What is “theology”?

As a missionary- and theological educator, I (Joshua) spend a lot of time in my study.  Today I  am spending some time with Prof. E. Bôlaji Idowu (1913-1993, Nigeria 🇳🇬). I was delighted to find this gem:

… a theologian who thinks that he is an intellectualist is only wasting his time. A theologian who is worthy of the name is first and foremost a man of prayer, waiting upon God for a message, God’s own message.

— E. Bôlaji Idowu, God, chapter 1 in Biblical Revelation and African Beliefs, 17-29, ed. Kwesi A. Dickson and Paul Ellingworth (Lutterworth Press / United Society for Christian Literature, 1969), p. 23.

I want to note this assertion, with which I agree:

A theologian who is worthy of the name

is first and foremost a man or woman of prayer.

As a historian, I am immediately struck by how much this echoes one of my favorite patristic quotations, Evagrios of Pontus defining what a theology is and what a theologian is.  But I’ve written about that elsewhere.
So let me ask us:  are we people of prayer?


«Εἰ θεολόγος εἶ, προσεύξῃ ἀληθῶς,
καὶ εἰ άληθῶς προσεύξῃ, θεολόγος εἶ
— Εὐάγριος ὁ Ποντικός
“If you are a theologian, you will pray truly.
And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” 
Evagrios of Pontus (345–399)
On Prayer 61 (the translation in The Philokalia, vol. 1)
I’m forever grateful to Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428) for introducing me to this text of Evagrios.  Too often “Theology” (Θεολογία / Theologia) means, in practice, “academic language about God which is hard to understand.”  But Theodore and Evagrios were among the first to teach me that a theologian is one who speaks (or writes) well about God BECAUSE he or she is in the habit of speaking well WITH God.  Our theology, our God-talk, should proceed from our talks with God.  Our theorizing should rather be contemplation (θεωρία / theoria; Latin:  contemplatio) of whom God has reveled Godself to be in our own stories and (crucially) in the stories handed down to us in the Scriptures.
(On that last point, just so no one misses it:  if not grounded in the texts of Scripture, our contemplation is not Christian contemplation, our prayer is not Christian prayer, and our theology is not Christian theology.)  
“Theology” (or at least, good theology) is never academic speculation clothed in what Ruth calls “Emperor’s New Clothes” language. Theology is speaking well about God which arises out of our having well-spent time speaking with God. 
It is worth noting that the Church has only granted the title “Theologian” to three individuals.  In the first two centuries of the Church, only one person ranked the title “The Theologian” — John the Evangelist (the Apostle who wrote the Gospel and the Letters).  It wasn’t until the Nicene period that anyone else ranked the title:  Gregory Nazianzen (Γρηγόριος ὁ Ναζιανζηνός; c. 329-390), the writer of hymns and theological poetry.  Next was Symeon the New Theologian (Συμεὼν ὁ Νέος Θεολόγος; 949–1022).  Each of these men spoke well about God because they had spoken well with God, and their discourses fleshed out their conversions to Christ within their particular cultural contexts.
Theologizing is the attempt — by individuals or communities — to make sense of the conversion (turning to Christ) of social life, family life, and intellectual life, within a given cultural and linguistic context.  Andrew F. Walls notes that “Theology does not arise from the study or the library even if it can be prosecuted there.  It arises from Christian life and activity, from the need to make Christian choices, to think in a Christian way.”*
As christians, we are not proselytes but converts; the harsh words of Jesus about proselytization (Matthew 23.15) are not for nothing. The Jerusalem Council made it clear that Gentiles don’t have to become Jewish to follow Jesus (nor do Jews have to become Goyim who eat pork to follow Jesus; Africans don’t have to become American, etc.). Christian conversion is the “turning to Christ what is already there.”**
Conversion has at least three categories in which we must turn to Christ what is there:  family life, social life, and intellectual life.  In this process, of course some new things will be picked up as necessary and some old things will be dropped as incompatible with the Gospel — but many things will be retained. Those things which are retained are reoriented and redirected toward Jesus.
Theologizing is the natural result of processing conversion of these areas — family life, social life, and intellectual life — and arises out of time spent with God. Fancy academic jargon is not theology, even if it is often (mistakenly) called that. “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” 
I will add a corollary for my preacher friends: “and if you become a theologian, you will preach truly.”
* Andrew F. Walls, Crossing Cultural Frontiers:  Studies in the History of World Christianity (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2017), 74.
** Another phrase of Professor Walls, whose writings I highly recommend

Discipleship Training School reborn

DTS baptism

One of many baptisms that came about from the ministry of the DTS students this year.

Emaisisi Olaitoriani lang!
“Let us all praise our Lord together!”

