Why Devotion to a Life of Prayer is Essential for the Practice of Theology

Over the last couple of days I wrote an essay for one of my modules. It was very much a rushed job and I am far from satisfied with it, for a number of reasons. It would have benefited from far more rigorous research (in the end the essay was more or less written from my memory of the sources that I used, rather than from much new reading) and the quality of the writing could have been vastly improved if I had properly gone back over it. Nevertheless, I have decided to reformat the essay slightly and post it as it is relevant to the dilettante debate that took place on this and other blogs (see under the ‘Book Reviews/Miscellaneous’ section of the linked post) and to certain other issues that are raised from time to time on my blog. This is also the nearest that I can get to an intelligent thing to post at the moment.

The essay is written in response to the question of whether devotion to a life of prayer is necessary for the practice of theology.

The question of whether a life of prayer is necessary for the practice of theology is undoubtedly one of the most important questions that face Christian theologians. Not merely content with calling the individual theologian to a life of personal and private prayer, it raises deep and searching questions about the character of the practice of theology itself.

Within this essay I will take the thought of John Calvin as my starting point, as an example of the multifaceted relationship between devotion to a life of prayer and the practice of theology. I will then bring forward some of the classic arguments for the indissoluble connection between the life of prayer and the study of theology. I will conclude with an assessment of the manner in which theology can be undertaken in dialogue with those outside of the Church.

John Calvin and the true Knowledge of God

Now, the knowledge of God, as I understand it, is that by which we not only conceive that there is a God but also grasp what befits us and is proper to his glory, in fine, what is to our advantage to know of him. Indeed, we shall not say that, properly speaking, God is known where there is no religion or piety. [Institutes I.ii.1]

Within his Institutes, John Calvin maintains that ‘piety’ is necessary for the true knowledge of God. For Calvin, reverence and love are the natural and proper responses to the genuine knowledge of God and, where such responses are lacking, the true knowledge of God is not present.

Disliking the speculative cast of much medieval scholastic theology, Calvin insists that the true knowledge of God is not merely a matter of the tongue [Institutes III.vi.4] and the brain [Institutes III.ii.36], but is of the heart and by faith (a comparison of the afore-mentioned passages will bear out this interpretation). In Institutes I.v.9 he writes:

And here again we ought to observe that we are called to a knowledge of God: not that knowledge which, content with empty speculation, merely flits in the brain, but that which will be sound and fruitful if we duly perceive it, and if it takes root in the heart.

Theology is an activity for the pious Christian, not the merely curious speculative theologian.

God, as the object of theology, is not some distant deity, but is our Creator and Redeemer. As the true knowledge of God and genuine self-knowledge are bound together in a reciprocal relationship [Institutes I.i.1], knowledge of God is bound up with a knowledge of ourselves as ‘his handiwork’ [Institutes I.ii.2]. Consequently, idle and disinterested speculation about God fails to know God as he truly is. All true knowledge of God will inescapably lead us worship him.

Not only does Calvin claim that piety is the necessary consequence of and prerequisite for true knowledge of God, he also sees his task of writing theology as one in which the heart must be fully invested, if it is to be done aright. John T. McNeill writes of Calvin’s own theology (in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin):—

The discerning reader soon realizes that not the author’s intellect alone but his whole spiritual and emotional being is enlisted in his work … He was not, we may say, a theologian by profession, but a deeply religious man who possessed a genius for orderly thinking and obeyed the impulse to write out the implications of his faith. He calls his book not a summa theologiae but a summa pietatis. The secret of his mental energy lies in his piety; its product is his theology, which is his piety described at length.

Within his Institutes, Calvin also employs what Serene Jones refers to as a ‘rhetoric of piety’. Jones writes:

It should not be surprising, however, to discover that Calvin develops a number of clever rhetorical devices to describe this disposition. At on level, he offers a rather straightforward, propositional exposition of the nature of pietas; he simply provides the reader with a useful definition of true godliness. At another level, he engages in a series of rhetorical maneuvers designed to provoke directly this disposition in the reader. In this sense, he is interested not only in telling the reader what she or he should experience but also in making “the reader good” by rhetorically eliciting the very disposition he describes.

