90 Academic theology – friend or foe?


As part of my theological formation over quite a number of years, I learnt to respect the academic tradition of study and writing. For a piece of writing to be considered ‘academic’ it must be presented with rational arguments. Statements cannot be plucked out of the ether, but they must be backed up by argument or an appeal to the position of others who are considered authorities in the field. Each discipline of study has its own rules, but they all look ultimately to the scientific model to validate their worth. Science itself always looks for proper evidence, repeatable experimentation and other factual material. This overall method of testing and scrutiny is applied, as appropriate, to all disciplines across the board. Theological writing of course does not have to read like dry scientific study to justify its worth, but neither would it be able, in academic circles, to appeal to a Biblical ‘proof’ text to justify a truth claim. A proper method of seeing a text in its historical and theological context would have to be undertaken first. All theology has to be argued with clarity and rationality, drawing where necessary on other disciplines such as philosophy and history. Where there are in addition relevant archaeological or psychological insights to be noticed, these also should be considered.

While at my American conference last week, I came to an insight about the cavalier and confusing use of historical material by many extreme religious groups. History, when written by professional historians, is normally presented as an interpretation of events in the past. Historians can and do differ in the way that such events are interpreted but overall there is a consensus about the facts of historical events. If there are gaps in the records about a particular period, then the historian will be ready to admit to the limits of his knowledge. They will then proceed to a presentation of what can be reasonably surmised from the existing evidence. When I was at school and studied Roman history, I initially wondered why the syllabus stopped at 180 AD. The reason turned about to be that the 3rd century is lacking good contemporary historical writers so that we know comparatively little about this period.

Last week I was confronted by two distortions of history that are put out almost universally by extreme religious groups. The first one is the story of their origins. In many cases the facts of how a particular group came into being is a story of conflict or a massive falling out between individuals and groups. Michael Reid, whom I have mentioned on this blog before, was asked to leave one Christian group for his aggressive behaviour. He then went off and founded another group which grew into Peniel church. The ‘success’ of this in terms of numbers and finance cannot be disputed but the people who still attend after 30+ years have bought into a massive distortion of many historical facts about exactly what went on, in terms of lies told, corruption in money matters and sexual scandal. This church, even after Michael’s departure, is still suppressing the history of its past.   The dispassionate scrutiny of good historical enquiry will never be applied to this church. How many other churches gloss over history to sanitise the story of their origins?

The second ‘lie’ that permeates almost every Christian cultic group, and many others for that matter, is the one that says; ‘Our teaching according to the Bible is the one that is completely true, and no other church reads the Bible in the faithful way that we do.’   When we consider this claim, which is being made up and down the country and across the world, it beggars belief that anyone can fall for it. How likely is it that God’s final correct revelation should end being correctly interpreted by an often poorly educated Pastor in a small out of the way place in, say, deepest Oklahoma? The only way that such a claim gets accepted is because of a chemistry between charisma on the part of the Pastor and need on the part of the congregation. I would want to say more on this but now is not the time.

Back in February the bishops of the Church of England put out a statement on their position on same-sex marriage. Within the statement they spoke about the way that church teaching on marriage issues and the law of the land had always been in harmony. Professor Linda Woodhead, a distinguished academic from Lancaster University, immediately emailed the Director of Communications, Arun Arora, to challenge this claim. The examples from history she gave of the church and state diverging in the teaching about marriage, are not important here, but what is important was the response that came out of the debate a week or two later when other academics had become involved. A disparaging email was sent to the Archbishops from Mr Arora describing the challenging of historical fact as taking a different ‘view’ and that it was being organised by ‘liberals’. In one sentence the ‘establishment’ of the Church of England seemed to be turning their backs of properly argued debate and suggesting that ‘academic’ equals ‘liberal’. The second word was being used in its political sense and there was the strong implication that the Bishops knew best and how dare anyone challenge them. If the Church of England ever does turn its back on the academic theological/historical contribution to church teaching in favour of subjective, arbitrary dogmatism, that will be a sad day. It is hard to see, in such a church, how there will even be the potential for the bishops to stand up the powerful forces of obscurantism and fundamentalism and help the victims of this theology. This blog, or at any rate its editor, recognises the need of good academic theology, to help fight for truth in the battle against abuse. Much of that abuse, as we have seen, comes from the bad theology preached in cultic churches.


