My Theology of Research – for those who are interested in knowing
When I prepare my message series or research on theological issues, my aim is to take theology from an abstract discipline to one that changes one’s values and practice. The study of God, if only a theory, would mean nothing to an ordinary person living in the world. Dan Browning, Professor of Religion and Psychological Studies at the University of Chicago, states that “practical theology must be more than methodical; it must actually do theology and it should do it in such a way as to illuminate Christian practice in religion to life’s concrete problems and issues.”(Browning, 1985, p. 15) In other words, in researching theology, one must be able to bring light to the challenges and issues faced in life.
For those of us who have been through the earthquakes in Christchurch, we encountered various issues that challenged our values and practices. These issues include theological beliefs like why did God allow the earthquakes, or, is this a judgment from God?; personal and social values like one’s response to the way we are being treated by the insurance companies and those in power; levels of stress caused by financial challenges, health challenges, and family crises; and personal challenges like dealing with the aftermath of the earthquakes. Christians and non-Christians alike struggled through the earthquakes in Christchurch. The Christians’ faith and belief was shaken and even wrecked because of the earthquakes. This made me realise that doctrine, if not earthed in the values and practices we hold, would make the study of theology meaningless. This caused me to reflect on my own theology of research and the methodology that I would use in my research.
Steven Land, in his book, Pentecostal Theology: a passion for the Kingdom, helped me develop a model of research that brings together orthodoxy, orthopathy and orthopraxy. According to Land “orthodoxy (right praise – confession), orthopathy (right affections) and orthopraxy (right praxis) are related in a way analogous to the interrelations of the Holy Trinity. God who is Spirit creates in humanity a spirituality which is at once cognitive, affective and behavioural, thus driving toward a unified epistemology, metaphysics and ethics”.(Land, 1994, p. 41) If what Nouwen explains about theology not being “primarily a way of thinking but a way of living”(Nouwen, 1983, p. 159), then my theology of research must be more than just dealing with the mind. It also needs to deal with the heart and hands as well.
In developing my theology of research, I want to be able to approach issues and challenges and find answers as I look through the lens of orthodoxy, orthopathy and orthopraxy with the hope that by taking this integrated approach, I can find answers that are theologically sound yet practical and applicable to the heart and to our actions.
Orthodoxy, meaning right glory or right worship, is about how the Biblical narratives shape our beliefs. Right belief leads to right worship. That is why I believe a theology of research must start with a right understanding of the Bible so that it leads to right doctrine that allows us to worship God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4: 24). To understand the Biblical narratives, it is important to exegete the intent of the biblical writers, the type of genre they were using, and how their intended audiences would have understood that(McKenzie, 2005). Right beliefs must start with the right hermeneutics of the narrative. Lindbeck explains that doctrine makes better sense “in the context of a cultural-lingusitic view of religion and a rule theory of doctrine than in any other framework”.(Lindbeck, 1984, p. 135)
Orthopathy literally means right values and it is about how the right understanding of the Biblical narrative shapes our values and passion. If right doctrine is to help us to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8), there needs to be a change of our heart so that we have the right values and affections that cause us to love God and to love our neighbour (Mark 12: 28-31). For McKnight, this is the core of the gospel according to Jesus(McKnight, 2004, p. 237). McKnight goes on to describe a spiritually formed person. A spiritually formed person loves God by following Jesus and loving others. A spiritually formed person embraces the stories of others who love Jesus. A spiritually formed person lives out kingdom values. A spiritually formed person loves Jesus personally, and participates in the life of Jesus.(McKnight, 2004, p. 237) If orthodoxy is to be relevant to the readers, it must lead to spiritual formation through the changing of one’s heart.
Right belief and a right heart would be meaningless if it did not include right action and practice. Orthopraxy means right action and it is about how the right understanding of the Biblical narrative shapes our action and practices. Developing a theology of good works out of right belief and right values would help the church to be the salt and light in the world. There is a desperate need for followers of Christ to live as Kingdom people in a broken world. This, to me, is an important part of my theology of research. Orthopraxy causes us to demonstrate our love for God and for our neighbour through practical actions.
My conviction is that by integrating orthodoxy, orthopathy and orthopraxy in my theology of research, the same Holy Spirit who inspired the words of our faith found in the Bible, also transforms our heart and enables us to do the good works God has called us to do in the world.
Browning, D. S. (1985). Practical Theology and Political Theology. Theology Today, 42, 15–33.
Land, S. (1994). Pentecostal spirituality: a passion for the Kingdom. New York: Sheffield Academic Press.
Lindbeck, G. A. (1984). The nature of doctrine: religion and theology in a postliberal age. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
McKenzie, S. L. (2005). How to Read the Bible – History, Prophecy, Literature. Oxford: University Press.
McKnight, S. (2004). The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. Massachusetts: Paraclete Press.
Nouwen, H. (1983). Gracias: a Latin American journal. New York: Orbis Books.