot of the nuances in what he is saying due to our lack of equivalent theological and philosophical reading and engagement.

    We have to start somewhere and for those of us who are proficient in only one language (in my case UK English –American English is a bit of a problem for me) and can only scrape by with a miniscule bit of Greek and Latin, we are substantially restricted to what is originally written in English (even if American) or translated thereto. It goes without saying (surely) that the Bible should be, as it were, in our blood (of John Bunyan, it was said by Charles Haddon Spurgeon “if you prick him anywhere you will find that his blood is Bibline”). I am not suggesting here a particular view of inspiration and authority except that which really has been accepted and assumed by the biblical writers themselves and the church (East and West) from the beginning of Christianity. But as Irenaeus made clear in the 2nd century, the bible can be made to mean many things that the church has never believed and is no part of the Gospel (his war against Gnostics in Adversus Haereses explains this view). For Irenaeus and the orthodox who followed him there was the ‘faith’ or ‘rule of faith’ delivered by the apostles to the church, the Scripture upon which this rule or summary was based and the churches role through its Bishops and teaching offices to keep this faith pure and to expound it in accordance with the rule and scripture.

    Having conducted most of my theological education from the writings and perspectives of Reformed Protestantism (up to its rather distorted reflection in the old Princetonian School) and then modern liberal and post liberal theologians, I have come to the conclusion that I must go back to the roots and that means the early church fathers of the first century and ante-Nicene and post- Nicene fathers (Greek and Latin) through to Augustine and up-to the 6th Cent. (Justinian and Saint Gregory). I can only do this through English translations but that is sufficient for general purposes. I suspect though I cannot say right now that I will have to grapple with the Radical Orthodoxy camp of Milbank etc but I shall personally defer that until I am more comfortable with the Greek and Latin Fathers (in English) and the later medieval theologians. I sense that as one moves forward through the middle ages and then the early modern period and studies theology historically a better perspective will be gained than doing what I did originally.

    To come back to the issue of theology and the difficulty of studying it – I only do so because I am a Christian and that means something about seeking to know God and respond to God as revealed in Christ as honestly and as committedly as possible. If theology stops that process or hinders it, it has lost its meaning and objective. Theology only does its work as it enables us to draw nearer to God, to sense and respond to his love more fully, to enjoy and rejoice in the glory and majesty of God more completely, to enter into the redemptive and deification purposes of God more joyfully. It is God’s ‘New Creation’ that theology helps to reveal and leads us to enter into by his grace and power. Theology is the fire, the love the dew of God, poured into our human hearts and minds in the community of those who have seen anew the remaking of all things according to his eternal purposes in Christ. However, as our theological instincts are honed, we will not be able to stay silent when those within and without the Church seek to articulate a vision which cannot edify the spirit and mind and work consistently to fulfill the will of God.

    Theological training will lead one to not only debate but to engage in a principled and vigorous critique of the world and its belief systems. We may never be able to do this as a David Bentley Hart or John Milbank but then not many, in any type of Church, will be reading their works (nor many in academic institutions unless they are studying theology and philosophy in a post graduate environment). We are more likely to have our audience in the people we live with, work with, worship with and those who just want to know why we believe. We probably will never write important books or head a university department. We can live the Christian life, however, to its fullest with a full bodied and rich theology.

    Perhaps a recital of Paul’s prayers for the Ephesian Church is an appropriate way to encourage any Christian theological student:

    I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Eph. 1:17-22 NIV)

    I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Eph.3:14-21 NIV)

  2. Al says:


    Wow, that comment was a post in itself! Thanks for the thoughts.

  3. Victor says:

    Man, this is a good reminder to work my butt off instead of just, as you say, dabbling. Like Dwight Pryor says, “It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to be a disciple of Jesus in actual things.”

    Good post.

  4. Pingback: Borahnerges » Blog Archive » The Requirements of a Theologian

  5. Pingback: Borahnerges » Blog Archive » The Requirements of a Theologian

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