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by Simon

Lien-yueh Wei

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The Five Dimensions of Christian Theological Task

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The task of theology orientates theology in the world. It determines what theology is, will be, and ought to be. Theology finds its existential meaning, value, and purpose through its task. Thus, many theologians define their theological task before they begin to construct theology. In his book, Theology on the Way to Emmaus, Nicholas Lash also first deals with the question, what is the task of theology? For him, the theological task has two dimensions: construction and criticism.[1] However, I believe that the theological task should consist of five dimensions: comprehension, construction, communication, criticism and practice. It is within these five dimensions that theology finds its different roles and missions for Christian community in this world. These five dimensions together constitute the entire task of theology.


I. The Dimension of Seeking Understanding of Faith

The first dimension of theological task must be seeking understanding of faith. Just as teachers must first seek understanding of what they will teach before teaching, theologians must seek understanding of what they believe (or do not believe) before they can proceed with theological works. This dimension urges Christians and the church to develop the gifts of teachers (1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11) in the world.

Anselm claims, theology is ¡§faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum).¡¨ Christian Faith prompts inquiry and seeks for deeper understanding through Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Theology arises from the responsibility of the Christian community to inquire about its faith in God. The task of theology is ¡§a continuing search for the fullness of the truth of God made known in Jesus Christ.¡¨[2] But theologians do not seek understanding of faith merely for themselves or for theology itself. They also desire to provide a clear and comprehensive description of faith for others. At this point, theological work can be regarded as a teaching task.
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II. The Dimension of Constructing a Language of Faith

Construction can be the second dimension of the theological task. As Lash points out, ¡§the theological task is dubitably constructive inasmuch as theologians share responsibility for the mission of the church to contribute the construction of a redeemed humanity.¡¨[3] But theologians must first construct a language of faith (or a theological language) as a tool or a way to make this contribution possible. Actually, what theologians contribute is either a language of faith itself or something made through a language of faith. Namely, the nature of theological constructions, contributions, or works is linguistic.

To become religious involves becoming skilled in the language ―the symbol system of a given religion. To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one¡¦s world in its terms.[4]  Faith can be understood as believing in a language of faith. People who seek God actually seek and then encounter God through a language of faith. It is a language of faith that forms and cultivates faith.

Hence, for Christians the task of theology is to find a language capable of helping Christians maintain and practice faith in their lives, while for non-Christians the theological task is to find a language capable of provoking people to know and then to believe in the Christian faith. In other words, theology is to translate Christian faith into terms that are intelligible to the wider culture. As Paul DeHart states, ¡§Christian theology¡¦s search for ¡¥audible¡¦ forms of witness involves a constant struggle to formulate language and practice which are faithful to God¡KTheology therefore must be aware of the actual societal effects of its language.¡¨ [5]

This dimension reminds Christians and the church to promote the gifts of apostles (1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:12), who preached a language of Christian faith (gospel) and thus established Christianity by this language in the Roman Empire. Following the apostolic step, Christians in every generation need to formulate a language of faith for the contexts they live and use it as a tool for kerygma.
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III. The Dimension of Communication for Faith

The third dimension of the theological task can be communication. After acquiring (or formulating) a language of faith, Christians are able and ought to communicate with others in order to make the Christian faith heard and comprehended by others. This dimensions demands Christians and the church to bring the gifts of evangelists (Eph 4:11) into play. The dimension of communication in the theological task can be easily found in two forms: expression and dialogue. Here, expression signifies a unilateral conveyance of messages while dialogue emphasizes a mutual conveyance of that. Even though their forms differ from each other, their purposes are same: to present Christian message.

