“Good theology” and “bad theology”

In the hallowed halls of the theology blogosphere, one often reads that a given position “is just bad theology.” The confidence with which this verdict is reached makes me think that there is some clear standard of what counts as “good theology,” and after years of careful fieldwork, I believe I have hammered out the basic rules for writing theology that will be considered “good” by bloggers. The guiding principle is as follows: good theology unashamedly embraces Christian particularity. This principle has the following consequences:

  • Good theology acknowledges the indispensability of “the church.” Suggesting that Christian community could take anything other than an institutional and historically continuous form is “bad theology” — indeed, self-evidently so. Even worse is any theological claim that would seem to undercut the need for a distinctive Christian identity.
  • Good theology enthusiastically embraces Christian jargon and Christian practices. The interjection of a jargon phrase or a reference to the liturgy is often enough to seal an argument: “But what you don’t see is that this is fundamentally about baptism.” The italics, if not always present, are always implied. It is considered particularly good if one can emphasize the importance of prayer. Requests to explain the same subject matter in non-jargon terms are rejected on principle, because such a procedure would mean reducing Christian particularity to a spurious liberal universalism, etc.
  • Good theology dwells in paradox. A key aspect of bad theology is its one-sidedness and its confusion in the face of paradox. Good theology recognizes that apparent contradictions are anything but, and it emphasizes this by piling on intensifying modifiers: “But don’t you see — it’s precisely only insofar as God is radically, immeasurably, indisputably transcendent that he can be so awesomely and non-negotiably immanent.” The fact that such phrases appear to be meaningless is a feature, not a bug.

In short, good theology reinforces Christian identity through the use of familiar terms and characteristic rhetorical flourishes. It is meant primarily to be enjoyed, not argued with — if you want an actual discussion, it might be helpful to track down some bad theologians.

33 thoughts on ““Good theology” and “bad theology”

  1. Yeah, let’s call it a kind of “decadent post-Barthianism” rather than an indictment of Barth himself — after all, Barth is a “bad theologian” according to the first consequence.

  2. Sorry Adam, but this is just bad theology. What you don’t seem able to grasp is that it’s only precisely insofar as one observes the irreducible paradox of theology that one can also maintain at the same time the radical necessity of the historical church (understood precisely as communion) — in other words, it’s fundamentally a question not of baptism but of Eucharist.

    I hope that clears things up.

  3. Eh? Barth ‘bad’ according to the first proposition? What about the part where he scrapped “Christian dogmatics”, and went with “Church Dogmatics”? Or organized his Dogmatics in Outline around the Apostle’s Creed? There’s certainly a difference between Barth and Hauerwas vis-a-vis the ecclesial situatedness of theology, but Barth always assumes that Xn theology is done in the company of the church: “In my hearing and receiving of the Word of God, I cannot separate myself from the Chruch to which it is addressed.” (CD I/2, 589)

  4. So you’ve never heard the charge that Barth is “occasionalist” with regard to the church? It’s a pretty common interpretation! And even if you don’t go that far, it’s still pretty hard to fit Barth into the “strong ecclesiology” mold that’s so trendy in theoblogging circles.

  5. It came to mind here that perhaps Adam is doing “good” theology by showing “the Church” (don’t forget, most “good” theologians capitalize that for some reason or another) how to separate the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, etc. I, for one, welcome our new dichotomous separation of theologies overlords that will follow!

  6. Sure, the charge that Barth is occasionalist in his ecclesiology is fair to some degree, but that’s different than saying that ‘church’ is dispensible for Barth. As skeptical as he is regarding human agency, the church remains the backdrop of theology not by its own doing but by divine will.

  7. As someone writing on “the church” and “faith practices” (I am currently writing curriculum for Pilgrim Press’ Faith Practices resource for 2011) I am pleased to know that I have stepped into the “good” territory.

    Isn’t the problem that theologically conservative or churchly theology and theologians have simply dismissed the critical and theoretical aspects of theological and philosophical reflection, except when offering apologetics for the tradition, so that everything else is rendered “bad.”

