The Art of Theology: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I mentioned recently that theology is both an art and a science. The mechanics of the science are known to us, consisting of various levels of education, reading widely and, of course, seriously reflecting on scriptural interpretation. Such reflection will involve mastering a certain set of tools, such as languages and exegetical competence. Theology, however, has developed through the centuries and, therefore, historical knowledge is involved. A competent theologian tends to have a functional toolbox with a good variety of tools within their grasp.
Yet, theology is more than a science, it is also an art. Just as we are not born with the toolbox mentioned above, we are also not born with the innate artistry to make use of those tools. Indeed, as with any endeavor we consider an art, theology and theological understanding is more that a mere recitation of facts or marshaling of doctrinal statements or propositions. Theology, like any artistic endeavor, requires a harmony between all of its elements. Harmony is determined by relationships or proportions. Such relationships and proportions are at the very heart of the theological endeavor. We see this in the relationship between major and minor doctrines. It is evident as we consider the weight given to various portions of scripture. We find it in the relationship between the great voices of theology and those who are definitely and quite properly ranked in the second and third tiers. It is the part of the art of theology to apply these proportions and relationships in such a manner so as to clearly illuminate the truth being presented. Such artistry, as with music or the visual arts, requires patience and practice. It does not happen overnight.
There is, however, a difference between the art of theology and the visual or musical arts. Theology is, or at least should be, supra-personal. That is, it is the piece of art that matters, not necessarily the signature on the canvas or the score. Unfortunately, in our current culture, the personalization of theology seems to have taken hold both among those who hold forth, as well as those who hear and read what is said and written. Just as cable news programs affirm the positions and prejudices of their viewers, theology has been likewise personalized. Such theology, if compared to the visual arts, might be classified as “paint by number” or “paint to order”.
Examples of this may include the use of a single theological ideal, whether valid or invented, by which all other theology is to be interpreted. We see this in the so-called prosperity gospel or the politics of dominion theology. Yet it is also seen in the use of other single categories or single ideals by which all other theology, including the interpretation of scripture, is to be understood. Some might consider dispensationalism to be such a single category, that is, a single category or framework within which all scriptural interpretation takes place. Yet, one might also find over the course of the last century Marxism being used as an overarching interpretive category. Thirty years ago, a feminist approach to theology was all the rage. Currently race and gender are being offered as new categories. This, however, is an orchestra playing a symphony that consists of a single note. It is a painter approaching a canvas with a single color on his palette. They may be interesting experiments, but we might hesitate to call them art. So it is with theology.
The art of theology is not hard to discover. We can find it in the work and writings of an Augustine, or a Luther, or a Cranmer, or a Barth, or a thousand other writers and thinkers. Practicing the art of theology is, however, a different matter, for it requires us to not only know how to use what is in our toolbox, it also requires a light and discerning artist’s touch.