Good theology demands good theologians

How spiritual formation is not mere interiority or “authenticity” but death-and-resurrection at the hand of the living God.

Assumed audience: Theologically-orthodox Christians, or folks interested in things that theologically-orthodox Christians think.

Webster opened his lectures by arguing for the essential character of Christian formation as an ingredient of right theological work. But he recognizes that this could be taken as an invitation to treat this formation as just another human act, and — worse — as an invitation to embrace a kind of self-oriented authenticity”: that chief virtue of our age. And he will have none of that:

Good theology demands good theologians. To talk in these terms is — emphatically — not a matter of existentializing” theology, so that the only thing that really matters in theological work is the inner affective states of the theological practitioner. Certainly dispositions do matter, and inattention to them is damaging. But of itself inner authenticity secures nothing; moreover, it is not authenticity to self, but authenticity to Christ and the gospel which is to define Christian theological existence. So my claim is not merely that theologians ought to cultivate certain modulations of their inner lives (though I think they should), but more that Christian theological existence is nothing other than a form of Christian existence, standing under exactly the same total claim of the gospel. Part of what is required as a response to that claim is readiness for the kinds of personal growth and change which inevitably afflict us in engagement with God. Engagement with God means being sufficiently grasped, disturbed, or troubled by the gospel and its dispute with us, that we are provoked (however unwillingly) to learn how to think and live differently. But part of the difference that we are to learn is the dawning of the realization that learning how to think and live differently” is not just a matter of adding on new attitudes or adopting new patterns of action; it involves abandoning my mastery of myself and receiving myself anew from God. Good theologians are those whose life and thought are caught up in the process of being slain and made alive by the gospel and of acquiring and exercising habits of mind and heart which take very seriously the gospel’s provocation.

 — John Webster, The Culture of Theology, p. 133

The work of Christian formation, and therefore also the work of theological formation, is the work of dying to self at the hand of the God who loves us enough to destroy our worship of self and the world around us — to free us by the Christ-shaped path of death and resurrection.

Put another way, as Webster gestures a few pages earlier: while Christian formation is indeed formation of virtue, it is (emphatically!) not an act of self-creation, not merely the outflow of a set of habits pursued with deep enough commitment and self-discipline. Indeed, that self-driven pursuit will just produce pride. Instead, true Christian formation (including true theological formation) comes through prayer: through humbly coming to the living God aware of our need and his sufficiency and pleading for him to work in us through his word, through the sacraments, and through his saints as we meet.