I have an aversion to self-expression that is both natural and self-imposed. You might think that this is a sad sight: a curmudgeonly academic theologian refusing to contextualize and relate to real people. Folks already impugn the relevance of theology, pitting ‘practical’ theology and authenticity against serious and careful study of doctrine. That dichotomy is not only false, it’s dishonest and dangerous. But certainly it’s common, and my disinclination to honor it by dropping a ladder from theological rigor to emo navel-gazing in the end might work against me.
In a sermon some weeks ago, our good pastor accused “anti-social media” of enabling a culture of envy and comparison. And that’s exactly right. On Facebook, folks display their best-fake versions of themselves for all the world to resent. Worst of all, folks fool, more than anyone else, themselves. The real drive of it all is not self-conscious interest in ‘the other’ but seriously self-motivated interest in ‘the self,’ and a great deal—all of it—is invested in convincing one’s self that this online highlight reel is real and true to fact. Facebook and such things are uber creepy: they are private, self-directed self-gratification exposed to all—a kind of public obscenity. Twitter, too: the best things that people ‘tweet’ and ‘like’ and ‘retweet’ are so platitudinous that the only explanation is autobiography, exhibitionistic solipsism: ‘Look everyone; I am so happy that I believe this.’ Every click is self-broadcast, self-gratification, self-promotion. ‘Praise thyself, O my soul.’
A theology blog, therefore, is an odd fit, because theology is about the proto-typical ‘other,’ God the Creator and Judge, and blogs are private parties to which everyone’s invited. The effectiveness, usefulness, fruitfulness of theology is in direct proportion to the self-diminishing of its human author. The herald wishes his own decrease and the increase of his Lord (John 3:30). In other words, the more a theologian is concerned with God instead of with himself, the better his theology. The first principle of good theology is obedience to another, to the other. When I decided to open All These Words, I determined to resist the temptation to self-promotion. But that is exactly the wrong recipe for life online. Theology almost by definition, by the nature of the case, should not be done online. But then again, of course it should.
So my disinclination to market theology effectively is, I’d like to think, faithful to the nature of theology as in its best forms designed to call us out of self-interest, not to fan the self-revel of emotional disorder. Theology is from God and about God, even by God. Theologians, ideally considered, are obedient, submissive re-formulators of the doctrines of Scripture—the doctrine taught in Scripture, the doctrines assumed in Scripture—in communion with the historic church. So on two decisive counts the theologian is demoted into his proper service. He is to obey Scripture and the greater body of Christ in historic creed and confession.
Given the distinct nature of our self-obsessed culture, I found it curious, even eery, that in an essay from 1906 Geerhardus Vos seemed to pinpoint precisely our own issues. Vos says that in his own day, the social atmosphere was one of impatience, even anxiety. This demeanor imposed itself upon the church so that even in Sunday school, he laments, Bible teaching favored the ‘for me’ significance of things. A constant preference for impact, significance, and relevance, Vos says, was happily conducive to the tendency in liberal theology to dispense with the historical facts of biblical redemption in favor of ethical aphorisms. The congregant’s demand, ‘Give me what matters!’ is a demand to de-form the content of Scripture. Doctrinal reflection where it wasn’t openly derided died a lonely death of irrelevance. In 1906.
The gospel that matters to me is most emphatically not about me. The gospel is the accomplishment of the perfect mediatorial obedience of Christ, his consequent enthronement, and his certain return. Of course, salvation is about those who are saved; the gospel is premised on the love of God for the recipients of his grace (John 3:16). The church, the collective body of those called by his name, is very much the object of God’s saving love in the Son. His eternal purpose and the Son’s temporal suffering were for our adoption. But all in all so that we would be a treasured possession holy to God. Closing that circle, so that the love of God terminates in the glory of God, keeps the gospel in tact.
So here’s to the self-diminishing use of a self-exalting medium. Here’s to growing together in truth, into the head who is Christ, to bearing with one and other, and to distinguishing with the full voice of the church between truth and error, uprightness and wickedness, for our anointing with gladness.