Clergy and the Church’s Theological Responsibility - Paul M. van Buren’s “Austin Dogmatics”

Continuing on with what van Buren has to tell us about the theological task, today I would like to present you – gentle reader – with three selections from PMvB’s text. These selections get at the role of theology (dogmatics) in the church, as well as tackling some rubber-meets-the-road sort of issues. In particular, how in practice are we supposed to sort out that standard “Barthian” claim that all Christians are theologians? That is precisely where these selections begin.

Paul M. van Buren, The Austin Dogmatics: 1957–1958, (Cascade, 2012), 10 (1st sel.), 17 (2nd sel.), and . Bold is mine.
In the church of God, there are no non-theologians. There are good theologians and poor theologians, but all, in one way or another, are engaged in the biblical, practical, and dogmatic task of the church—some for better and some for worse. But where ever there is language about God in the church—and we would be happier if sometimes there were less than there is!—where ever such language is, there the church in the person of those so engaged is now more, now less concerning itself with the theological tasks of the church.
So theology is necessary for the church because the church speaks of God, and every Christian is called to be part of the communal task of reflecting upon that speech about God. PMvB also points out that while everyone is a theologian, not everyone is necessarily a good theologian. In fact, many church people are self-evidently bad theologians. That is, they have not (yet?) learned how to take this task of reflection on speech about God with sufficient seriousness, and they have not (yet?) been trained to undertake that reflection with any kind of sophistication.

But theology is the task of the whole church because it is up to every Christian to be involved in proclamation of the gospel. This is its unique task and responsibility, and failure to take theology seriously as part of this task is nothing but a sign of irresponsibility. This second selection from PMvB brings out this responsibility:
The usefulness of the Church to God depends on its being totally at his disposal, and therefore being responsible to him alone. It cannot even begin to accept other responsibilities, however secondary it may choose to see them, without making itself to that extent useless to God, and therefore a church in name only. Dogmatics, as an act of responsibility, reveals in itself and its activity whether the church of any time or place is truly seeking to be responsible to its commission, and so obedient to its Lord, or whether in fact it is only saying “Lord, Lord” but proving itself of no value to God.
Those are strong words, but they are also an important wake-up call. But these comments also raise the question of how it is that Christians in the pew are to take up this task. How are they going to realize that it is a serious task? How are they going to get the training necessary to undertake this kind of reflection with some kind of sophistication? PMvB has some thoughts on that, too. And his articulation here gets at the heart of why Protestants have always supported a theologically educated clergy:
Properly speaking, dogmatics is a function of the church and should be performed by the church, that is, by all the people of God. And to some extent it is, in every partial form of critical and constructive comment by any and every Christian. There are no non-theologians. But practically, the clergy, not so much by virtue of their office as by virtue of their better training, must bear the chief responsibility in their parish, and also in their diocese. If they are wise, they will work hard to train at least some of their people, but even in this they will be giving the lead. Each one of you then, for better or worse, now well, now badly, must carry this dogmatic task for the rest of your working life. If you accept ordination, you will never again be free to say, “Oh, I’m no theologian.” All you will able to say is, “I am a theologian, even if a pretty poor one.” But in view of the importance of what is involved, I trust you will give if your best to be theologians for better, rather than for worse.
So it is the responsibility of the clergy, the theologically educated professional leaders of the Christian communities, who have a special responsibility as theologians. But note well: this special responsibility as theologians includes the responsibility to train other theologians. That is, to promote the long and sometimes painful process of teaching the average Christian in the congregation to reflect with some sophistication on the church’s speech about God. And furthermore, this is a responsibility that the clergy cannot avoid. It is impossible to get out of it. It is impossible to NOT be an agent of theological formation. You are always engaged in it. The only question is whether clergy take this task seriously and do it well, or whether they fail to take it seriously and thus do it poorly.

Now, PMvB is lecturing in this passage to students preparing for ordination in the Episcopal church. That is why he emphasizes the role of clergy. One might just as easily castigate the “average” Christian for their lack of concern for theology, for their seeming indifference to or disinterest in thinking and speaking about God. But, one thing at a time . . .



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