Not content with merely stressing the importance of piety to his readers, Calvin wishes to encourage that disposition in them through his rhetoric.

The emphases that we see in Calvin’s theology are hardly unique, although his theology is a good illustration of a more consistent articulation and application of them. From Calvin we now move to other voices in the Christian tradition, which we will study under five different headings, each heading representing a ‘family’ of lines of reasoning for the inseparability of the life of prayer and the practice of theology.

Revelation and Faith
One of the most important historic arguments for the necessity of a life of prayer for the study of theology reasons from the manner in which revelation and faith are bound together. Anselm of Canterbury argued that, given the transcendence of the Creator God and the depths of our sinfulness, God must reveal himself to man if man is to truly know God. This divine revelation is received by faith, out of which understanding grows, rather than vice versacredo ut intelligam. For Anselm, theology is concerned with knowing God, not merely knowing about him.

Anselm’s point is expanded upon within Karl Barth’s understanding of the character of theology. Barth’s claim is summarized by Christoph Schwöbel, who writes:

Any science is determined by its subject-matter. In the case of theology, this subject-matter cannot be conceived of as object, but as subject, and this changes all the rules of ordinary academic disciplines. [23]

Along with Anselm, Barth insists that the ground of the possibility of theology is God’s self-revelation, God’s giving of himself to be known. Faith is that which makes theology a necessity and is the gift of God whereby we think appropriately of him. Faith itself is the ‘orientation of the reason towards God’s self-revelation’ (as T.F. Torrance puts it) and is the appropriate personal response to personal revelation.

The ‘correlation’ between faith and revelation as essential to the practice of Christian theology was a central theme in the theology of the Reformed theologian G.C. Berkouwer. Theology must continually proceed in terms of this correlation. Berkouwer ‘challenged the liberal tendency to prioritize the subjective — humanity’s response of faith — over and above the objective — the divine initiative of self-revelation.’ Berkouwer also sought to resist the over-systematization that he saw in much Reformed theology, believing that divine revelation can only be understood aright by faith and in a spirit of worship. Speculation is ruled out as a speculative theology is a theology that seeks to go beyond the bounds of divine revelation, or that divorces revelation from the faith that it addresses.

This concern is perfectly illustrated in Berkouwer’s treatment of the doctrine of election, as is the substantial theological difference that it can make. Berkouwer argues that approaches that employ the biblical teaching on the subject of election to create abstract theological systems mistreat the biblical teaching, which can only be understood rightly when it is continually related to faith. God does not merely reveal a series of abstract truths about himself, but communicates himself personally, a communication that is only properly received by the personal response of faith.

While these theologians differ on various details, each one of the three, in his own way, testifies to the necessity of a correlation between the personal revelation of God and faith as the appropriate personal response of man, and supports the claim that true theology is impossible apart from devotion to a life of prayer.

Theology and Communion
A further argument for the inseparability of theology and the life of prayer relies on a theological understanding of truth as bound up with personal communion. This argument can be made from a number of different angles and I will limit myself to a few illustrative approaches.

A particularly important argument on this point is advanced by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein argues that the words that we use when speaking about God gain their sense from what we do with them. If we abstract theological terminology from its place in the conversation and life of the Christian community it will lose its proper sense. Consequently, for its language to retain its proper meaning, theology must be situated in the context of the Church’s life of prayer.

Thomas Torrance argues that our theology does not carry the truth in itself, but is only ‘true’ insofar as points away from itself to Christ and derives its truth from him. Theology can never become an impersonal science, but must remain in vital personal relationship with the one of whom it speaks. Theological knowledge appropriate to its ‘object’ is impossible outside of the context of ecclesial communion. Torrance argues that participation in the life of the Church disposes us to properly apprehend God. It is participation in the Church’s life that provides us with the ‘cognitive instruments we need for explicit theological understanding of God’s interaction with us.’

