The Difficult Task of True Theology

pillarsNothing is as difficult as true theology. Simply saying something correct is beside the point. Correctness does not rise to the level of theology. Theology, rightly done, is a path towards union with God. It is absolutely more than an academic exercise. Theology is not the recitation of correct facts, it is the apprehension and statement of Beauty.

It is this aspect of liturgical life that makes it truly theological. It is also the failure of most contemporary Christian worship efforts. Gimmicks, emotional manipulation and a musical culture that barely rises above kitsch reveal nothing of God – and embarrassingly much about us.

This is equally a failure of theological argumentation in most quarters. Authoritative sources, managed like so-many hands of trump cards, are deftly played in order to dominate and destroy. But words have a divine origin, having preceded all of creation. They have a right relationship with every created thing. Just as in the beginning, every word brought something into existence, so every word, in right relationship, reveals creation to be what it truly is, and in so doing, makes God known, even present.

Theology looks for the words, in the right relationship, in the right order, at the right time. Written, spoken, sung, carved, inscribed, printed or lighting a digital screen, they share and commune the relationship, in the right order, at the right time to the right one. Sometimes a single word suffices.

But every word has its own meaning, or expresses and carries the reality of a thing-in-relation. All of creation is the words God spoke and speaks and waits in expectation to be heard.

And this is the task of theology: to hear the words God speaks and write them down.

There were also other words spoken – not in the beginning but soon: “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”

These are counter-words, non-words. Words that abuse: God; said; you; eat; tree; garden. The right words, in the wrong order, to the wrong person, at the wrong time. A death of theology, or a theology of death.

I break here for a more prosaic set of thoughts. Writing theology, in whatever manner, must always strive towards repeating the words of God. There are many things that use “God-words.” Sometimes they can even be the words of the Creed or Councils or beloved Fathers. They can give life or they breed death. They can lift up or crush.

I frequently encounter a form of spiritual abuse: the use of true words to do untrue things. Words never stand by themselves. You cannot simply place them before someone and proclaim: “The text says!” That a statement is “true” can also be used to pretend that its every use is justified – that truth “de-weaponizes” any statement. Tragically, the very truth of a statement can give it the power that makes its use as a weapon so devastating. The reality is that “truth” wielded in such a fashion ceases to be the truth.

When Christians appropriately observe that “truth is a Person,” they should recognize that this extends far beyond the recognition that Christ Himself is the Truth. It should recognize that mere factual truth is insufficient. It is relational (a fundamental reality of what it means to be Person). It must be the right thing in the right way at the right time, etc. In short, this is the union of truth and love. For the Christ who is the Truth, is also the God who is love, and they cannot be separated.

The truth that is love is the content of another word: good. Thus when St. Paul says that “all things work together for good,” he is describing the apokatastasis (Acts 3:21), God’s unfolding salvation of the whole of creation. That unfolding is a movement towards truth in love. All created things are becoming more fully what they are meant to be in relationship with God and all things around them. This movement is “good.”

Theology, at its most profound level, participates in this same movement. It reveals, through the shared word, the good work of God. In doing this, it invites the one who understands to participate, through self-offering and acceptance, in the life and work of the good God. And that is true beauty.

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.



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21 responses to “The Difficult Task of True Theology”

  1. Byron Avatar

    Many thanks, Father! This is very beautiful and worth chewing on for a good while….

  2. Dino Avatar

    I really appreciate what you said about the words (taken as the “Word” [Logos] even) that brought something into existence and the Word revealing creation to be what it truly is, and in so doing, making God known, even present…
    The Divine Logos is both ‘the Son and Word of the Father’ as well as the ‘meaning and purpose’ (another definition of the Greek ‘Logos’) of all the Cosmos.

  3. John Carter Avatar
    John Carter

    Good words. Thank you!

  4. Agata Avatar

    Thank you for this beautiful article Father. I always loved the definition of a Theologian as somebody who truly knows God.

    St. John leaned on the breast of Jesus and listened to the heartbeat of God…..

    Could you tell us a little more about the other Saints who were called “Theologians”?

  5. Deacon Antonio Arganda Avatar
    Deacon Antonio Arganda

    “Theology” which does not begin with ascesis and end in theosis is a pointless exercise.

