Looking at God's World

Review: How to Think Theologically




            Socrates famously said, “The life which is unexamined is not worth living.”[1] The authors of How to Think Theologically (Second Edition) would seem to agree. Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke, in this book, give the reader tools to use in examining his/her life. More particularly, they help the reader examine and shape his/her theological understandings. The authors propose a series of questions to help reveal a person’s embedded theology and move toward a deliberative theology. It’s an approach that affirms the roles of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience in the process. While the authors’ perspective is essentially limited to the cognitive side of reflective work, it provides a great resource for analysis, understanding, and living. This process is very personal for each believer, but he/she pursues it in the context of a Christian community, thus it is a matter of utmost importance to the church today.

The Authors

The authors come to the text from two different academic perspectives. Stone is a psychologist, marriage and family therapist, pastoral counselor, author or editor of a number of books in the Fortress Press Creative Pastoral Care and Counseling series, and a professor emeritus at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. In fact, most of Stone’s published works have been in the psychology and counseling fields. [2]

Duke, on the other hand, is professor of history of Christianity and history of Christian thought at TCU’s Brite Divinity School. His publications include translations of German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, as well as studies in the history of theology in North America and theological methodology. Duke also has served as editor of American Academy of Religion publications and at present is on the editorial team preparing The New Westminster Dictionary of Church History. An ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Duke has served on the Theology Task Force of Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC), the Theology Commission of the Council on Christian Unity, and the Disciples-Reformed and Disciples-Roman Catholic dialogues.[3]

Summary of Contents

            Stone and Duke declare that all Christians are theologians, and the book “suggests a process by which Christians can relate their faith to everyday experience.”[4] They propose “a way to go about this everyday task so that the outcome of our theological thinking is less tangled and more careful.”[5] This process provides a method for helping Christians build upon and/or move beyond their embedded theology through deliberative theological reflection. Embedded theology “is the implicit theology that Christians live out in their daily lives.”[6] Deliberative theology “is the understanding of faith that emerges from a process of carefully reflecting upon embedded theological convictions.”[7] The book is not only about thinking, as the title might seem to imply; it is about the impact of thinking on how a person lives his/her life.

            The bulk of the book is taken up with providing a methodological approach to fashioning one’s own theology. The authors liken theology to a craft. “Like stone carvers or weavers, theologians work and rework raw materials until they fashion a satisfactory end product—that is, a theological understanding.”[8] In doing this, they perform three operations that interrelate and overlap. They interpret the meaning of Christian faith, correlate those interpretations with other interpretations, and assess the adequacy of the interpretations and their correlations.[9]

            As a result of this process, the Christian develops a theological template in his/her mind. “Christians who engage in theological reflection operate with a theological template that sorts and organizes the data of life. … [I]t is a pattern of theological meanings that interprets, correlates, and assesses things in relationship to faith in the Christian message of God.”[10] The Christian uses various “resources” in developing his/her theological template—the central four being Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.[11]      

            The authors offer three sets of diagnostic exercises for pursuing their theological method. These exercises “can serve as the basis of a procedure for doing theological reflection and will facilitate the analytical and constructive theological tasks.”[12] They are not rigid rules. They are guides that “can bring some order to that chaos” of theological reflection. “They make it possible for the Christian message of God to have an impact upon the mundane as well as the crucial matters of our lives.”[13] The three exercises are centered on the gospel, the human condition, and vocation.

            Chapter eight returns to a point made in passing earlier—the importance of asking questions and arriving at answers. Critical inquiry “takes an honest, observant, probing stance toward everything that falls under the watchful eye of the Christian as theologian. The theologian sees things in a different light by asking and answering question after question.”[14] This approach “challenges (at least temporarily) every status quo understanding of faith.”[15] Critical inquiry involves description, analysis, framing a view, and judgment and response.[16] All of this is done within the context of Christian community.[17]

Critical Analysis

Analysis of Content

            Stone and Duke set forth a simple methodology for developing a more mature approach to one’s theology. One of the strengths of the book is the premise that all Christians are theologians, whether or not they approach it reflectively, because the way they live is based on some understanding of meaning and purpose in life. “Christians learn what faith is all about from countless daily encounters with their Christianity—formal and informal, planned and unplanned,” the authors say. This understanding of faith is “disseminated by the church and assimilated by its members in their daily lives.”[18] In other words, a person’s embedded theology is shaped both by the church and by life experiences. It seems to speak of a dance, of sorts, between what one picks up in religious teachings and what one learns through the experiences of life in the world. The result is that people “make decisions at work and play, in our families and in society, according to our embedded understanding of God’s message.”[19] Theology, therefore, has an impact on how one lives. “Whether or not church people understand the meaning of Christian faith adequately and communicate it effectively makes a real-world difference.”[20]