The Eastern Orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas, makes related points, arguing that theology relies upon the communion of the Church for its truth.

Dogmas, like ministries, cannot survive as truth outside the communion-event created by the Spirit. It is not possible for a concept or formula to incorporate the truth within itself, unless the Spirit gives life to it in communion. Academic theology may concern itself with doctrine, but it is the communion of the Church which makes theology into truth. [118]

For Zizioulas the task of true science is a ‘para-eucharistic work’. If this is true of the natural sciences, then a fortiori it is true of the task of theology.

In exploring the relationship between truth and communion we must appreciate the ontological character of true knowledge. Many theologians have questioned the separation that has been created between Truth and Being, arguing that the two are convertible. Knowledge of the Truth involves ontological participation. As Peter Candler writes:

Insofar as God’s knowledge is one with his being, to participate in God’s self-knowledge is at the same time to participate in his being. Thus to grow in knowledge is to grow in being, to come to be more truly. [4]

Any attempt to separate theology from a life of participation in and communion with God is a doomed attempt to separate Truth from Being.

The Life of Prayer as the Telos of Theology
Thomas Aquinas argues for understanding theology as both a practical and ‘speculative’ science. Right action is at least part of the telos of the study of theology. The claim that right action is at least part of the telos of theology is a common one. Schleiermacher is another example of a theologian who argues that the unity of the discipline of theology is to be found precisely in its ordering to the end of the life of the churches.

As James K.A. Smith argues, Christian theology is performed in service of the Christian confession of faith. The science of theology has the Church’s faith and confession as its ‘ground-motive’ (Dooyeweerdian terminology) and also as its telos.

The work of George Lindbeck is also relevant to this question. Lindbeck presents Christian doctrine as a means of regulating the Church’s cultural-linguistic practice. If Lindbeck is correct then any separation between theology as theory and theology as application is called in question. All theology is application. Whilst Lindbeck’s reduction of Christian doctrine to this regulatory function is regrettable, his recognition of this function is helpful.

The Rhetorical Form of Theology
A further argument for the necessary relationship between theology and the life of prayer is founded on the claim that the rhetorical form of theology is not a matter to which we can be theologically indifferent. Peter Candler chronicles the rejection of a ‘grammar of participation’ for a ‘grammar of representation’ within modernity. Candler likens the difference between these two ‘grammars’ to the difference between a map and an itinerary. The map is a totalizing and panoptic spatial representation of a particular realm; the itinerary is a narrative to be performed.

Medieval theologians such as Aquinas were not theological cartographers, but were manuductors, rhetorically seeking to lead their readers by the hand, furnishing the route by which their readers’ souls could return to God. To properly read such theology is to perform the return that they narrate. On this account theology and the life of prayer are utterly inseparable. Theology is designed to proper order our wills towards God and is thus doxological in character. The intellectual in theology is intimately bound up with the moral. Theology is a spiritual exercise as much as it is a rational exercise; theology is written to form the character of the reader and not merely to inform him intellectually. On this account both the proper reading and writing of theology proceed from a devotion to a life of prayer.

Interpreting the Sources of Theology
The final line of argument for the necessity of devotion to a life of prayer for the study of theology that we will examine here questions the assumption that the Scriptures as the sources of theology can be properly interpreted outside of the Church. In chapter XIX of his Prescription Against Heretics, Tertullian claims that, in reasoning with heretics, we should not appeal to the Scriptures, but to the Church’s rule of faith. The right and ability to interpret Scripture only belongs to those who accept this rule of faith.

The question of the ontology of the Scriptures is important to raise here. Following the advent of the mass-produced, privately-owned, printed bound Bible, our conception of the ontology of the Scriptures has been radically altered. Along with this shift in the ontology of the text is a shift in reading habits and patterns of engagement with the Scriptures. The printed text brings with it the notion of the Scriptures as ‘autonomous discourse’ (as Walter Ong argues), detached from any particular interpretative community. The meaning of the text is also presumed to be a closed timeless presence, rather than something that continually arrives in the authorized ‘performance’ of the text in its proper interpretative community. This shift in the ontology of the text is one of the reasons why we might find the position of someone such as Tertullian hard to relate to.