About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

9 thoughts on “90 Academic theology – friend or foe?

  1. The abuse comes from inadequates who are given ultimate power! But I am disquieted by two things I think I picked up from your post. One, that the church is foolishly over simplifying it’s relationship with the law. It probably meant no harm, only to say that it respected the law, which is quite proper, but when pulled up on it, it should clarify. Which is the second point. No-one making a valid point should simply be brushed aside. It is most discourteous. What an unattractive little exchange you portray.

  2. I think it needs to be added that ‘Academics’ are subject to the same failings us the rest of us. Spiritual pride, smug overviews and everything that comes from the old 1960’s ‘Meathead’ diagnosis?

    Stephen Parsons and people like Dr Peter Nelson present their knowledge with humility. Others just don’t! Peace Chris

  3. Your post provokes thought about the value of “academic”, “rational” and “scientific”. Perhaps just because I have a high respect for all of these in many ways, I am also critical of “deifying” them.Yes indeed, churches that reject all these in favour of fundamentalist obscurantism, ignorance and abusive power based on controlling the minds of others need to be totally challenged. This point is certainly important, and perhaps if this is the main mission of this blog to do that, then it is enough.

    But I want to ask whether all theology is or should be only “academic” in the sense you say. We can’t do scientific experiments with God. I would suggest that the meaning of our lives is to learn to live in loving relationship with God, in and through his creation and his presence within ourselves. Our goal is to learn to recognise, praise and manifest his glory. This part of our spiritual life is inevitably bound up with personal experience and sharing it means telling others a personal truth that may resonate with their individual experience if what we attempt to communicate draws on what is truly human within us. This should be intelligible, but may not come in the form of strict logic. Perhaps this is the mystic side of me coming out here, but this is also a form of theology.

    Mysticism is a form of awareness of our actual inner lives and connection with God, but if it can’t easily be verified as 2+2=4, it is also open to error, distortion, misunderstanding and being hijacked for abuse. I’m in the middle of reading the wonderful classic spiritual writing by Gerard Hughes, “God of Surprises”. It’s a book-length meditation on the parable of the treasure hidden in a field that a person sells everything to buy. This book has so much to offer me in discovering both about God and myself. This may not be “theology” in the sense you intended to write about, but to me it is theology, and far more useful than many of the arguments I’ve struggled through.

    Hughes gives us a useful rough delineation of the modes of religion as institutional, critical and mystical. He links these with the human development process, ie childhood, adolescent and maturity. But the point he makes is that we do not and should not grow “out” of earlier stages as we develop, nor are the distinctions cut and dried. So, children whose main needs are for security and a clear teaching framework also manifest critical and mystical elements in their needs and experience for example.

    Each approach to the religious life needs to live alongside and be balanced by the inclusion of elements of both of the others. If this balance isn’t maintained, each style has its own particular dangers. Hughes is clear that this applies very much to churches as well as to individuals. Within what I find the helpful terms of his framework, I would see this blog as mainly using the positives in the critical/rationalist area to expose the dangers of exclusively authoritarian/institutionalist churches and cults. I think you’ve also tackled some of the excesses of charismatic religion, domineering music etc. I may be missing a lot here. But what I’m wanting to express is that I like it when you have also sometimes written from the more “mystical” (off-putting word to many) experiential perspective of who or what God is in our lives – otherwise, why bother to be Christians at all I wonder.

    Exposing the evils of abuse is very important, and what you’re doing is all the more important because not enough people are doing it from within the churches, as opposed to doing it in order to destroy the churches. But the diet of criticism needs to be leavened with the joy of God’s love, so that we grow in what really matters, holiness, rather than feel only depression and anger about everything that is wrong, losing sight of the true good which the abuse distorts and devours. If people have suffered in abusive churches, they need more than rational critiques of the incoherent arguments and psychological techniques that have been perpetrated on them by those who have abused their trust. They need access to the true and living bread. I hope this makes sense.

