What Theology Looks Like – Revisited


This was first posted back in May. It’s subject seemed to me quite germane to the topic of the relationship between theology “lived” and theology as “academic” which has arisen in the comments of the recent post on Fr. John Behr’s work. It recounts a story and reflection in my life that the topic always brings me back to. Theology is, finally, always lived, for all of our books will eventually perish, but the imperishable (our life in Christ) will be raised to reign with Him in glory. For those who have read this before, I hope it will bear the re-reading.


Some seventeen years ago (I cannot believe it has been that long) I became a “dropout” of sorts, withdrawing formally from the PhD program at Duke University and converting my studies into material for an M.A. in theology. The story is more convoluted and personal than I would care to share in this public forum. But I recall a conversation I had with Stanley Hauerwas, who was one of the Professors on my Committee (as they say).

My greatest concentrated work had been under Geoffrey Wainwright, as gentle and gentlemanly a scholar as I have ever had the pleasure to know, and a great guide in all of my studies. It was he that directed me towards the theology of icons – the subject which eventually became the topic of my thesis.

But Hauerwas is one of those figures whom you cannot brush aside or place in the background. Time Magazine dubbed him “America’s Greatest Theologian” (which I’m sure would meet with some argument in some quarters) but it certainly underlines the power of his voice when he speaks (which incidentally includes some of the twang of his Texas roots and a wit that is exceedingly sharp, occasionally crossing the point of propriety). I’ll just be blunt – Stanley has had a tendency to cuss.

I came to appreciate his theology far more when I was no longer in his classroom, surrounded by Hauerwasian devotees who could leave my mind behind in the dust of their quick jaunts through the world of “Post-Wittgensteinian, sectarian Tribalism” (as Hauerwas’ theology was characterized at one point). In my post-Duke musings, I found I needed to confront and digest much that I heard from him and realized that there were points where I would have to agree.

But the conversation which I have in mind concerned my leaving the “program.” I was returning to parish work. In discussing this with Hauerwas I said to him, “I’m leaving the academy (Duke) so that I can do theology” (the parish).  There was no argument from him, but a quick understanding that a parish is what theology looks like (at least in very important points).

Theology that is limited to words in a book (or on a blog) is certainly words – but not really the substance that constitutes theology. We may speak of God, or speak of the Church, but God is not speech nor speech the Church.

Hauerwas, in jargon that became a familiar part of classroom debates, would challenge a student’s argument with the question: “How is that displayed?” I grew weary of the jargon, but the question remained. When you say something about God or about the Church, what does it actually look like? It was a question that had a way of clearing the abstractions and forcing us to reality.

The same, of course, has to be a question placed to our own lives. What does my life look like? What is the character of my existence? Is there anything in my life that could be used as evidence for the truth of the Christian gospel?

I cannot credit myself with pursuing a line of thought faithfully in the years after Duke. Instead, I would have to say that I was myself pursued. “If you believe this is the truth – how is it displayed?” Despite my dislike of the jargon, the question would still come back. “What does the truth look like?”

Eventually (and this is making something quite complex sound too simple) the question took the shape of the Orthodox faith. I should not only say “eventually” but also “inevitably” for that conclusion was already at work to some measure before I ever left my studies. I was writing on the theology of icons, after all.

But the answer still had the same general shape. I left academic theology for the theology that is the parish church – and eventually for the theology that is an Orthodox parish church. The life of a parish is not an abstraction, a theology removed from that about which it speaks – it is, whether well done or not, an embodiment of the life of Christ – His Body, in the language of Scripture. And in that context the whole of the gospel comes to bear. The life of love, of forgiveness, of mercy, of patience, of union with Christ in everything, is finally lived out in a community of people or it remains but an abstraction of speech.

The challenges of that community are simply the challenge of a broken world as it meets the fullness of Christ (in the best of times) and still the broken world meeting the fullness of Christ (in the worst of times).

The worst of temptations in parish life is to live as something less than the Body of Christ. To institutionalize in the worst sense of the word is to bury Christ beneath the sociology of American organizational life. Coming out of that rubble is one of the most serious tasks facing Orthodox Christian communities (I cannot speak for any other community and only speak of the Orthodox community as a member – not as its official spokesman). “How is the forgiving, unrelenting love of Christ to be displayed in the community of which I am a part?” This may be the only serious theological question of our lives. It certainly is a question that cannot be ignored. It is what theology looks like.

