“Having been spoken to, the church speaks.”
There is a unique mixture of admiration and perturbation when one speaks of their teacher. Although I no longer need worry about grades being assigned—I’ve finished that part—I still have my thesis to be processed. I joke of course and can honestly say that Dr. Topping instructed us through grace while challenging us to be grounded deep in our faith. From his class and my time at the Vancouver School of Theology, I became very excited to read through this new book written by many of my professors: Before Theological Study: A Thoughtful, Engaged, and Generous Approach.
The first chapter, "Theological Study: Keeping It Odd," written by Topping, explores the need to be open toward the Spirit. Sounds simple, sounds normal, but as he points out, “Christians often end up in a reductive-therapeutic-theistic fog when the solvent of relevance-to-the-moment and ‘public’ norms of intelligibility dissolve Christian confession.” This jumps out to me as the main issue our Adventist communities can often face. Placing the Bible, a set of writings thousands of years old, within current cultures and realities produces some odd moments in need of ongoing creative rejuvenations.
We Adventists have certainly developed a unique way of incorporating biblical thinking into life. Some have argued it might be in need of an update, but following Topping’s reminder of “keeping God central to theological thinking” serves us the most. He continues:
We start off intending to speak of God and then subtly but surely begin to transfer the weight to anthropology—our morals, our experiences, our causes. We even apply for grants to study the physiological and biochemistry of religious experiences and then compare them with other experiences of heightened consciousness so that they become an instance of a class of human experience.
We can easily lose God amid the “god talk.” How? When God becomes the subject of our abilities and understandings, as opposed to being the subject of a living God. Real talk moment, we use God. We use him to build our conspiracy theories of how the world will end, who the next Antichrist is, and how Ellen White predicted something; oddly enough, these conversations always involve the French Revolution somehow. Topping wants to remind us that how we approach biblical study, or “god study” of any discipline, will preset our outcome unless we are truly honest and open for the Spirit’s intervention. He points out that “God enters our context not to confirm it, but to alter it, to reconcile and overturn it. The action of God in Jesus [the] Christ creates a context, a new creation.” How then do we become more aware of the Spirit’s movement in our “god talk”? Here are three ideas from Topping.
First, identity in the history of the Christian church is grounded in baptism.
Topping affirms that “baptism is what gives theology its character as faith seeking understanding.” For the subject matter of theological study changes the studier. The text on biblical and historical pages is not inert but rather “living” by means of whom it points to—God. Our identity, therefore, plays a central role in how we understand and relate to this Trinity God. But the one thing over time, space, cultures, sexual identities, languages, and races has been the one baptism. We forget that as Adventists, we think we’re the only ones. I hope I’m not the first to share this, but just in case, our history as Adventists is forever tied to the whole and full history of Christianity. We are not separate; we are part of one faith.
Second, the fellowship of the saints extends through time and space in the power of the Spirit.
I had not learned of Christian history until I reached university. That was not by mistake, for our Seventh-day Adventist educational paradigm often seeks to cut us off from the history of Christianity. This is an attempt to show that we’re better than the broken, misguided, and sometimes even evil other churches (can we please leave the Catholic church alone during Revelations studies?). We like to position ourselves as moral superiors. Topping wants his readers to carefully understand that our theological developments need to remain within the “interpretative fellowship of the saints, both the living and the dead.”
Third, our primary context, as the history of Christian confession teaches, is “before God” (coram deo).
I rather enjoyed this point that Topping brings to light:
The assumption that we can speak of God in theological study is a big one and it is an arrogant one if we believe we can manufacture this speech out of the residue of our interiority, community experience, and naked observation of the world or current cultural trends.
To engage in “charitable reading” requires a willingness to be open to much, much more than oneself but to the actual living God. We face many shortcomings with our “god talk” by virtue of our Western-based minds, reading ancient texts translated into crude English, and most of all, defining and protecting our little slice of Christianity at the cost of losing common fellowship with non-Adventist Christians.
“The goal of interpreting Scripture,” Topping states, “is not to display our genius, but to get caught up in the work of salvation by God. Learning Scripture, and theology, is to be taught by God about God.” He continues by reminding us, “We are enabled to speak of the infinite. The confidence to do so is grounded not in our abilities but in God’s movement toward us: the incarnation.” More so, “Islam, Judaism, and Christianity agree: God is creating now; creation and providence are ongoing; the world is now and always upheld ‘by the word of His [the Son’s] power’ (Hebrews 1:3, NKJV).”
Topping sets the whole of Before Theological Study in monition with his inspired vision that “theological learning requires a teachable frame, so we are taught by God, [and sometimes] through human teachers.” I wish I could write more on why this chapter and this book are worth your time and energy, but that would take the fun out of reading it. Rather, I’d like to pass you on to professors whose work I have enjoyed and been blessed by for the past three years (and without a tuition cost I might add). Let us take on Topping’s calling in building a church culture based on responsibility to, and reflecting on, who we are—before engaging in theological study—so that our likeness will be molded by the Creator and not the other way around.
Kevin R. McCarty is an Adventist teacher and an advanced graduate student at the Vancouver School of Theology, having also studied at Trinity Western University and Columbia Bible College.
Title image credit: Wipf and Stock Publishers
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