Leithart on Rigour

Leithart has been posting some great stuff lately (where does he find the time?), obviously inspired by his reading of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. One of his recent posts ably makes a point that I have often tried to make, with less success.

I and many of my friends have been criticized for our supposed lack theological rigor. It’s meant as an insult. I take it as a compliment.

Rigor has its place. But it’s not the be and end all of theology. A Turretin is necessary for consolidating a Reformation. He could never have started a Reformation.

Fresh insights are always un-rigorous. They always come in a flash of intuition, not through brick-by-brick systematization. They always come as a blinding light from heaven, an open door to paradise, a strange warming of the heart. Rigor is always a late-comer. Lack of rigor might be a sign of laziness and falsehood. But it might just as well be a sign of vitality and truth.

Read the complete post here. In my experience, all of my greatest insights have been arrived at in a very un-rigourous fashion. My present theological understanding is the product, not of some sort of rigourous theological calculus, but is closer to that which results from finally ‘seeing’ a Magic Eye picture. Explaining my theological understanding to others can be difficult. In most cases all that you can do is encourage people to keep on looking and try to direct them in the best ways in which to look, in the hope that one day they will ‘see’ it too. This, I appreciate, makes my writing often appear un-rigourous, a pastiche of theological impressionism that could never survive outside of the overly-forgiving atmosphere of the blogosphere. However, I am convinced that if my writing and thinking were characterized chiefly by rigour I would find it hard to convey precisely that which I most want to convey.

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.
This entry was posted in What I'm Reading. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Leithart on Rigour

  1. Byron says:

    Huzzah for unsystematic Al!

    This is a good point – keep up your mess.

  2. aaron says:

    Love the Magic Eye image. Very apt. Needless to say, I agree and have a similar experience.

  3. WTM says:

    I happen to like rigor…and consistency, and systematicity for that matter…which seems to put me in the minority so far in this conversation. However, we ought to remember that Luther, though certainly not systematic or even terribly consistent, has his own form of rigor. Furthermore, I would argue that though Luther’s flash-pan insight in many ways sparked the Reformation, it wasn’t until Calvin, and the work of the scholastics, that Luther’s insights were carefully thought through and properly situated, explicated, and in all other ways made more formidable through the application of rigor.

    There should be, in my humble opinion, a difference between theology and preaching, even if theology is done in service to preaching and is really its own sub-genre of preaching. Proclamation is affective; theology should be effective. Preaching is rhetorical; theology should be reasonable. I don’t mean to deny that theology has to do with its own rationality, that of the Gospel proclaimed by Christ. However, theology serves this proclamation precisely in its rigor (and consistency, and systematicity).

    Just my two cents… 🙂

  4. shane says:

    the difference between an ‘insight’ and a hairbrained scheme is that the former is capable of deeper and more systematic explanation (even if it is not arrived at systematically), whereas the latter cannot be systematically, rigorously, or consistently explained.

  5. Al says:


    I am would agree that preaching and theology differ from one another, although I am not sure that I would express the difference in quite the same way as you do. I expect good preaching to be reasonable and good theology to be affective. Theology should move people to move the truth, so it is inescapable rhetorial and affective. However, this is not to deny that the telos of theology and preaching differ from one another.

    Un-rigorous theology is not necessarily the same thing as ‘affective’ theology. If I really wanted to, I could try to write systematic and rigorous theology. There is a time and a place for such an activity. However, if all that theologians do is rigorously systematize they will fail to communicate the fact that much of our theology consists of unproven assertions.

    Our theologies are generally arrived at through adopting certain perspectives on the biblical text. The validity of these perspectives can seldom if ever be logically proven. ‘Rigorous’ theologians often fail to appreciate this. When you really press people, it becomes apparent that on many of the most basic and determinative questions, theological differences come down to something nearer to aesthetical differences than logical differences. One way rather than another way of seeing seems better to people. Both perspectives could be rigorously developed and systematized, but this will never resolve the differences.

    Much of the ‘theologizing’ that takes place on this blog is an invitation to see things differently. It is a recommendation of different metaphors and categories from those which have dominated Reformed and evangelical thought (most particularly because they have largely gone unexamined). Metaphors are understood by contemplation; analysis robs them of their power (much like jokes). They need to be inhabited, to be ‘tried on for size’.

    There is a place for rigorously exploring how exactly a particular way of seeing works out in the details and how it holds together as a ‘system’ (I am not too fond of that word, but I can’t think of a better one at the moment). However, this is not the only task of theology. Many theological debates are simply the result of the fact that certain people, although they can think rigorously in terms of one paradigm and its constitutive metaphors, cannot try on any other metaphors or paradigms for size. They are imprisoned by the metaphors of their paradigm and all their rigorous thinking will simply strengthen their shackles. They will only be released as they patiently indwell a new metaphor long enough for it to disclose its insight. For this and other reasons I am convinced that purely rigorous theology is weak and ineffective and that there are appropriate situations for theology to be unrigorous.

  6. WTM says:


    Thank you for your words. I, along with you, am wary of system building. However, I think it an entirely different thing than attempting to be systematic. But, this is neither the time nor the place for elucidating that statement.

    You wrote: “Our theologies are generally arrived at through adopting certain perspectives on the biblical text. The validity of these perspectives can seldom if ever be logically proven.”

    I agree that these things cannot be “proven”in some abstract, objective (or as you say, logical) sense. However, that does not mean that we lack arbitraters in these matters. I myself am particularly fond of asking questions about consistency and correspondence. The more internal consistency and external correspondence (explanative force), the more relatively correct.

    This notion of of explanative force / external correspondence is important, especially with regards to the point of reference. I take the point of reference here to be the narrative. Now, you are right that we bring perspectives to the narrative; I simply want to say that part of theological rogor – an indispensible part – is testing to see whether or not these perspectives match the narrative. It seems that you are more interesting in developing accounts that match people’s felt experience of life (or even of the narrative). Why you may be hermeneutically correct that experience of the narrative mediates the narrative; our attention needs to be on the narrative, not our experience of it, as much as possible.

    Of course, I have no doubt that you are capable of rigorous theology; I have enjoyed your reflections in the past and would not call them un-rigorous in the least.

  7. Oloryn says:

    Can we really expect to be ‘one-size-fits-all’ theologians? “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God”(I Pet 4:10). Given the manifold, multifaceted grace of God, I don’t think any one theological approach could grasp it all. That’s why God has provided all of those different special gifts. The key seems to be using them “in serving one another”, rather than using them to serve your own needs or agenda.

    I’m a computer programmer, but my degree is in Bible (Asbury College). In my years after college, I would occasionally be asked to do word studies for my pastor or others in the church. Looking back, it was amazing how often God gave me the grace to find the particular nuance relevant to the question the person was asking. I also remember deciding, at one point, that “I’m going to do one of those, just for myself.” I got exactly nothing, came up absolutely bone-dry. The grace was given for serving others, not serving myself.

    Looking back over my life, God has centered my own theological approach on issues of communication – learning how people communicate and getting sensitive to how easy miscommunication is, and how to spot the clues that say miscommunication is going on, then applying those skills to the reading of scripture. Almost unconsciously, I tend to gravitate towards issues where my skills tell me that miscommunication is likely. I am definitely not a rigorous, systematic theologian, but I think ignoring me because I’m not “rigorous enough” would be a mistake.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.