I would add this further thought to my reflection. Every seminary graduate, though trained in theology, will eventually return to parish life in some setting. Sometimes as a sudden shock, sometimes as a breath of fresh air, each will learn that the task of “doing theology” has really only just begun. When the phone rings in the middle of the night the grace of lived theology will be the only grace that matters. Thank God, such grace is given abundantly.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


19 responses to “What Theology Looks Like – Revisited”

  1. Fr. Philip Rogers Avatar
    Fr. Philip Rogers

    Since I have only been a parish priest for a short time, I cannot offer many reflections on theology in the parish as Fr. Stephen has so beautifully put. But, what I can offer are the words that came to my mind as I read this post. “A true theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a Theologian.” I believe that this is from Evagrius of Pontus, but I am willing to be corrected on that.

    To keep with the thought of the post, what does that look like? How is that revealed? We can ask ourselves over and over again which prayer makes me a theologian or how much prayer, but I think the answer lies in the prayer of the Church. What does that look like? Well, I think that looks like the elderly woman who has never heard, let alone read anything about St. Gregory the Theologian or St. Gregory Palamas or any of the great teachers in the Church, and yet displays the “forgiving, unrelenting love of Christ” in her everyday life no matter what pain she has from standing or what great tragedy has occurred in her life. This is the theologian that I am learning from in my life as a parish priest post-seminary study.

    I use that example only to say that in the short time that I have been blessed to serve the Divine Liturgy, it is amazing to see the effects that the prayers of the Church have on the lives of everyone present. The true theology of the Church is revealed in those many people who pray the prayers handed down to us from antiquity and maintain faith in Christ that cannot be explained no matter how long the tome.

    May God grant us that type of prayerful theology that is expressed in the community of the Body of Christ! A true Theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a Theologian!

  2. ericdarylmeyer Avatar

    Thank you for the wonderful reflection. A phrase from Hauerwas’ With the Grain of the Universe has haunted my thoughts for the last four years, and lines up beautifully with your thoughts, and with Evagrius for that matter.

    “Any theology that threatens to become a position mroe determinative that th Christian practice of prayer betrays its subject. At best, theology is but a series of reminder to help Christians pray faithfully.”

    We might want to add a bit of liturgical and social bulk to that bare assertion to avert misunderstandings, but for its pithiness, I think he’s got it right.

    Go well,

  3. The Scylding Avatar

    “how is that displayed” – thank you for reminding us! I’ve always been favouring the question – when we assert this or that, what are we saying? It is that question which led me out of baptistsic sacramental views – when I don’t baptise my child, am I not excluding him/her from the Church? I guess Hauerwas’ question would lead to the same realisation.

  4. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Philip, you are indeed a wise priest – I’m glad you’re married to my daughter! May God bless your weekend with the Bishop!

  5. ole rocker Avatar
    ole rocker

    and once again … X marks the spot!

  6. Tyler Avatar

    I would tell you, fatherstephen, that Orthodox are not the only ones trying to figure out how theology is lived. There are many within Reformed Protestant circles who ask this question all the time. This topic has been taken up with Dr. Michael Horton, Professor of Apologeitcs at Westminster California, and Dr. John Frame, down at RTS. Without recalling verbatim what each said, essentially Horton argues that it’s all about education; the head stuff. Frame would argue that while one should know the right doctrine, that knowledge alongside practical doing of theology should both be handled while serving under a Pastor at some local church. So I would tell you that while it may seem that all Protestants are cognizing their theology only, there are plenty within the more dogmatically Reformed circles who do want a change in the way theology is “done.” I don’t even know if the Reformed are who you’re targeting, (I would assume they’re somewhere in there), but I figured I would just give my 2 cents from my experience over the last 4 or 5 years being in Presbyterian churches.

  7. Tyler Avatar

    I would also like to ask a question: What’s the difference between the way those involved in the ecumenical councils and the reformers in the way they thought of doctrine? As far as I know, all humans conceptualize things the same way (I could be wrong). What’s the difference between any of the church fathers thinking of abstract ideas and deciding to live the Christian life and the way the reformers thought of their abstract ideas and then lived their Christian lives?

  8. fatherstephen Avatar


    Most of what I’ve seen in the “communities” of the hyper reform are virtually cult like in their lived theology – as was Calvin’s Geneva. God save us.

    As for how we think. There is a huge world of difference between the thought process of Traditional man (the Councils) and Modern Man. I just finished teaching a series on this in my parish (for the community at large). More than can be said here in short – but the difference is vast.

    Reform, because it has jettisoned the Tradition, can, at best, only seek to reinvent something it never knew. Orthodoxy has, at its best, a living memory of how we should live – a memory that reaches to the beginning.

    The number of mistakes in Reform thought and theology, are, to me, almost without number.

  9. Tyler Avatar

    Could you explain what you mean by “cult like”? If this is too involved and you’d rather steer me to an article, that would be great too.