  4. Haikusinenomine. Of course you are right to suggest that there are lots of ways to do theology which are valid and not academic. The Bible is not academic and it was a theologian in Rome who noted that Paul’s lack of consistency meant that he was not writing to the standard required by the criteria of dogmatic theology. The point I wanted to make was that when theology is academic, ie attending to the rules that have evolved over the decades for theses and scholarly study, it is not being ‘liberal’ in the political sense. Liberals tend to use academic theology but they are not the same thing. I am not aware of definitions of ‘academic theology’ but they have emmerged over the years and are followed by the ‘academy’ all over the world. It was following the academic approach, the historical critical method from around 1950, that enabled the RC church to produce the ‘liberal’ aggiornamento which is Vatican 2 in the early 60s.
    I have long been an enthusiast for mystical writing and one of my early posts speaks about wonder capturing the essence of theology rather than mind. It is difficult to qualify every statement one makes in a short blog post to cover all the exceptions that there are to any statements. I hope that you, as a long time supporter of this blog, have come to recognise that I am open to symbol, metaphor and visual imagery in doing theology. In preaching I aim to draw at least one visual verbal illustration for the congregation. None of this is ‘academic’ but I am still viscerally opposed to the anti-academic approach to theology that stalks the world at present in various manifestations of fundamentalism.

    1. Stephen, thanks for your reply. I suppose where some of my comments are coming from is that I spent many years overly concentrating on trying to use rational and academic theology to gain certainty over my doubts, and also to try to discover what Christian truth “really” teaches. I did learn a lot so it wasn’t effort wasted, but I reached a lot of dead ends. So I’m not coming from the typical place of people who are recovering from escaping cults.

      I’m interested in Hughes’s 3 part description along with his insistence that the balanced spiritual life must include elements of all three – and this is what abusive churches are lacking. His categories seem interestingly similar though not the same as the traditional Anglican foundations of Scripture, Reason and Tradition.

      It seems the suppression of the critical rational side is a vital part of abusive structures, so it’s good to focus on the positive role of academic theology in countering this, even if clever argument can be an effective way of disempowering others. For me, the worst abuse I have suffered came in an Anglican hospital chaplaincy where I was studying to join the team. I was ripped to shreds and then severely punished for assuming that I could debate critically in class and discuss my own valid opinion on a bit of pastoral dogma that patently didn’t fit my experience, but which we were expected to automatically swallow wholesale. It was a classic bit of scapegoating, as I recognised after the event.

  5. Ooh! Daring to offer your opinion in a discussion! I have it on pretty good authority that a senior churchman, a canon, was once shot down by another, even more senior churchman. The punch line will lack some punch here, for tact’s sake. It was a meeting, the hapless canon thought he could discuss things. He began, “Well, in my opinion . .” and was cut off with, ” Your opinion, your opinion! What has your opinion got to do with it? I am (word deleted here!)” So it happens at all levels. I’ve seen for myself that even those highly placed are often frightened of those above them. Hey ho.

    1. hi EA

      It was even worse than a mere opinion I suppose, but must have been seen as anarchy and rebellion, because I was telling them not only did I not agree with always doing a thing they said was an essential rule, but actually I couldn’t do it as it was impossible – now that was a fact that any child could see, but that had no effect on them. I was being told that no-one on the wards must be allowed to know that I too was a service user, when I knew for a fact that many of them already knew it anyway, and was I to go back and lie to them with a straight face? Quite apart from the fact that I was interested to discuss that there are pros as well as cons about relating to people on the basis of sharing shared experience rather than hiding it.

  6. Yeah. Bit rigid. As we know, we aren’t supposed to be talking about us, but about the other person. But as you say, that’s all very well, only it isn’t as simple as that.

  7. My theological teacher, Dennis Nineham was quite clear that we cannot transfer the biblical world view into out own culture.In a very important article he wrote in “A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation” he summed it up like this:
    ” Lionel Trilling commented ‘to supposes that we can think like men of another age is as much of an illusion as to suppose that we can think in a wholly different war’ That being so,it will be clear that if we accept traditional assumptions,the problem which cultural change raises for biblical interpretataion is real enough.However, no way of solving incompatible with those assumptions has been found,and it may well be that the attempt to use the Bible as a source of authoritative solutions to contemporary problems…. will have to be given up in favour of a more open-ended and open-textured procedure for arriving at religious truth,according to which contemporary faith and experience will play a larger part than they have done hitherto.”
    I say a loud AMEN to that.

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