Some centuries ago, someone (a politician, I suppose) disconnected theology from the rest of the academy, hustled it down a dark hallway, and locked it in a basement office with stern warnings to “Stay put” and “Behave.”
Theologians, by and large a meek race, complied. They have spent their time holding long seminars and filling shelves of books with monographs on details of Scripture, on historical studies, on the arcana of systematic theology—many of them of great erudition and enduring value for the church. In exchange for the freedom to pursue minutiae, theologians agreed not to issue authoritative “Thus saith the Lord”s about liberal politics, serial music, Cubism, relativity, or epistemology. Few cared to make such pronouncements anyway.
Theologians are today beginning to slip out of the basement, to speak with renewed confidence, and to overcome what John Milbank has called the “false humility” of modern theology. Booklists of every theological publisher burst with studies that apply theological insights to cultural and political topics. Down at Fuller, they offer intriguing classes on “visual culture,” and the University of Saint Andrews has an impressive Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts.
All this is very heartening. I want to give it three hearty cheers, and then nudge it along another step. Theologians and theology programs shouldn’t be satisfied with “theology and . . .” Theologians should instead insist that all theology is theology of culture, and that cultural studies inevitably open out into theology. We need theology programs that reject the whole idea of “theology and . . .” We must renounce the copulative and all its works and all its pomp.
“Theology and . . .” still pays homage to the strictures of modernity. Time was when “sacred doctrine” encompassed everything. Augustine wrote in the interrogative mood and for him every question about everything was a theological question, a prayer directed back to the Creator of all. Thomas was the greatest philosopher, as well as the greatest theologian, of his time, and he and Augustine are both among the great political theorists of the West. Thomas understood that all other sciences are ancillae, handmaids, to the science of God, and so all other disciplines are internal to theology. But Thomas didn’t think he was doing “theology and . . .” Like Augustine, he was just doing theology, studying and teaching and shedding the light of sacred Scripture on everything around him.
“Theology and culture” also veils the fact that one cannot do theology without cultural equipment and tools. The first half of the Old Testament is largely narrative, and the second half largely poetry. How can anyone hope to become a biblical scholar without cultivating a degree of literary sensitivity? How can a contemporary systematician responsibly write on theological anthropology without knowing Freud, and Weber, and cultural anthropology?
While I’m at it, I’d like to get rid of another copulative. The founders of the modern world kept theology at bay by subdividing theology’s little ghetto. Divide and marginalize has been modernity’s strategy for neutering theology. At one end of the hall were the Old Testament scholars, and far at the other end were the New Testament. Both were discouraged from talking to the systematicians on the floor above. Still today, seminaries have divided biblical faculties. New Testament scholars might know the Greek Bible backward and forward, but rare is the scholar bold enough to venture across the border.
Pre-modern theologians didn’t know there was a border. Origen, John Chrysostom, and Bernard of Clairvaux started from the Song of Songs, but once they began they wandered everywhere, as the text led them from the gospels to Revelation, back to Genesis or the book of Samuel. The whole Bible, not some segment of it, gave bishops and priests, monks and friars room to stretch their limbs and play in the fields of the Lord.
This too is changing. New Testament scholars are more and more aware that the New Testament without the Old is all denouement without complication. Richard Hays has alerted us to the fact that every line of Paul’s letters reverberates with the music of Torah, Psalms, and prophets. “Theological interpretation” of Scripture is all the rage these days. No one quite knows what it means, except that the Old Testament is part of the Christian Bible and the story of Jesus. The copulative between “Old and New Testaments” is dissolving and being replaced by an ancient Augustinian conviction: The new is in the old concealed; the old in the new revealed. As the boundary of Old and New breaks down, so do narrow methods of reading Scripture. Typology and allegory are making a comeback, and we should all bid them a hearty welcome.
If all this sounds like a brief for re-coronating theology as Queen of the sciences, that’s because it is, so long as we add that theology is fundamentally the science of Scripture. Long live the Queen!
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Wipf & Stock). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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