Recovering the Study of Divinity

I recently came across a convocation address from over twenty years ago that is just as relevant today as it was when it was first delivered. It’s Philip Turner’s 1992 inaugural address as dean of Yale’s Berkeley Divinity School titled “To Students of Divinity.” Speaking from within mainline Protestantism, Turner points out the embarrassment that many experience even in the claim to study “divinity.”

The study of God (rather than religion) is not an occupation high on the list of priorities set forth in the development plans of most of our colleges and universities…We may, according to current wisdom, safely study the human phenomenon we call “religion.” That endeavor, after all, does not lie outside the parameters of scientific and humanistic study; however, the study of “divinity” is quite another matter. The actual study of God is a suspect undertaking.

Coupled with this embarrassment over the study of God is a hesitancy to emphasize the love of God. Indeed, Turner argues that even within the world of academic theology there is a tendency to invert the two great commandments: the love of God and the love of neighbor.

Nevertheless, I believe that, from the time of the Enlightenment to the present, one can read the history of the study of divinity as one in which the second commandment, which is like the first but not the first, has increasingly been made into the first and then the only commandment. The study of divinity has become, in short, less and less the study of God and more and more the study of us….One might express the version of the summary of the law as actually understood by many representatives of modern Western theology as “Thou shalt love thy neighbor with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength. This is the first and the great commandment. And the second is like unto it, namely, thou shalt love God as thyself.”

So what it is needed in the present moment is a restoration of the biblical order of loves. Keeping the first commandment first does not entail a denigration of the second, but rather gives to the second its appropriate shape and context. But how can such a reversal take place? How do we go about recovering the study of divinity– the pursuit of the knowledge and love of God? Turner suggests three main answers.

“What God asks us to put first, rather than last, in the study of divinity, is worship.” Putting God in his proper place of adoration and service will enable us to overcome the “destructive division” that is often placed between our heads and our hearts.

Next, the restoration of the first commandment will demand a “mastery of the tradition through which the teaching of the Apostles has come down to us.” Turner maintains that the study of divinity requires us “not only to master the Holy Scriptures of the Christian people, but also the history of their interpretation through the ages.” Only by recovering this great tradition will the contemporary church be delivered from the “collective amnesia” that has rendered it speechless about who God is and what he requires.

Finally, Turner suggests that a recovery of divinity is dependent not only on worship and tradition but also on Christian practice. “We cannot divorce either worship or study from an attempt to learn a way of life.” The recovery of divinity requires more than reading and speaking; it also requires an earnest attempt to the imitation of God in Christ. “[A]part from the way of life that imitates the life of God, our words about him are more like gossip than truth. We may use them, but we will most certainly misuse them because we have no real knowledge of what they mean.”

There are simply too many “underlineable” sentences in this this brief piece to mention here. You need to read the whole thing. If American Christianity in its various manifestations is indeed experiencing decline, then Turner’s prescriptions, it seems to me, would go a long way in helping to stop the slide.

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