    For example: There are many examples of responses to liberal theology, beginning with Schleiermacher and more recently with process theology, where the critique is “only a philosopher would worship the panentheistic God.” The thing is, the more I talk to students and church folks (keeping in mind I pastor a UCC church) “panentheism” probably best describes the model of God of those who have moved on from a theraueutic moralistic deism. The assumption has often been that “liberal” theology has nothing to offer the layperson or the church, but Tillich’s influence on the civil rights movement, process theology’s impact on contemporay liturgics and even hymnody are undeniable…

  8. All that said, yes–I agree that it’s hard to fit Barth in with the ‘strong ecclesiology’, insofar as Barth’s ‘necessity’ of the church isn’t of the Hauerwasian mold.

  9. If you want some damned-awful theology, sounds like you’d best head to the discussion I’m hosting this Weds in a fine pub in London:

    ‘Is institutional religion an out-moded organisational technology?’

    At The Betsey Trotwood, 56 Farringdon Road, London.
    Weds 15th Sept. 7:30pm.


    That truly bad theologian APS was with us in July. Just terrible.

  10. Ben,

    I don’t know what to make of the fact your parody of the kind of theology Adam is satirising is actually precisely the response such a theologian would make as to how these three issues tie together and are necessary for theology.

  11. Alex, What you’re missing here is that it’s a devestating parody precisely insofar as it is completely accurate.

    To really flesh this out, of course, we would first of all have to think in terms of justification by faith.

  12. Nate, What you aren’t accounting for here is the way in which making fun of certain attempts at theology is often the only way to genuinely do real theology in certain contexts. It’s only by being unmitigatedly and unabashedly meta that we can be unrelentingly direct.

  13. The question, though, is precisely one of what it means to “do theology.” It could be said that the theology that one would “just do” is conditioned by the prior opposition between good and bad. (I mean this seriously, by the way.) The discursive practice of theology is not something that has fallen from the sky, rather it has achieved definitiveness through all kinds of dialectical oppositions. So, from my perspective, it is as if it would be deeply mistaken to directly attempt to do theology; one can do theology only by doing things that theology has come to define outside of itself.

  14. Dan:

    That’s fine. There are all kinds of ways in which I would agree with your statement that one should not (and that in fact it would be detrimental to) attempt just to do theology “directly,” as such. That speaking theologically requires a certain kind of indirection. But I’m really just suggesting actually doing the work that one is talking about, rather than merely talking about doing what one is talking about. There’s a difference between indirection and obtusive evasion.

  15. Man, it’s been probably over a year since I took communion — and it seems clear my theological prowess has faltered and could use a Hot Christ Injection. Ideally, though, I would just get ordained bishop, because they’re the only real theologians anyway.

  16. APS:

    Yes, that’s exactly what I meant to say. Thank you for saying that directly! (This is where I’d insert a smiley face if they were allowed!)

    But seriously, though. I really am not trying to indict anyone in particular here. Honestly. And I certainly don’t want to suggest that the kind of evasiveness I’m talking about does not happen on all sides and in all kinds of ways. I think it is at the strategic heart of the kind of “ecclesiocentric” approach to theology that I’ve been critical of and that you diagnose in your post, Adam. It is a by-product of the kinds of assumptions, e.g, that are at work in those who understand “good theology” in the terms you’ve articulated, as far as I’m concerned.

  17. I’m just shocked that you’ve taken communion that recently. I have a real shot at beating you in the race to the bottom of bad-Catholic-ism.

  18. With regard to the second bullet point, a quote from Yoder (from the _Noviolence_ lectures Myles edited): “For the most convinced agents of nonviolent resistance, part of their motivation is a religious vision, but this does not mean that secular social science analysis could not interpret what is going on in purely secular categories.” (44) and “We cannot discuss theology alone. We must constantly interlock with the human sciences, which are talking about the same phenomena from other perspectives. If the believer says that faith in Jesus Christ makes it possible to love one’s enemy, is this not something that could be described by the psychologist? If love leads one to go out and make peace with one’s adversary, is this not an event which a sociologist could describe?” (63)

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