In Unleashing the Scripture, Stanley Hauerwas claims that biblical scholars and fundamentalists both err in regarding the interpretation of the Scriptures as possible apart from the need to ‘stand under the authority of a truthful community’. Proper reading of the Scriptures demands ‘spiritual and moral transformation’. Using the work of Stanley Fish, Hauerwas insists that texts do not exist prior to interpretative strategies, but are constructed by interpretative communities. [Although I think that Hauerwas and Fish overstate their case, I believe that their claim that texts are constituted by interpretative communities is quite sound, provided that we recognize that texts are never mere constructions.] Scripture encountered liturgically in the context of the Church’s worship is quite a different entity from the ancient near eastern text that the biblical critic studies.

Richard Hays is another writer who stresses the importance of ecclesial hermeneutics and the hermeneutics of faith. He writes:

Scripture discloses its sense only as the text is brought into correlation with living communities where the Holy Spirit is at work. The point is not that Scripture must be made “relevant,” as though its meaning could first be discerned though abstractable critical methods and then secondarily applied by analogy to our contemporary situation; rather, the meaning of Scripture will never be understood at all until it is read in communities that embody the obedience of faith.

According to such writers as Hays, proper interpretation of the sources of Christian theology is impossible apart from devotion to a life of prayer.

Theology Apart from a Life of Prayer?
In conclusion, we must ask ourselves whether a place can be found for theology outside of the community of faith. Can theology operate in any sense as public discourse? We must also ask whether it is possible for the Church’s theology to be informed by the work of non-Christian biblical critics, for example.

The above arguments have made the case for the impossibility of true theology outside of the context of the life of prayer. Theology is necessarily an activity of faith and doxology and is performed in service of the Church’s confession and worship. The practice of theology is a means by which the Church seeks to act in accordance with its authoritative text.

However, the faithful practice of theology demands a number of skills that are not unique to that particular practice. The Christian theologian thus has much to learn from the voices of such disciplines as biblical criticism, sociology, philosophy and anthropology. To the extent that the practice of Christian theology is open to critical assessment from people within such disciplines, it is a public one. However, although the practice of Christian theology can draw upon the practice of biblical criticism, Christian theology is a distinct practice with different internal goods, requisite virtues and exists in a different tradition and social embodiment.

The biblical critic is not a theologian. He can criticize the practice of theology on certain points, but, as a biblical critic he does not as such participate in it. The secular scholar must read the Christian tradition as an outsider to it. This involves reading the tradition second-hand, as it were, ‘off the lives and practices of the community’s members.’ Biblical critics can rightly criticize the Church’s theological appropriation of the Scriptures on occasions, but from the resources of biblical criticism they will never be able to fulfil the Church’s task and appropriate the Scriptures for us. The Church’s task of interpreting and being interpreted by the Scriptures is a far broader activity than the relatively narrow activity that biblical critics engage in.

What then can we say concerning the place of theology in the secular academy? The role of theology in the academy should be regarded as part of the Church’s task of mission. As N.T. Wright observes, by performing theology within the academy we recognize that the Church must speak truth to the world, not merely to herself. Theology within the academy can perform the prophetic role of denying the supposed autonomy of secular reason and calling the various sciences to reject the critical detachment of modernity for the commitment of faith. It can perform the role of a ‘chaplain’ in aiding the other sciences to arrive at knowledge of the manner in which God’s self-revelation provides a basis for the knowledge of their particular discipline. Finally, it can facilitate a dialogue in which the Church is opened to the judgment of those outside on the faithfulness of its practice. Through submission to such judgment the Church can be progressively conformed to the image of Christ.

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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2 Responses to Why Devotion to a Life of Prayer is Essential for the Practice of Theology

  1. Do I spy someone taking advice? It’s great to see the introduction at the start of your post. I’ll read the full article later, but I have work right now.

  2. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2006-2007 | Alastair's Adversaria

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