Essay / Theology

Classical Theology Thesis

One year ago, Talbot School of Theology launched the Classical Theology Master of Arts. We’ve had a great first year: the right students, great collegiality, and a series of fascinating courses on Scripture (Sacred Page), great theologians (Master Practitioners), and major doctrines (Common Places).

The program is so experimental, and our first batches of students so diverse in their motives, that we’re still not entirely sure who the 36-unit MACT will prove most helpful for. If you are at all interested in the degree, contact us (info button here beside the faculty list).

But I’m not writing to give a progress report on the MACT; I only want to share some information about the newest thing in it. A few of our pioneer students have rapidly made their way through to the stage of writing the thesis for the degree. I’m excited that I got to design this thesis and now I get to guide students through it.

Short version: It’s a 50-page thesis, of which 30 pages are a doctrinally-framed survey of the history of interpretation of a passage.

Long version: The MACT Thesis is an exercise in Christian theology as biblical reasoning (a nod to John Webster; see endnote [1]).

Biblical reasoning takes two forms: exegetical (following the line of scripture’s own movement and producing a running representation or explanation of what it says) and dogmatic (summarizing, gathering, paraphrasing, and otherwise conceptually representing what the text says).

The conventional wisdom of most modern theological education tends to order these two forms in a way that can suggest that exegetical reasoning (commenting on text) provides raw material for dogmatic reasoning (constructing doctrine). The MACT is designed according to an older disciplinary logic, which is why it begins with catechetical instruction (a doctrinal overview) and concludes with a reading of scripture in this thesis. All along the way, the goal of our instruction is to make plain the unity of theology. The MACT thesis is a holistic project designed to let students engage the unity of theology and to perform it.

The MACT Thesis is a distinct genre, a doctrinally focused history of interpretation paper. This is certainly not the only way to do classical theology, but it is the appropriate way to demonstrate mastery of the MACT’s particular philosophy of education, and successful completion of the thesis demonstrates mastery of all four of our Program Learning Outcomes.

Extremely Long Version: Here is what I tell students about the movements of thought involved in carrying out the MACT thesis.

I. Identify a Theological Issue

The theological issue you investigate should be something that invites work: It could be a problem, an unclear area, a disputed question, a provocation, or a zone of curiosity for you. It needs to be an issue of moderate size, neither too small to matter nor too large to manage. In describing it, you should press beyond just indicating the subject you want to investigate, and press on to state a thesis. Make a claim about the issue, stated in a way argumentative enough that somebody could conceivably disagree.

Map the issue doctrinally. Locate it systematically within an overall field of systematic theology. Which  traditional locus does it engage? Which subsection of that locus? Which elements of the doctrine must be stated explicitly, and which ones can you presuppose, leaving artfully understated? How is your topic related to the nearest loci? Be sure that as you locate your topic, you clarify the way in which it is related to the two major topics that shape all of Christian theology: the doctrine of God and the doctrine of salvation. Your topic does not need to be a subset of either of these doctrines; it doesn’t even need to be directly or obviously related; you don’t necessarily need to write about either of them explicitly. But in order to do a study that understands its place within the total unity of theology, you have to cultivate steady awareness of every topic in relation to God and the gospel.

Make your early choices in this project the subject of prayer. If the question is not something you can ask God about, that may be a sign that your attention has been captured by something merely technical or superficial, a pseudo-problem or a mere skirmish of the day. Theology’s goal is knowledge of God. To see how difficult conceptual issues can be approached fruitfully in prayer with no sacrifice of conceptual rigor, see Augustine’s Confessions 1.2, 11:1; Anselm’s Proslogion, etc.

II. Link it to a Key Passage

There is something artificial about this step, and it may seem so unsuited for certain projects as to feel arbitrary. Some theological issues are obviously located in definite passages of scripture. As the Latin expressions have it, these doctrines have a locus classicus (a standard passage), sedes doctrinae (base of teaching), or can be expressed in a few dicta probantia (proof texts). If you choose an issue that is widely recognized as being based in one particular passage, you should either focus on that passage or provide an argument for why you are not doing so (Studying predestination? Either do Romans 9 or explain why you are not doing so). In some cases, a doctrine makes its scriptural home not in a single key passage but in a handful of passages that are all equally plausible for our kind of investigation. In these cases, selecting the right passage is a matter of selecting the one most fruitful or promising for this project.

But a great many theological issues have no such obvious passage. Doctrines that are extremely broad (the holiness of God) or extremely narrow (most detailed questions about human agency) may not suggest any particular passage to investigate. Perhaps these issues might yield to another kind of study, such as tracing a biblical-theological trajectory across the unfolding of progressive revelation, or by investigating the usage of a key word as it occurs in numerous writers. But the structure of this MACT Thesis is designed to conclude our short masters degree, and your work will pay off most rewardingly if you subordinate these other methods (trajectory, word study) to this project’s inquiry into the history of interpretation of a narrower textual focus.