We have some wonderful news to share with you about the ministry among the Maasai, especially concerning the Discipleship Training School (DTS).  Read the full update here.  We are also in the process of putting together a website just for the DTS.  We will let you know when that is available.

(If you prefer a “reader’s digest” version, a shorter DTS update is also available.)

Joshua teaching at DTS

Joshua teaching at DTS

Or, if you prefer, the “reader’s digest” version is available here.

If you are interested in partnering with the DTS, visit cmfi.org/jrbarron to learn more.


Kinoto Enchan! The rains are here!

When “chewing the news” among the Maasai, you first say that everything is wonderful, and then list any evidence in favor of that claim, move on to share any happenings that might prove that things aren’t so well after all, and finally conclude by stating that things are great.  Neaku taa lelo.  “And that’s the way things are.”

It’s always wonderful when you can report “kinoto enchan” (we got rain) when chewing the news.  We are glad to share that we have indeed been getting rain this week.  This is the season for the “long rains.”  Expected to begin by mid-March, they were a couple of weeks late here in the northern part of Kajiado District.  Back in February, there were clouds of white isampurumpur (butterflies) migrating south.  The Maasai consider them harbingers of the rains.  When the butterflies are all heading southward, can the rains be far behind?  Well, the rains were further behind than we expected, but they have arrived.

Those of you who pray for rain for Kenya:  Thank you.  Please also pray that these will be the long rains.  (Drought years often begin by either the short rains failing or the long rains being short rains instead of long.)

At our altitude (around 6500 ft), cloudy or rainy days are cool days.  While my office window is opened just now (as it’s overcast, but not raining), I’m wearing a wool cardigan while I work.  The children have also acclimated to the equatorial warmth we have during the dry seasons.  Yesterday morning Alitzah decided pretty quickly that it was a day for a long sleeved dress and leggings.  While rubbing her arms to keep warm and shivering a little, she told me, “I don’t mind the cold so much, Daddy, because the cold brought rain.”


When I was little, I thought that water was free.  After all, it just fell from the sky as God’s gift, flowed in the streams near our house, and it was what Dad always had us order at restaurants.  So, in a youthful attempt to study the geological processes of erosion, I left the spigot on the side of my parents’ house on for a few hours, watching the water carve a canyon while I built cities beside my river.  I was oblivious to the growing delta of mud spreading across the driveway.  When Dad came home from work the first time I did that, well, he wasn’t the happiest.  But it was probably the third or fourth time that really got his goat.

Since then I’ve learned that while water should be a right it is too often a privilege and I’ve become more of a conservationist.  So this morning (like many other mornings), I made several trips carrying the water from the bathtub (inside) in a bucket and dumping it in the washing machine (outside).  When the washing machine is finished with it, it drains into a tub.  I then use that twice-grey water to water the garden or the flowers.  We also often collect the rinse water and use it for the next wash load.

But ultimately, it’s not about my paltry human efforts.  “Elijah was a man just like us, and he prayed, and it didn’t rain for three years.  Then he prayed again, and it rained.”  It is God who can overcome patterns of drought, send rain in its season, and cause springs to well up in the land.

Lord, water the lands you have made,
and give water to thirsty ground and thirsty throats,
living water to thirsty hearts.
Te nkarna e Yesu, atoomono.

Happy Epiphany

Today is January 6, the day which the Church traditionally observes as “Epiphany,” the “Revealing” of Christ to the Gentiles.  So yesterday was the 12th day of Christmas and this is the day we should sing “We Three Kings” and the day when the ancient church liturgies would read the verses about the baptism of Jesus.

Today is also the day when we finally have a new update ready:  click here to download a PDF of our January 2012 newsletter.

Discipling Teachers (update)

some encouragement:

One of our co-workers is Ellen Ombati, a missionary with NMSI.  She and Ruth are collaborating on a new story-based children’s curriculum and have previously worked together with sunday school teacher’s training.  Ellen also works with some of the mamas at Nasha’s Creations.  Here’s an excerpt from an email Ellen sent us recently:

The mamas told me each of the three stories that were told in Sunday School the past three weeks.  These were taught by the Sunday School teachers there!  They told me what the kids did, the songs they learned and even that the kids were coming home preaching to their dad … .  There are still some who are not very sure how to teach, but have the right heart for God and for the kids.

Earlier, Ellen had told us that some of the men who teach have been practicing reading scripture aloud so they can read fluently instead of haltingly.  We spent a lot of time talking about the importance of that at the seminar at the Narok congregation on October 11.

It sounds like some of the seeds we’ve been sowing have been sprouting and are starting to bear fruit!