            Since theology makes a real-world difference, it is deserving of more attention than people sometimes give it. By setting forth a process of deliberative theological reflection, Stone and Duke are offering an approach to one’s theology that asks questions and seeks answers. “Deliberative reflection questions what had been taken for granted. It inspires a range of alternative understandings in search of that which is most satisfactory and seeks to formulate the meaning of faith as clearly and coherently as possible.”[21] They cite a number of helpful questions throughout the book, and these are helpful, but it is possibly most helpful to simply affirm that one should question one’s theology. Such questioning is not an activity often encouraged in church settings, yet Stone and Duke state: “No question is off-limits to theological reflection. All questions are worth exploring.”[22] Questions change one’s view of reality and since theology affects how one lives then it is to be expected that questions will lead to changes that disturb the person’s life and the people with whom he/she relates. As the authors say:

“Striving for a degree of distance from our embedded understanding of faith and subjecting it to a searching examination may prove hard and painful work. It may lead to a dark night of the soul, or to some forty days or many years in the wilderness. … Our first understanding may prove to have been a misunderstanding.”[23]

The darkness of such a night can be real, but once a person has determined to pursue genuine understanding, he/she cannot deny the answers that are discovered.

            There are, of course, biases in the book. The most fundamental one is in regard to modes of thinking. The authors focus on the cognitive or logical brain functions. One might expect such a focus in a book that proposes a process that is both deliberative and reflective, but our understanding of how the brain works should move us to recognize that the affective or feeling brain functions are equally important in understanding deliberation and reflection. It is not all about logic. Our theology is caught up in both our logic and our emotions. One could almost say the authors are proposing an approach whereby the left side of the brain seeks to whip the right side into submission. They do add the importance of spiritual formation near the end and thus provide some indication that this is more than simply an intellectual exercise, but it is not really included as part of the reflective process. Stone and Duke have written a great book for learning how to think theologically with the left side of one’s brain, but they have not helped the reader learn how to think theologically with the right side of the brain, as well. Without both, the reader will be prone to missing what God was and is trying to convey.

            Writers always reflect their faith tradition in a number of ways, some of which are quite subtle. As Stone and Duke indicate: “Perhaps the easiest way to recognize the key to a theologian’s template … is to look for what is emphasized. Every theologian operates with a certain set of core theological views—favored images, categories, and themes.”[24] The authors say “faith” is part of their theological template used in the book. The interesting part of this is how they repeatedly refer to faith. They use the phrase, “faith in the Christian message.”[25] Baptists typically speak of faith in Christ, not faith in the Christian message. This is obviously deliberate use of language, and one simply wonders why and is thus moved to ask questions. Does this mean the authors have faith in Christ’s message but not in Christ? If not, then why did they always say this? If so, why do they believe this is important and how does it impact their understanding of salvation? They have encouraged readers to question, and it does come in handy.

Analysis of Writing Style

            The authors’ style of writing is very orderly and assessable. They move from point to point and provide background on each point. There are some points where they do not explain themselves well, such as when they say, “Some elements of tradition do not deserve to be called resources for theological reflection.” The authors do not say why this is the case and give no examples. Generally, however, they do not leave the reader hanging, wondering what they mean.


            It is okay to ask questions related to one’s faith. That affirmation is probably the central good of this text. The authors, however, have not simply turned the reader loose into a postmodern world without intellectual anchors on which to hold. They have given the reader parameters for pursuing questions in an organized manner that affirms the roles of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. An approach to faith that gives too much emphasis to the cognitive can create dangers like those cited above, but it is essential for personal wellbeing and the health of the church that believers reflect on the theology that is implicit and explicit in their lives in order that they may challenge it, understand it, and change it as needed. As the authors say, the Christian faith is personal but not private.[26] The health of the community of faith will depend in large part on the theological health of the members of the community.


Augsburg-Fortress Press. “Howard W. Stone.” Augsberg-Fortress Press web site. http.://store.augsburgfortress.org/store/contributor/82/Howard+W.+Stone (accessed October 1, 2011).

Brite Divinity School. “James O. Duke.” Brite Divinity School web site. http://www.brite.tcu.edu/faculty.asp?BriteFaculty=j.duke (accessed October 1, 2011).

Plato. “Apology.” Translated by Benjamin Jowett. In Plato, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, edited by Charles W. Eliot, 5-30. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Enterprises Corporation, 1980.

Stone, Howard W., and Duke, James O. How to Think Theologically, Second Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.

[1] Plato, “Apology,” trans. Benjamin Jowett, in Plato, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, ed. Charles W. Eliot (Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Enterprises Corporation, 1980), 26.

[2] Augsburg-Fortress Press, “Howard W. Stone,” http://store.augsburgfortress.org/store/contributor/82/Howard+W.+Stone (accessed October 1, 2011).

[3] Brite Divinity School, “James O. Duke,” http://www.brite.tcu.edu/faculty.asp?BriteFaculty=j.duke (accessed October 1, 2011).

[4] Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke, How to Think Theologically, Second Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), vi.

[5] Ibid., vi.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid., 16.

[8] Ibid., 27.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 43.

[11] Ibid., 45.

[12] Ibid., 68.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 114.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 115-119.

[17] Ibid., 120.

[18] Ibid., 13.

[19] Ibid., 15.

[20] Ibid., 16.

[21] Ibid., 17.

[22] Ibid., 118.

[23] Ibid., 24.

[24] Ibid., 44.

[25] Ibid., 29.

[26] Ibid., 6.

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This entry was posted on October 3, 2011 by in Theology and tagged , .
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