    I would appreciate it.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    In some cases the amount of control exercised has seemed overboard to me as well as the kind of accountability practiced. There should certainly be accountability practiced – though I believe that private confession is the proper means for that in the wisdom of the Church. Control can be another thing. It’s probably the case that the incidents of which I’m aware are abberational and not exemplary. But I think religious abuse is all too frequent in our nation.

    The classic reform models of New England certainly created one of the less happy chapters in our nations history, as did the attempts to impose Reform models on England in the 1640’s.

    Obviously modern Reform differs in many ways – but it’s also the case that young, zealous reform families can take all of that too far.

    On the same topic – it’s possible for Orthodoxy to be lived in an improper manner, with an ersatz monasticism with improper obedience to the priest being practiced and yielding a cult-like result too. Religious abuse is open to anyone.

  11. AR Avatar

    Re: Tyler’s discussion…as someone in the process of converting from a more Protestant way of thinking to Orthodoxy, I would say that there is a difference between Protestants theorizing about how to live theology and Orthodox talking about theology that lives.

    I think in the Protestant view, theology is still a separate intellectual or theoretical discipline, to which practice must be added.

    This assumption is exemplified by the Protestant use of the word “orthodoxy.” In my experience it always meant “right doctrine” and no more. That’s why words like orthopraxy and orthopathy were needed to adress being right in other areas of Christian life. But people were always warning about elevating orthopraxy to the level of orthodoxy – in other words, saving faith was seen to consist in right opinions. Right practice should ideally follow but was not as essential.

    Now this is the part I’m shakier on, but when the Eastern Orthodox talk about ‘theology,’ it sounds to me like the term carries a more rounded-out idea. Theology is learning God – coming to know Him. Since God is the most Personal Being that is, and since in his image we are all personal beings, that “coming to know” Him is not something that can be practiced in separate partitions of our being. In fact this knowledge must unite us to him before it is done. Moreover, since God is being in highest communion (the Holy Trinity) and since once again we follow his image in that we are made for communion, the “coming to know” is not something that can be fully practiced in isolation (from the rest of God’s family).

    The use of the word ‘orthodox’ is again a watershed example as it seems to mean something more like “right worship”, which includes everything – loving, obeying, seeing, praising rightly.

    This is not to say anything about any individual Protestants or Orthodox. I’m talking about what I perceive as the difference between the basic concepts with which each group is working. It has become clear to me that the Protestant concept of theology is simply insufficient. You don’t have to prop Orthodoxy up with sticks. Or as my husband would say, I love this church because it doesn’t need me.

  12. Steve Avatar

    My ex-wife is friends with the mother of the girl who got run over by the bus yesterday. There is a lot of pain going around, I can feel, and I am not really involved.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Steve, that was tragic. Our prayers will be with all of them.

  14. […] [10 noiembrie] Părintele Stephen scrie despre Ortodoxie şi Scriptură: ce înseamnă teologia experiată în fiecare […]

  15. Tyler Avatar


    Yes. When I learned about the Puritan American ideal (City on a Hill) in pre and colonial America in American Lit. I was supremely displeased with how they went about it. I still don’t know much about Calvin’s Geneva, but I get what you’re implying, it was just the same as what happened in America.

  16. Tyler Avatar

    “…it was just the same as what happened in America.”

    -“*if it was…”

  17. fatherstephen Avatar


    There is in American thought, an abiding fascination with utopias and with idealistic forms of the Church (the Church is not an idealistic form). That temptation has often led to the creation of false communities with false goals such as “changing America” etc. We are not given a commandment to change the world, just preach the gospel. The other is a delusion, frequently demonic, that takes us away from the proper task of the Church. Inevitably, in the name of idealism of one sort or another, human beings will do small or great evil. It is not given to us to seek to fulfill ideals. Only to obey God and that on a small day-to-day level, filled with repentance and toleration, with the knowledge that only grace will save us, working within us, day to day, slowly. Thus we must be patient and resist all false temptations to “do something great.”

  18. orthstitcher Avatar

    It seems to me that it is far easier to focus on “changing the world” than it is to work on our own hearts – indeed it seems almost a cop-out in a certain way. It is certainly far easier to judge others, than to see and work on the sins and passions at work deep within us. We are not called to change the world and “WE” cannot do that. We are, however, called to repentance and to love God and our neighbor – and that has far reaching effects.

    For some reason the fascination with utopias seems rather American – though I suspect that most countries have had times in which this same fascination has been around – though perhaps in different forms.

  19. Wei Hsien Avatar

    Father, bless.

    This was certainly worth re-reading. The tension between academic theology and, as you say, parish-church theology confused me deeply as a graduate student, as I think it confuses most present-day Christians who wonder what theology might have to do with life itself. Once I began to see that, for the Fathers, theology was the very vision of God Himself, my angst was relieved greatly. This after all, is the theology for which every human being was made!

    Your son,

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