Expression of Faith

Christian faith is expressed by a language, words, acts, and especially by different forms of art, such as music, painting, literature, etc. In fact, Christian faith has been well expressed and preserved by those forms of art.[6] Thus, Lash¡¦s view that the works of Mozart, the master-builder of Chartres, and Dostoevsky exemplify theological constructions can be revised because their works may essentially belong to theological expression rather than construction.[7]

Dialogue of Faith

One of the most encouraging phenomena of the present times is a worldwide and sincere desire for mutual understanding and a real thirst for universality among religions. The ecumenical movement among Christians is also a general trend.[8]  Moreover, an irresistible religious pluralism has also urged Christians to rethink and revise their beliefs on exclusivism and particularism. In addition, religious conflicts, hostilities and battles between Christians and between world religions are being aggravated. The lack of mutual understanding and reconciliation between religions may result in the break of religious peace and then trigger a religious war at any moment.

All these reasons reveal the urgency and necessity of religious dialogue. Indeed, one of the best ways to pursue religious peace is through dialogue. If theology exists for serving God¡¦s peace, then theologians must actively hold and participate in religious dialogues in order to help the religious understand and then be reconciled with each other, and thus lead to religious peace into the world. Thus, dialogue with others should be regarded as an urgent and indispensable work for contemporary theologians.
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IV. The Dimension of Criticism for Faith

The fourth dimension of theological task is criticism. Theological criticism is essential if the church wants to succeed in the face of the modern secularized world. Criticism is employed by Christians as a modern form of the ancient patristic apologia― a defense of the faith to the world. This dimension requires Christians and the church to exercise the gifts of prophets (1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11), who criticize not only God¡¦s people but also social injustices and unrighteousness by the word of God.

Self-Criticism

Theology must follow the steps of prophets in the Bible to help Christians and the church critically examine their faith and practice by the word of God. It should be able to guide God¡¦s people to God¡¦s way when they go astray. But theology must first be critically examined before it can examine others. Theology is to critique everything, including theology itself. Theology must first be a self-critical theology. As Lash stresses, uncritical theological constructivism results in disaster. Theological criticism will only be constructive if it is self-criticism. Without self-criticism, theological constructive efforts will be illusory and our critical activity destructive.[9]

Apologetic Criticism

Theology not only expresses faith, but also defends it. Theology must not merely answer people¡¦s questions about Christian faith but also try to convert them. This theological task is essentially apologetic. In fact, most parts of the New Testament were written for apologetic reasons; they were formed to reach the standard or pattern of apologia. While apologia is the ancient form of defense of Christian faith, criticism is the modern form of that. Theological criticism is to apologetically respond to contemporary challenges and hostilities against Christian faith by means of God¡¦s word. Theology helps Christians to be set apart from the world and to avoid secularization by criticizing secular values, standards, thoughts, cultures, philosophies, politics, etc. If Christians want to persist in and proclaim their faith actively, rather than to compromise or silence it, they must learn to apologetically and critically proclaim God¡¦s truth in the world. 

Prophetic Criticism

Jesus Christ lived for others, so do his disciples. Christians must live not for themselves, but for others. Following the steps of Jesus Christ, theologians cannot be silent on any social issue if there is any oppression or injustice in society. Theology must be a political- and social-critical theology and seek to demythologize state, society, and culture.[10]

As DeHart points out, ¡§Christian theology¡¦s search for ¡¥audible¡¦ forms of witness involve discerning the contemporary situation¡¦s projects and conflicts as ¡¥parables of the kingdom¡¦ and critically engaging them in order to realize the church¡¦s own ¡¥parabolic¡¦ form.¡¨[11] Theologians must be prophets of the world who criticize social injustices and unrighteousness by the word of God. In this sense, theology can be understood as theo-critical-logos.
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V. The Dimension of Practicing Faith in Relation

The final dimension of the theological task is practice. Theology should not merely provide Christians with hope for the future or afterlife, but help them practice their faith here and now. Theology should relate to living rather than merely to belief; it must be practical. Yet, practicing faith requires acts and objects (counterparts) of acts as well.