  6. Elizabeth Avatar

    Christ is Risen!

    Father, bless.
    You wrote, “Sometimes a single word suffices.”

    Four words timely delivered on the screen of my iPhone propelled me from 40+ years as a Southern Baptist into the true faith and the One Holy Apostolic Church.
    I exchanged internet messages with the first, and at that time only, member of the Orthodox Church I had ever knowingly encountered. Having already begun to pray morning and evening prayers (with limited understanding :/) via a pdf file download, he concluded a message with a phrase I had seen only in those prayers; “from ages to ages.” He knew I was protestant; he uncompromisingly asserted his belief that his was the One, True Church. And I knew that I was separate and excluded. Like a bolt of lightning, as I read that message, I suddenly felt that I no longer need be apart, that I was accepted, as if he knew and anticipated and rejoiced in my acceptance into the Orthodox Church, though I had not yet even attended a single service! The only Lover of mankind does truly draw us to Himself using few and simple words, lovingly, gently, and timely spoken (or written!) It is not doctrine that leads me on the path of repentance and salvation, but the true Theology of the Love of the Logos, first manifested to me in His servant by a few words gently shared at the right time.
    Lord have mercy on us and save us.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    CS Lewis said that he read the phrase, “Balder the Beautiful is dead…” in a book of Norse mythology and it strangely awakened such a deep longing in his heart – it was the birth of something that brought him to faith. His book Surprised by Joy, unpacks that a little bit – but such words are indeed a birth of true theology.

    For true theology is not just the word, but the word in relation to the heart. When it resonates it has the force to sweep us into the Kingdom.

  8. Jeanie Avatar

    I love this. Reminds me of what I have often experienced watching children in a healthy Montessori classroom. An “unfolding which is a movement in truth towards love. …becoming more fully what they are meant to be in relationship with God and all things around them. This movement is good.” I know I’m not supposed to believe that everything is going to turn out, that ultimately it will be “happily ever after”, but sometimes watching the joy and wonder and healing in a community, it is hard to not have faith in that! What is True is Good, is Beautiful, is Love. The distinctions seem to fall away.

  9. Alex Avatar

    For me, it wasn’t words that spurred me forward, but rather two thoughts. I’ve always believed some kind of God exists, but by the time I graduated high school, I had a hard time believing in a personal God, or a Trinity. But after college, just under ten years ago, I started working at a bookstore, and after changing some discount stickers on the Bibles, and flipping through the different translations, I started thinking more about religion again. One day, I happened to be thinking, “Why would a God big enough to create a universe this vast care about anyone this tiny speck of dust?”

    Then I thought, “What if he does?”

    The idea struck me as so beautiful I had to pursue it further.

    I was pretty tickled to find basically the exact same sentiment in the eighth Psalm.

  10. Stephen from Austin Avatar
    Stephen from Austin

    Thank you for the “great” words, and the picture. I have always been struck by the pictures from the Hobble telescope, but always stopped admiring their beauty when I would read a caption that said:” the _____ star system 100 light-years from earth”. My thoughts would always go to GOD’s words in Genesis (Gen 1:1,&:8) “let there be . . . and there was”, I would stop my thoughts and add” . . .and there IS”. What I always see in Hobble pictures is GOD’s word continuing to expand and reach out across the “void or chaos”; continuing his creation. HE continues to create out there and in all those created in HIS own image as we expand our understanding of HIS work in our lives.
    One of my favorite contemporary Christian song writer is Michael Card, in his album Joy in the Journey, is a song titled: The Final Word, with lyrics :
    ” He spoke the Incarnation and then so was born the Son,
    His final word was Jesus, He needed no other one.”, with a chorus: “And so the Light became alive, And manna became man. Eternity stepped into time, So we could understand.”
    I have always felt that GOD’s presence as Eternity and my limited view as a creature living in Time has always affected my understanding of his unfailing and continuous Mercy and my stumbling attempts to understand the gifts he has given; I am being loved into existence every second, being created anew every second and being forgiven every second – whether I understand or not – but that is Faith in GOD and not what I sometimes feel and articulate as my faith in my understanding of GOD.

    Thank you for your wonderful words – I have been a reader of your blog for a number of years, it speaks great Truth into my life – this post and the photo were the ones that got me to respond and participate, and my reflection on my recent anniversary of my birth.

