Building on the Bedrock: Bridging Historical and Contemporary Theology

 

“I will show you what it’s like when someone comes to me,

listens to my teaching, and then follows it.

It is like a person building a house who digs deep

and lays the foundation on solid rock.

When the floodwaters rise and break against the house,

it stands firm because it is well built.

But anyone who hears and doesn’t obey is like a person

who builds a house without a foundation.

When the floods sweep down against that house,

it will collapse into a heap of ruins.”

 Luke 6:47-49

 

            All human beings need a solid foundation on which they can build their world views, their ultimate and innermost beliefs about the natural and supernatural world in which they live. If they, rather than heeding these words of Jesus, choose to build their world views on an unstable foundation, their entire system of belief can come crashing down when it is challenged by another system of values or another set of lenses through which one sees the world.

            So it is also with those of us who are educators and theologians. It is not enough to simply build our homes with pedagogy, practical and pastoral theology, and curriculum. We too must dig down deep and lay a solid theological and educational foundation. And what is this foundation to be? It is the work of those who have come before us, the writings, musings, and theories of the great historical theologians, educators, and thinkers, including the writers of the biblical canon. Their houses have stood the test of time. The world views of thinkers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Menno Simons, St. Augustine, John Chrysostom, and many others have stood the test of time. They have weathered the storm and proven to have been laid on a strong foundation. Their work too can become the foundation on which we build our theological homes.

            There are other thinkers, too, who are helpful as we build our foundation; those contemporary thinkers and educators whose work is strong and secure. These people, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Howard Yoder, Pamela Couture, Rita Brock, and Dorothy Day, have also examined classic thinkers in order to build the foundations and lay strong groundwork for their more recent work. By walking into their homes, examining what they have used as their foundation (and how they have used it), we can see how others have built strong theological homes and we can learn how to do likewise.

            Those of us who choose not to lay a solid foundation, whether it is because of time constraints, laziness, lack of interest, or disregard for the historical process, risk the destruction of their houses when the winds and waves challenge their strength. Perhaps when such challenges and adversities come, they will lose part of their home—a room, wing, or level. Others, however, will lose everything as the winds tear the roof apart, break the support system, and make the entire house crash down and wash away. And then what are these people left with? Nothing. They are back to where they started from.

            So in order for one’s theological home to weather the storm and stand the test of time, the words of Jesus remind us that they must be build on a strong and solid foundation. But who is to do the building? Are we to contract our work out to “professionals”—teachers, scholars, professors, and professional theologians? By no means! Jesus says “It is like a person building a house who digs deep and lays the foundation on solid rock” (Lk 6:48). They do not hire others to lay the foundation for them. They themselves must pull up their sleeves, put on their work shoes, and dig down the bedrock themselves. And this is not easy task (which is why so many of us are willing to contract the work out). We will get bloody, sweaty, and dirty. Blisters will form on our hands and feet. We may have to work in the scorching heat or drenching rain. But the effort is well worth the result. Once we have dug through the work of countless theologians and educators, we will eventually hit bedrock and find the world views, beliefs, and theologies that are strong enough to hold our theological houses when the winds and rain come. Then we can begin the work of building our own houses, little by little, always remembering that it has an excellent chance of surviving storms, for its foundation is solid and strong. Our houses will probably look very different than those who have gone before us, for we must always be building theological houses that are suitable for life at this time and place. We can’t just build the same way as others, for each context is unique.

When our work is complete, and our theological house has been built, we are to invite others to come into it, walk around in it, and examine its foundation as they seek to build their own homes. In this way, we will remain faithful to the words of Jesus and to the great theological thinkers that have come before us. We will have a house that lasts; a house that can become a part of this great Christian tradition.

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