No one exists alone. People perceive their existence only in their relation to others. A believer cannot practice faith by himself or herself. Therefore, Christian practice of faith can be found only in Christians¡¦ relation and reaction to God, other people, other creatures (nature), and selves. Theology demands Christians practice faith in these four categories. These dimensions command Christians to play the roles of the saints (Eph 4:12) in the world.

Practicing Faith in Relation to God

Christian practice of faith is often revealed in the relation of Christians to God. The theological task is to disclose the close relation between the divine and humanity by interpreting and articulating the profound meanings of the history of salvation and of sacraments, such as baptism, Eucharist, worship, prayer, etc. The prayers of children described in Lash¡¦s book may not be regarded as theological work (or construction), but as practicing faith in the relation and reaction to God.

Practicing Faith in the Relation to Other People

Practicing faith should also be shown in Christians¡¦ relationships to other people. How easy it is for Christians to adopt a superior attitude and to pass unqualified condemnation on the rest of the world. But Jesus warns us, ¡§Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get¡KIn everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets¡¨ (Mt 7:1-12).

      Bonhoeffer said, ¡§Discipleship does not afford us [Christians] a point of vantage from which to attack others; we come to them with an unconditional offer of fellowship, with single-mindedness of the love of Jesus.¡¨ ¡§Christians always see other men as brethren to whom Christ comes.¡¨[12] Theology must continue to remind Christians of one of the two greatest commandments given by Jesus Christ, ¡§You shall love your neighbor as yourself.¡¦ There is no other commandment greater than these¡¨ (Mk 12 :30-31).

Practicing Faith in the Relation to Other Creatures

Other creatures (or nature) are often neglected by Christians during practicing faith. Because evolutionism claims that humans are the highest stage of development of species by natural selection and, as a result, humans have made themselves lords of nature with power to dominate all, they then have an excuse for abusing all creatures in some ways and degrees. However, before God the Creator, humans and all creatures are partners in God¡¦s covenant, and enjoy equal right. As Genesis 9: 9-10 says, ¡§As for me [God], I am establishing my covenant with you ¡Kand with every living creature that is with you.¡¨ For according to creationism, nature is not the property of humanity but of God. In fact, humans are given by God the responsibility of caring for all creatures. Theology must caution people that ¡§anyone who injures the earth injures God. Anyone who hurts the dignity of animals hurts God.¡¨[13] Christians should value, respect, and care all creatures in order to fulfill the practicing faith. 

Practicing Faith in the Relation to Self

The self also ought to be seen as an object of practicing faith because a Christian¡¦s self has a position in the world of faith. Isaiah 43:1 shows, ¡§But now thus says the LORD,... Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.¡¨ Every Christian belongs to God. Thus, a Christian should bring himself or herself into the divine fellowship as part of his or her practice of faith. Further, neighborly love has self-love as its precondition, and only self love leads to the love of God.[14] Theology should help Christians remember that Christ has made Christians reconciled with God and with themselves as well. The self must not only participate in the practice of faith but also be treated as object in that practice.


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[1] Nicholas Lash, Theology on the Way to Emmaus (OR: Wipf & Stock, 1986), 1-17.

[2] Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introdution to Christian Theology (MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), 1-2.

[3] Lash, 6.

[4] George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984), 34.

[5] Paul DeHart, ¡§Christian Theology: How is Theology Faithful¡¨ (Lecture Outline on Jan 23, 2006), 1.

[6] For example, most lyrics of hymns are based on theology and express faith theologically.

[7] Lash, 5-7.

[8] In their books, Both Lash and Williams also advocate the unity of Christians. Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (UK: Blackwell, 2000), 16-28; and Lash, 18-20.

[9] Lash, 12, 16.

[10] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, trans. by John Bowden & R. A. Wilson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 1993), 326, 328.

[11] DeHart, 1.

[12] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Trans. R. H. Fuller (NY: Macmillan, 1959), 163.

[13] Jürgen Moltmann, God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 110.

[14] Jürgen Moltmann, God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology, 83.

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