  11. Karen Avatar

    Deacon Antonio, that pithy statement is a keeper, indeed!

  12. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    Fr. Hopko once related having visited an Orthodox Church which had a sign somewhere inside that read (if I recall correctly) “The Scriptures are the living words of the living Word”. No wonder they are a stumbling block to the textual critic.

  13. Alex Combas Avatar
    Alex Combas

    Hello Fr Stephen,
    When you mention the apokatastasis and “God’s unfolding salvation of the whole of creation. That unfolding is a movement towards truth in love.” it sounds like you’re giving a nod to a sort of universalistic notion. Would you mind speaking about that a bit, was that intentional, or am I just reading to late at night? Personally I do hold to the hope that all men might be saved, but only in a very soft sort of universalism, that it is a hope and possible, but not a foregone conclusion.

    Thank you for the article, I enjoyed it.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I can only hope. But my mention of the apokatastasis was accompanied by a Scripture reference – the Greek word is in the NT – thus some kind of “apokatastasis” is quite Scriptural. I suppose I was being coy.

  15. Alex Combas Avatar
    Alex Combas

    Well you just go on being coy then.

    Fr Stephen,

    I realize you’re quite busy, but would it be possible to ask you a question by email? I was watching one of your video’s with my wife, and she is asking me questions and I’m not sure I’m able to answer with justice because maybe even I don’t quite understand, but it’s not something related to this particular article so I don’t want to derail the comments here.

    Thank you.

  16. Aaron Avatar

    Father bless,

    Though I know that the Church will always be protected as the the “pillar and ground” of truth, I am vexed at times by a nagging feeling that some converts (like myself) from the more dogmatic wings are importing our “theological” illness into Orthodoxy.

    It is obviously a point of faith and Kenosis to dismiss such thoughts as logosmoi, but there is of course the practical side of maintaining the integrity of transformative praxis and those dogmas that preserve it against such abuses.

    I frequently encounter a form of spiritual abuse: the use of true words to do untrue things. Words never stand by themselves. You cannot simply place them before someone and proclaim: “The text says!” Authoritative sources, managed like so-many hands of trump cards, are deftly played…”

    So, as an Orthodox Christian, How does one contend with the lobbing of patristic grenades that are twisted just as easily as scripture, as if the very presence of an ancient word somehow then equates to new found definitions and formulations, or as if the wooden interpretation of the bible can no just be broadened to include more material.

    Is it simply a matter of standing up in the midst of such lies and remaining as faithful a witness in love to those around you through relational ontology? When does polemic become necessary, or does it ever become? I struggle with this. You once advised me to leave such people to God. I suppose this is all one can do, or be drawn into the same mire. I suppose I’m answering my own questions. I guess I don’t need you after all. . But seriously, your words are often balm to an aching heart, and I’m aching.

    Is it as simple as the old saying;

    “never wrestle with a pig in mud. You’ll only get muddy and soon discover that….the pig likes it.”?

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  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

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  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I trust God’s work in the Church. But to read Orthodox history requires reading centuries. It’s a very messy thing. God preserves us, but Patriarchs themselves fall into heresy from time to time. It’s like living in the universe itself. You either trust that God is at work in it, or you despair. On good days, I allow myself to trust that every schism (all 30,000 of them) has been permitted by the good God for our salvation. That doesn’t make the 30,000 good. It doesn’t even make them “Church.” But if you don’t trust the good God then there is only despair.

    In one reading (mine), the Church is the whole universe and comes into existence at “Let there be light.” The rest is the unfolding of that story of redemption. Orthodoxy is the truth. But, the right way to view the Orthodox Church, is as the “Cross through history.”
    If you see this, then you pray, give thanks for all things, and keep singing.

  20. Christopher Avatar

    “In one reading (mine), the Church is the whole universe and comes into existence at “Let there be light.” ”

    Can’t locate the exact reference now, but St. Porphyrios “of Athens” (I like that better than “the Kapsokalivite” as I have no idea how to pronounce the latter 🙂 ) says much the same thing…

  21. Aaron Avatar

    Thank you Father. As I read…I immediately was struck with Paul’s lines…. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

    The cross through history indeed.

    I appreciate your time and work.

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