“Bound & Free” – Reflecting on the Theological Task, based on the writings of Presbyterian Theologian, Douglas Hall.

From the starting point of his reformed Presbyterian background, the theologian Douglas John Hall begins the task of dissecting and critiquing the work of the theologian before identifying the difficulties, duties and responsibilities that the theologian has in conveying the message of the Gospel. He deals with this by highlighting the intricate relationships between Freedom, Tradition Responsibility and how they are an integral part of doing theology.  Lastly, Hall draws our attention to the cumulative outcome of this integral relationship – the Theologian engaging with life around him, pondering its many aspects or as Hall himself puts it, “thinking about everything all the time.” [1]

In “Bound and Free: On Being a Christian Theologian,” Hall firstly examines the paradox that is faced by the contemporary student of theology – Freedom.  Before the theologian begins the work of interpretation and articulation, Hall identifies that there is at first, an important issue to deal with, one that confronts every theologian – how does one listen to the past and yet, be ‘free’ to pursue the promptings of conscience and that of the Holy Spirit to navigate and explore new grounds of theological pursuit? Moreover, how does one harmoniously navigate these waters with due care? Karl Barth further underscores this profound truth in theology, by stating that theology “demands free people.” We thus begin to see the importance of Freedom in undertaking theology.

Yet, with this freedom comes a responsibility to what has been passed on, for as much as this freedom of enquiry is beneficial, one cannot completely discount the accumulated knowledge of the community of faith in which our understanding of the Divine was birthed. This exemplifies the paradoxical relationship we saw earlier. In doing theology, the theologian must balance this freedom with somewhat of a conscientious ‘bondage’ of sorts to our ecclesial context. Failing to acknowledge the significance of this is to court a shallow perception of key theological questions and as such, one cannot begin the task of earnest theological insight without having a basic understanding (or as Hall calls, having “served an apprenticeship”) of the Great Tradition, one that is seen through the lens of our own individual traditions at least, initially.

Finally, with the theologian having served this apprenticeship and having unhinged oneself (at least, in part) from the mould of thought in ones’ own ‘school’, these elements come together to formulate what is central to the task of Theology – a responsibility to interpret and deploy the central truths of Christian thought and truth, and to engage it with the culture, here and now. [2]

This deeper understanding is opened up when the Theologian comes to reconcile their insights and this shared richness of the Christian tradition together with an openness to ponder everything else – “thinking about everything all the time” – in light of their increasing understanding.   The theological pursuit of seeking to know God arises from a deep reflection on everything he created – “Transcendence, thought and experience of the human species, the wonders of the natural order, every reminiscence of the history of the planet, every work of art or literature, every motion picture, every object of beauty and pathos – everything under the sun” and as Hall would go on to postulate, “even the sun itself!”

As we have seen, an intrinsic component to attempting the task of theology is to be both bound to the theological foundation from which we have been formed but also to be free to pursue the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This is in order to effectively articulate the truths of the Gospel to our given social and ecclesiastical contexts – truths which, when taking into account the human condition, implies a responsibility on the part of the Theologian to engage this understanding with the world in a greater way. It is after all, a natural outflow and the purpose of Theology – to discover and be drawn into the mystery of God, to present the timeless truths of His divine revelation to humanity and to review human activity in light of the Gospel.

[1] Hall, Douglas John. “Bound and Free: On Being a Christian Theologian.” Theology Today 59, no. 3 (2002): 421-27.

[2] Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991: 4


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