The Covert Letter
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By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
January 31, 2013

The study of Christian theology ought to be preceded by a strong warning. Quite rightly, theology can be a serious academic pursuit. It is a science and as such deserves intellectual research, rigor, and honesty. At the same time it ought to be recognized that perhaps more than any other discipline theology is a more subjective enterprise than folk are aware. It is as much (or even more) an activity of the heart as the mind, an index to the deepest self of the person participating.

Ideally, its objective is to know God and by his grace that may be the result. Theology is intended to be a Person to person encounter. The character of the student is disclosed and exposed the more and more he or she reveals the "discoveries" they have made, and in theology there is the danger that we are merely listening to ourselves, a largely unknown entity, than to God. The subconscious is hard at work in our concentration on the subject of theology. It throws up unexamined presuppositions and assumptions that parasitically attach themselves to the data we are considering.

The heart, which no human being can fathom or comprehend, manipulates the material to hand and arrives at the conclusion we unknowingly desire and prefer. The thinker whose endeavors are based on Scripture may not detect the extent to which divine revelation is being tweaked to a reflection of human bias shaped by mysterious and undetected psychological factors. And as the findings of theology are principally dictated by the condition of the heart, the disposition of the enquirer towards God (with whom they claim to be acquainting themselves) is a major influence on that which their investigations yield.

It is an axiom of Christian theology that God reveals himself. A humble and holy God discloses himself, in reality and not merely theory, to the humble, the pure in heart, and those prepared to obey his will when it is divulged.

At that time Jesus said, "I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those whom the Son chooses to reveal him". Matthew 11: 25-27.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Matthew 5:8.

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free". John 8: 31-32. Motive, mood, and mental effort are all elements in the matter of our theologizing, and we move forward in total reliance upon God forged in prayer and friendship. Theology progresses from science to relationship, for we are desirous not only of the knowledge of principles but of a Personal Being manifesting himself in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each deigns to teach us, informationally, inspirationally, interiorly, and intimately as personal companions speaking their mutual secrets to the soul. Hence the joy and wisdom of our Anglican Collect for purity.

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

This plea is a request for a total spring cleaning of hearts, thoughts, desires, dispositions so that God may be perceived in truth and clarity, and every inward function of the soul be an act of homage and praise. The new heart is necessary for comprehension of God's communication and our worthy response. Psalm 119 is an extended meditation upon this theme.

The heart must be right if the head is not seriously to err. So healthy self -interrogation is as vital as examination of the Word, and the Word is the efficacious means to this end. Do we yearn to know the truth in all its aspects, factual, spiritual, moral, or do we wish to control the Word for own convenience, comfort, and even prestige among men as intellectuals and polemicists? Does the Word dominate us or do we seek to dominate the Word? Hans Kung records the humility of Karl Barth. He would not dare to come before God with his barrow loads of books, but simply with the assurance, "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so".

Theology is not a vehicle for human pride and ambition, to produce stars and celebrities (nouns sadly over used in Evangelical circles), but simply the godly thought and speech of godly people concerning God so that they may worship him acceptably and walk with him consistently. It may be trained or Scripturally instinctive but it is clothed in humility as the frail musings upon the Beloved.

Some degree of self awareness is beneficial in our espousal of the theology we advocate. It counsels caution concerning our thought processes. Our theological stance does not emerge from a previous intellectual vacuum. In listing formative factors in theology John Macquarrie begins with experience, and proceeds through revelation, Scripture, tradition, culture, and reason. It is useful to weigh as to how these factors impinge upon us personally and as to what weight they bring to bear on the forming of our convictions.

Experience in a variety of ways, for example, can establish a set of attitudes and beliefs or sharply turn us from them. Wounds or encouragements from representatives of particular interpretations of theology can shape our reactions, favorable or hostile. We are creatures of emotion and this often clouds our objectivity. A cleansed or healed heart (always only partially) is essential for safe footsteps across the terrain of Holy Scripture. Edmund Gosse, in his autobiography Father and Son, speaks of the effects upon a sensitive mind of the rigid religious views held by his father and that always, seemingly unreasonably at times, the will of Gosse senior and God always concurred. "He assumed that he had private knowledge of the Divine Will." Anthony Storr in his insights into the phenomena of the human mind (Churchill's Black Dog, etc, essay on Isaac Newton, page 84, Ballantine, NY, June 1990) observes that many of our views are fashioned from the desires and fears at the very depths of our being and then rationalized and propounded when they arrive at the surface of our minds (you might say, though rather simplistically, that Calvinists crave security, and that Arminians desire control).

These matters are simply cited to illustrate the fact that theology is a risky business, we are daring when we engage in it, and dare not do so without imploring the even fallible efforts of the new heart to restrain the blunders of the proud and hasty mind so susceptible to error and self deception. When we theologize we are not merely perusing print and pondering principles. We are keeping a rendezvous with a Person in an attitude of heartfelt prayer.

The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church

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