How Theology Became Boring

I assume connectedness, integration, and beauty, are key elements in the make-up of that which is compelling and interesting. We engage in what grabs and pertains to us. In turn, boredom arises with disconnectedness and irrelevance.  This means the most basic, broadest, most interconnected of topics, such as theology, should be the most compelling – which for most is self-evidently not the case.

This is nowhere more obvious than among supposed students of the Bible, which I found through long experience, require convincing that theology is pertinent to their goals in ministry. As David Wells and Mark Knoll noted years ago, even the highest achieving seminarians can be dismissive of theology and eager to get to the real work of ministry. They both put the blame on the culture of pragmatism, but neither thought to look at the treatment of the topic itself. Neither considered the role of theology in giving rise to a culture, even a culture within the church, which no longer was concerned with what would seem to be foundational. It is clear that this subject, theology, which once engaged the greatest minds in history, even the greatest philosophical and scientific minds, as the queen of the sciences, has been displaced and theologians may have ensured this result.

The problem with turning to theology as giving rise to its own failure is not so much about agreeing that this may be true.  The argument is mostly about who is to blame. Who or what gave rise to “onto-theology,” or “classical theism” or the focus on metaphysics? While the incremental steps which gave rise to an irrelevant theology might be debated (e.g., the Constantinian shift, Augustinian dualism and doctrine of original sin, Anselm’s self-grounding philosophy and atonement theory, Scotus’ univocity of being, Calvin’s penal substitution, etc.) the end result is that theology became a perceived ghetto – the realm of those who have nothing pertinent to contribute to reason, science, and modern society.

One might point to Anselm, who presumed final solutions reside within the rational subject as there is a “natural” interiority which can function as the equivalent of revelation. The human word attains the Divine word and human self-presence equals the presence of God.  In other words, Anselm poses a world in which the resources for attaining to God lie within human reason and interiority rather than in a community of faith.

Leslie Newbigin suggests the real culprit in dividing faith from reason is Thomas Aquinas: “The Thomist scheme puts asunder what Augustine had held together, and as a result of this, knowledge is separated from faith. There is a kind of knowledge for which one does not have to depend upon faith, and there is another kind which is only available by exercise of faith. Certain knowledge is one thing; faith is something else. In Locke’s famous definition, belief is ‘a persuasion which falls short of knowledge.’” Augustine and Anselm held that faith was the beginning point, and “faith seeking understanding” held the two realms together. Subsequent to Aquinas, according the Newbigin, certainty is presumed to be a matter of knowledge, not of faith. “Faith is what we have to fall back on when certain knowledge is not had.”[1]

John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Radical Orthodoxy would lay the primary blame for a failed theology (and the failures of modernity in general) on Duns Scotus. His “univocity of being” presumes to find in all being what constitutes it as an individual existing thing. The being of the world, like the being of God, contains its own haecceity or integrity of being. According to the story told in Radical Orthodoxy, Scotus is to blame for making God like all other being, which results in secularism and atheism as God is subsumed by the being of the world.

Nearly everyone piles on Rene Descartes as the true culprit behind the division between faith and reason. Newbigin even suggests he is the cause of the second fall of man. In the midst of the crisis of authority represented between Protestants and Catholics, but more broadly between science and faith, as a paid apologist for the church, Descartes develops his argument for God, beginning, not with faith, but with doubt. He argued that knowledge of God and the soul was the business of philosophy, and the particulars of Christianity stood apart from the certain knowledge provided by natural reason. He presumes that since he has certain knowledge within himself, this knowledge is distinct from the realm of his body and the “outside” world. He concludes his soul is independent of the outside world and that the mind is distinct from and superior to matter. It is his soul, he argues, which does the real seeing, hearing, and perceiving, and not his physical eyes, ears, or physical body. He presumes any eye could be stuck in his eye socket, even a dead animal’s eye, for his soul to see through. Thought and action, belief and practice, the realm of the mind and the world of social relations are divided as a result.

Isaac Newton, who considers himself a theologian above all else, wanted to correct the primary mistake he found in Descartes of excluding God from science. Newton depicts God as inserting the created world into an already existing time and space (the laws of nature like the laws of reason are uncreated). He presumed God needed to occasionally correct the great machine of the universe and allows for God in the gaps, but his natural theology mostly closes the universe and promotes mechanical philosophy. As Pierre-Simon Laplace replies to Napoleon, inquiring where God is in his theory, “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.” Laplace assumed he had closed the gaps in Newtonian theory.

Wherever the blame is placed, it seems undeniable that a cleavage develops between the God of philosophy and science and the God of the Bible.  The former is demonstrable through apologetics and philosophical arguments while the latter is known through narrative and history. The God found in narrative does not provide for the sort of certainty found in the God of reason, and thus the God of reason and certainty becomes definitive of the God of faith. Natural theology, the study of metaphysics, and the notion of God as efficient cause, trumps the personal trinitarian God revealed in Christ. The being or the existence of God becomes the primary thing about him and his redemptive work in Christ and history are often rendered secondary to the brute fact of his existence.

The focus on God’s relation to time and history, the implicit privileging of monotheism over trinitarianism, arguments about immutability, impassibility, and sovereignty come to dominate much of the theological conversation. The notion of the world as a limited whole shapes theology such that the universe is no longer sacramental. Rather than the universe shining forth with the grandeur of God, it is a problem for God. Mechanical philosophy, evolutionary biology, or the pervasive tendency to reductionism, threatens to shut out God entirely, so that theology becomes consumed with proofs.

 In the realm of biblical studies, the primary effort becomes one of warding off scientific attacks, defending against higher criticism, and defending the inerrancy of the biblical text. Harmony between the Old and New Testament, harmony within the Gospels, harmony within the doctrine of the Bible, becomes the prime imperative among conservatives. The Bible not Jesus, history and not Christ, becomes the presumed ground of the Christian truth claim. Propositions about Christ tend to displace the centrality of his person. Historicism displaces the Word revealed in a continuum of history, as the Spirit of history becomes the history of spirit. In the general tenor of theology, like that of the culture, doubt displaces trust, certainty is sought to avoid risk, and facts are preferred over narrative. In the words of Paul, taken up by Origen, the spirit is displaced by the letter.

Origen might refer to the boring form of theology today as the faith of the “simple ones.” These simple ones believe in the creator God but they read Scripture without the Spirit, and are left, not simply with the literal text but the letter devoid of the Spirit. He commends their high view of the creator but concludes, they believe things about God that would “not be believed of the most savage and unjust of men.”[2] He says the reason for this, and the reason for the false teaching of the heretics and the literalism of the Jews, can be assigned to a singular cause: “holy Scripture is not understood by them according to its spiritual sense, but according to the sound of the letter.”[3] Those that miss the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Word, or the Spirit of history, “have given themselves up to fictions, mythologizing for themselves hypotheses according to which they suppose that there are some things that are seen and certain others which are not seen, which their own souls have idolized.”[4] The boring/simple ones reduce God to being after their own likeness and they miss the sacramental nature of the word and world delivered through the Spirit.


[1] Leslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 18.

[2] Origen, On First Principles 4.2.1.

[3] Ibid. 4.2.2.

[4] Ibid. 4.2.1.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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