About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Illiterate Old Ladies and Salvation Through Theology

I guess I’m going through something of a reassessment of my theological presuppositions, which is why many of my posts at the moment seem to be dealing with the ‘Church’ bit of my blog’s name and are somewhat aimless. As is often claimed, theology is a communal enterprise, an ecclesial practice, and theology done in a vacuum is no theology at all. But being human, and being part of the Church, means that one’s theology is never sedentary but always active – sometimes vibrantly so, other times through necessity. It’s usually a painful experience when one’s theological presuppositions change because of so-called ‘real life’ stuff. And any Christian who says that theology, or the practice of theology, is merely abstract thinking, or pedantry crafted into high art, that has nothing to do with the Church or the Christian life or Christian mission has clearly never thought about his or her faith in Christ at all. The practice of theology is very much connected to the aforementioned ‘real life’ stuff, and everybody practises theology to an extent. But some, I suggest, do it well.

Despite all this, sometimes I find it difficult to see the point of theology. This is more due to the objectivity of God than due to any sense that theology itself is devoid of value. Sometimes I think: What does it matter that Miss Summers doesn’t affirm penal substitution? Who cares if Mr Prime finds it difficult to accept the humanity and the divinity of Jesus? Will God really send Mrs Detoo to an eternal, fiery hell if she doesn’t believe in an eternal, fiery hell? Does Dr Logan’s stance that memorialism is the best way to explain the Eucharist stop him from having true union with the Son through taking the bread and the wine if more participatory accounts of the meal are, in fact, true? In short, does holding wrong or even heretical views about the Christian faith prevent one from truly enjoying a proper relationship with God in Christ? How does the subjective faith of people correspond to the objective reality of God and of what God in Christ has done?

It would be churlish of me to suggest that one’s salvation depends on having the correct views about God. But Bernard McGinn’s biography of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae reminds me that it’s important at least to aim for some level of coherence, no matter how academic, non-academic or anti-academic one is:

Thomas could not be clearer about the necessity of sacra doctrina for salvation, but his insistence raises a problem that again emphasizes the centrality of teaching and learning. If sacra doctrina is needed for salvation, does this mean that Thomas and his advanced students alone will be saved? What about the illiterate old lady in the back of Santa Sabina during morning Mass? Will she have to pay tuition and start a theology degree . . . ? This reductio ad absurdum shows that all believers have to share in the activity of sacra doctrina, that is, in being instructed and learning the truths of faith to the best of their abilities. Since the source of sacra doctrina is God’s infinite self-knowledge, the difference between all our finite receptions of such knowledge, whether those of Thomas and his students or of the old lady in the back of the church, sink into insignificance. For Thomas what they (and we) all need to have in order to be saved is willingness to be instructed.

Bernard McGinn, Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae: A Biography. Lives of Great Religious Books (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 55, italics original

an illiterate old lady
Studying theology, including the ongoing reassessment of one’s theological presuppositions, is non-negotiable for the Christian. The only outstanding questions concern the depth and the extent to which one learns – and these will depend on the individual’s ability and what resources are available. On this account, an illiterate old lady has just as much a responsibility to deepen her faith in God through education (even if she does so, say, by taking part in discussions or listening to sermons, or through liturgical practices) as someone better educated and who has an appetite for formal study. It also shows the importance of liturgical formation. Not everyone will pick up the Summa theologiae, but any Christian who attends a local church service should be entitled to receive an education and grow theologically in wisdom within liturgical space.

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