Writing is a reality of academic life. Often, writing is viewed as a task. Be it assignments dictated on the syllabus or an article published to enhance one’s CV, writing, or rather, the products it produces, are the recognized currency of the academy. The merits of this system for formal theological education is another conversation for another time, but, suffice it to say, throughout church history, those who inscribe words communicating the things of God have been valued for their contributions to the church and the transmission of faith from age to age.
Writing can be viewed as a task because writing is not always a priority. Writing can easily be back-burnered—even for professors!* In the face of other pressing needs, writing is easily neglected until the looming deadline finally prompts the requisite tasks of outlining, drafting, revising, and editing. (All of that happening, of course, if the due date has not been ignored for too long!) Certainly, when the process is reduced to a product used in transaction for a grade, a degree, a new entry on the CV, or earning tenure, writing is a task.
But even when writing isn’t in response to an external impetus or reward, theological writing is a task. I regularly tell my students throughout various drafts in the development of their soteriology paper, “Writing is thinking and thinking theological thoughts is hard!” The reasons are manifold. Sometimes, it is a matter of words eluding us, either because we have an insufficient grasp of vocabulary or, more likely, because human language is ultimately insufficient to speak of the divine. Issues of vocabulary aside, putting the thoughts we are thinking about God and Christian faith into static words can be difficult because our theological thinking isn’t fully realized (and, perish the thought, won’t be this side of heaven!). For those of us in the midst of reading, research, and interpreting texts, maybe for the first time in a seminary class, writing is especially hard because we are still thinking about complex theological ideas that the term’s research paper requires us to express. We think in order to write and reciprocally, we write in order to think.
Even for those who have thought long and hard, writing is work. Writers labor with words, seeking to order them with clarity and purpose. We want our words to move the reader’s eye across the page, not just capturing their attention and imagination, but inviting them to think more deeply with us. Of course, that assumes our writing is being read and that our ideas are worth the time and energy it takes to write. A writer’s struggle is not just with words and ideas, but with internal doubts, hubris, humility, and uncertainty.
There are times I wish the words I need to write could be divinely inspired, similar to Caravaggio’s depiction of an angelic messenger dictating good news to Matthew who obediently scribbles down the words. I will even admit to a certain awe-inspired envy of colleagues for whom writing appears to come easy. Don’t we all know someone for whom it seems every thought emerges fully composed and effortlessly falls onto the page ready for publication? Oh, to be so gifted! Yet, when asked, even the most prolific authors reveal their writing is a craft that they work at and have done so for years. Their acknowledgments reveal that behind every printed paragraph is a community of trusted editors, colleagues, friends, and family members who offered critical feedback to the writer as they outlined, drafted, revised, and edited their work. The hours of collaborative labor cannot be calculated, yet the author reminds readers that any mistakes are those of the author alone.
Writing is a task, but, even more so, it is a craft. Moreover, for the theologian, writing is a practice of ministry—a spiritual discipline of its own kind. Inherent value and virtue are found in the work we devote to writing as part of theological study. Writing and thinking along with biblical texts, theological treatises, and liturgies of the church provide us greater glimpses into the goodness of God. Theological writing encompasses far more than the papers completed during seminary. Professors as well as classmates on discussion boards might be the people who read your work while in seminary, but the audience you write for—the audience you think theological thoughts for—is far greater. Today’s exegetical papers and theological essays will eventually be revised and edited, forming new outlines of drafts to become the sermons, devotionals, prayers, and pastoral columns you will offer your communities throughout your ministry. Writing is, ultimately, an act of love that dares to speak the things of God in the hopes of sharing God’s love with the world.
*The confessions contained within are those of the author herself. Let the reader understand!