When Theology Cashes Out

The thrill of most game shows is figuring out when to cash out.  The poor guy with $32,000 in the pot agonises over whether to walk away a whole lot richer than when he arrived or risk it all and push on to answer the $64,000 question. And as we yell at the TV (and I find that, these days, if I do actually catch any terrestrial TV it’s either game shows or sport), the real appeal of the whole thing is telling ourselves what we would have done in that situation.

So when do you cash out whilst studying theology? Or church history? When do you say “enough’s enough – I’ll take what riches I’ve got, head home, and put it to good use”?

This can seem like a grubby way to talk about theology. But that’s partly what I’m getting at. When it comes to plumbing the depths of theology, or church history, or philosophy, or whatever it might be, we often have our eye on that little arrow that tracks the prize money up the side of the screen. We’re finely calculating when enough is enough, and it’s time to get practical. Just as a theological conversation is beginning to take flight, just as the complexities are emerging, just as the caricatures of church history are giving way to the nuanced realities, a little voice on our shoulder says “but what use is that, practically?” Long theological discussions can seem short on those lightbulb moments when someone clicks their fingers and says, “Now that’ll preach!”

Of course this is a good concern, although it depends quite what you mean by “practical”. Let’s generously define something “practical” as something which helps us to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Throughout church history, that has been the measurement of any theology, and evangelicals genuinely and generally do well by it. 

David Beggington famously listed “activism” as one of the four defining traits of evangelicals – the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed with effort, actively in our lives, by loving God and neighbour. For all our tendencies to legalism, evangelicals excel at this. Writing as a Brit at least, I think we take fairly seriously Paul’s warnings in the pastoral letters about “an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words” (1 Tim. 6:4) and a love of “foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law” (Tit. 3:9). We like to just get on with it. For example, there’s been a huge amount of carping in the British conservative media about how inactive the Church of England has been in response to covid – closing churches, abandoning communities, and generally parroting governmental platitudes. This is certainly true in a lot of places – but every evangelical Anglican church I know has opened as soon as possible after each UK lockdown, exercising all of their creative energies to work out how to serve its congregation and community. It’s the liberal mainline parishes that have caved (to their credit, I know of Anglo-Catholic priests who continued to offer the eucharist through lockdowns).

My impression (confirmed by my US friends) is that our American counterparts are more inclined these days to get bogged down into the kinds of arguments Paul warns about. We might attribute that to “hot button topics” being at an all time high. But, the tumult of 2016-2021 aside, activism remains a defining evangelical feature.

And yet, this activist impulse has its downsides. An overriding concern for immediately obvious practical or pastoral relevance means that we almost invariably cash out early when doing theology. As activists, we have in mind clear tasks we want to achieve; and so when we dive into theology, we reach a point where it seems as if we have enough in the pot to achieve them. I often tell myself that, if I ever got onto a game show, I’d happily walk away as soon as I hit £5000, because that’s how much I need to fell four vile, towering conifer trees which block all the light in my garden. If you’re task-oriented, you will happily cash out when you know you’ve got enough. 

So we are happy to run with the rigorous logic of systematic theology, or the obscure details of Old Testament narrative, or the gray areas of church history… but only for as long as we think we need to in order to accomplish the pastoral task we have in mind. Anything else seems like an extravagance, an indulgence, as if we’d be the guy who can’t help himself from pushing on to the $1million question and ends up losing it all. We look at a certain amount of theological enquiry and think, “That’s silly money.”

Yet this impulse to cash out is revealing of a quite mechanical view of ministry. Getting those trees cut down in my garden would be a fairly mechanical process – get £5000, pay my tree surgeon friend, and finally enjoy the fact I have a south facing garden. But is Christian ministry really like that? Can we really quantify exactly how much we need to “put in” to ourselves or others for “progress and joy in the faith” (Phil. 1:25)? Will we ever be able to look at them, like I might look with satisfaction at four conifer stumps in my garden, and say “job done”? Not this side of glory, certainly.

What’s more, when we’re talking about the things of God, cashing out early can cause big problems. For instance, what happens if you cash out early on the doctrine of the Trinity? That is, essentially, what the infamous heretics of church history did: they felt their thinking on the Trinity had run far enough, that they’d got their heads round it, and that they should now get on with pastoral ministry (remember that almost every heretic you might have heard of was a bishop or monk). They cashed out early, and in doing so failed to sit with their theology and see how they’d actually strayed into grave heresy. To mix metaphors, cashing out leaves things half-baked. And half-baked theology is dangerous – pastorally dangerous.

Now, this isn’t to say that every Christian, or every youth group leader, or every pastor needs to dive into all the depths and detail of theology that biblical scholars or theologians do. There are levels of theological understanding and nuance appropriate for different roles in church life. 

Yet many of us could, if we’re honest, cash out later than we do. We could run with tricky theology, bizarre biblical passages, or confusing church history that little longer. And in so doing, we’d find, to our surprise, that we actually have more riches to put into use pastorally, in the pulpit and the pew. And, because the task of building up the body of Christ is one that will never be finished until he returns, there will always be a need for these riches somewhere.

At The Davenant Institute, we try to run that little longer and cash out that little later. Theology, church history, philosophy – these are topics of endless depth, full of nuance, rarely as simple as things first appear. We are in the business of theological retrieval.

In this column, my hope is to show how cashing out that bit later can be of service in regular ministry in the pulpit and in the pew. Whilst Davenant enjoys and serves academics and theologians in its orbit, we’re always trying to get our resources into the hands of pastors, lay leaders, and church members, too. So, if that’s you, I hope you’ll stick around on this column to see how our work might benefit you when you’re on the front lines of ministry.

One of my concerns with this kind of project is that I become like the guy watching the game show at home berating others for cashing out too early, talking a big game about what he would have done, or how the answer to the $64,000 questions is so obvious… but who has no idea what he’d really do under that pressure. I’d like to think that’s not quite the case though. I’m not a pastor, but I’m a regular lay preacher and a seminary graduate. I’m in the church youth group each week, and trying to do what I can to spend time with those kids outside of Friday nights. I have close friends in ministry who I walk alongside, and other friends in difficult situations who I try and care for. I try to make sure those things keep my feet on the ground.

Proverbs tells us that it’s the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to search a matter out (Prov. 25:2). Cashing out that bit later in our theology is, really, just that – going after the God-given glory of things hidden in the difficult bits of theology and Scripture. If those riches are there, then they are there for a reason, and we’re called to the wild, risky, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants work of going after it. But if we don’t cash out, if we win the prize, then it will be put to good use. It will grow the love of God and neighbour. It’ll preach.

Rhys Laverty is an Editorial Fellow and Marketing & Communications Director at The Davenant Institute. He has also written for the Theopolis Institute and Mere Orthodoxy. He podcasts about film on For Now We See, and lives in Chessington, UK with his wife and two children.


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