This step, of identifying a biblical passage by which to carry out your study of the theological issue, is one that may require much re-formulation and self-critique. Enter into this part of the process with your whole heart: you are not merely refining an academic hypothesis; you are also bringing your reason before God and his word to be normed, corrected, disciplined, and enlivened. You may realize you are asking the wrong question for the wrong reason, and discover a way of reforming your inquiry. You may need to return to step 1 and make adjustments before moving forward. Even if your work from Step I survives with its form of words perfectly intact, you should experience intellectual mortification and vivification while carrying out Step II. You may recognize in yourself the vice of curiosity or a theological rashness, recognizing that you and the Bible have different priorities and preoccupations.

III. Survey the History of Interpretation

This step, which constitutes the bulk of the thesis, is on the one hand very straightforward, and on the other hand is strangely subversive of conventional theological education. The history of interpretation is a subfield that emerged within the theological academy in the mid twentieth century. Under the regime of the Berlin model of theological education, the theological disciplines are divided from each other into biblical, historical, systematic, and practical fields. [2]

But the simple act of tracing a portion of scripture as it makes its way through the centuries is an entirely permissible project which nevertheless cuts across these divisions in a remarkable way. To study the way that John 1 contributed to the trinitarian theology of Athanasius and company is to do biblical, historical, and doctrinal work all at once (it can also be spiritual theology, but less obviously). This is subversive in the sense that what seems to be a surrender to the limitations of historicism (simply following the historical thread of what has been said about a text) can in fact be a transcending of those limits. As Gerhard Ebeling noted, when this kind of study is done properly the actual subject matter of theology asserts itself as the sacred object of attention which scripture, tradition, and the current theological student are all attending to: “The history-of-exegesis material becomes a mirror of the mystery which the text itself is witnessing to.” [3]

In MACT terms, the MACT Thesis involves a study of one of the Common Places by way of the Sacred Page in dialogue with a number of Master Practitioners. It stands at the end of a program that began with catechetical overview and areteic formation, culminating in a theologically skillful reading of scripture.

[At this point in the orientation, I work with students on identifying authors to interact with in the history of interpretation. This varies a lot depending on what text they are investigating. With some passages, it is difficult to locate translated sources from the full range of Christian history. I’ll be candid here: I am shocked at the lack of standard, basic resources that would enable graduate students to engage the history of interpretation. Something is wrong in our theological culture and our scholarly frameworks if we have not made the way clear for students to enter into the great, millennia-spanning conversation with the Bible. We need some new tools, new rules, and maybe new schools. There is work to be done! Okay, I’m skipping this part, which gives some hints and tips on how to sneak your way into the history of interpretation. The key thing to know is that every thesis needs to engage witnesses from patristic, medieval, Reformation, and modern sources. Students are also encouraged to exploit the possibilities of more diverse representation of sources that are opened up by the peculiar discipline of the history of interpretation.]

Your survey will be largely reporting on what a variety of voices have said about your text, as it bears on your theological issue. You may want to make observations about when your text drew more attention or less attention in the ages of church history, or in certain traditions. There are wonderfully illuminating patterns waiting to be discovered here. For example, when Paul says (Eph 3:14-15), “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family (patria) in heaven and on earth derives its name,” fourth-century theologians tended to notice that fatherhood itself is grounded in the heavenly Father, a point that resonates with pro-Nicene reflection on the meaning of the Father-Son relation. But later theologians picked up on the idea of “family…in heaven” and wondered how the angels could be arranged in families if they neither marry nor are given in marriage. Reformation theologians tended to notice the unmediated character of the believer’s direct access to God. If you were surveying the history of interpretation of Ephesians 3:14-15, how much of this you reported and analyzed would depend on which theological issue you were investigating.

IV. Conclusion and Application

The final ten pages or so of your thesis are two things, which you may want to keep in two sections or you may want to weave together. As conclusion, this section is essentially a short essay on the theological issue you chose to study, as informed by the history of its interpretation. This is where you are at your most constructive and decisive; it is the place for as firm an answer as you are able to give to the question you posed for yourself. As application, this section should make explicit what has mostly been left implicit so far, that is, the value of your study for spiritual understanding and formation in the contemporary church. Still moving in the mode of theology, this section can also incorporate elements of ethics, cultural engagement, liturgy, Christian education, and spirituality.

[1] See John Webster, “Biblical Reasoning,” in The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (T&T Clark, 2012), 115-132. I’m sharing this blog post about our MACT Thesis on May 25, the fourth anniversary of John’s death.

[2] Division of labor is fine, but the distorting effects of this divide has to do with which university-based cognate fields each sub-field aligns with under conditions of modernity. Much expertise is gained, but the unity of theology is lost. See David Kelsey, Between Athens and Berlin: The Theological Education Debate (Eerdmans, 1993); and for a thorough historical study, Zachary Purvis, Theology and the University in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford University Press, 2016).

[3] Gerhard Ebeling, “Church History Is the History of the Exposition of Scripture,” in The Word of God and Tradition: Historical Studies Interpreting the Divisions of Christianity (Fortress Press, 1968), 418. Ebeling’s essay was first delivered and published as his Habilitation Lecture in 1947. I am citing it from another influential essay, Karlfried  Froehlich’s “Church History and the Bible,” in Biblical Hermeneutics in Historical Perspective: Studies in Honor of Karlfried Froehlich (Eerdmans, 1991), 1-18, at 9.

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