I notice many helpful correlations between the activities of cooking food and the activities of doing theology. The analogy is illuminating and goes some way against the misunderstandings some Christians seem to have about theology. People commonly view theology as boring, overly abstract, optional and troublesome for a vital experience with God. Everyone likes food, and every Christian has much to like about doing theology. Many people do cook, and everyone does theology (they naturally form conclusions about morality, metaphysics and the meaning of human life). Anyone can cook; a chef is one who draws from a pantry to produce a feast. Anyone can form theological conclusions. Anyone can do theology; a theologian is one who draws from proper sources to respond to God in daily life. Biblical writers make the correlation between food and God’s word many times (Ps 19; Ps 119:103; Heb 5:12-3; 1 Pet 2:2).
I will draw several lines of correspondence from aspects of cooking and aspects of doing theology. Few human activities have so much affinity as cooking and theology do. I will focus on the positive aspects; an important negative comparison is that both food and theology can be done badly with toxic effects for body and soul. We can think of examples of junk food and bad theology (theologies which obscure God and deprives people from engaging with him, much like the way junk food deprives people of health-giving nourishment). Preferences in food and theology are common as subjective and culturally shaped, but everyone agrees that some foods are bad, as are some theologies (formally termed heresies, but much bad theology does not get labeled formally).
Theology—more properly, systematic theology—has several overlapping dimensions that I will introduce briefly. First, biblical revelation is the primary source in the pantry of evangelical theology. The Bible supplies most of the topics developed in the theological task, answering questions about humanity, salvation, God, and God’s works in creation. Like a cow that must be butchered in usable parts for fine cooking, biblical revelation must be interpreted through exegetical study and the work of tracing patterns of meaning within books of the Bible and the entire canon. Unfortunately, theology that is bad neglects or misuses biblical revelation and does not honor the authority of Scripture, preferring other sources instead (e.g., wisdom from contemporary human experience).
Second, theology listens to traditional teaching of Christians throughout the centuries—historical theology—so that successive generations may teach others as led by the Spirit. Church tradition is valuable and fallible (a Reformation priority for the authority of Scripture). Church teaching must be evaluated for how it handles Scripture, and whether other sources have been mixed in to dilute or obscure the biblical revelation. Traditional teaching is helpful and valuable for getting at the primary source for theology so that later generations can see the deep structures of biblical truth.
Third, theology operates with the thought forms and contemporary wisdom of particular cultures. The tools of philosophy, and the recent scientific knowledge of the natural world and human beings are contributions for Christians. These tools help theologians to make biblical revelation intelligible to their neighbors. Ancient worldviews are different from the worldviews of other cultures, so the work of conveying these timeless ideas in ways that make sense draws on the use of contemporary standards of verification. Theologians use contemporary thought tools to cross the span between ancient and contemporary worldviews, and to bridge the larger chasm between God’s thoughts and human rationality.
Fourth, theology should have a practical benefit for Christians to understand how to live with God in daily life of their particular cultural situations. Theology should give people a framework for understanding life events and discerning how to respond to God’s close involvement in their lives. Church sermons often do this work to connect biblical passages to contemporary experience. Theology should provide a daily-use lens for Christians to see God’s hand in the world as they respond to him. Theology should support Christian responses of prayer for needs, reliance on God’s assurance and experiencing God’s comforting nearness in times of distress.
These four dimensions—exegetical theology, historical theology, cultural wisdom and practical theology—are aspects of the comprehensive and unified goal for theology. Systematic theology is the task to learn all that is valuable to make sense of God and what he wants people to know for life with him. The work is complicated and personal. Theologians can form an array of conclusions while working with the same source and skills. This unity and diversity of good theology is much like cooking.
Cooking has several overlapping dimensions. First, good cooking requires a good supply of pantry with meats, fish, poultry, vegetables, spices and the array of grains, nuts, beans – and more. This good supply of the food to be used in preparing a meal corresponds to the biblical revelation as the main substance to be worked on in theology. These food sources have been cultivated by societies, much like the way biblical poetry, narrative, legal codes, prophecy, proverbs, epistles, gospels and apocalyptic have been cultivated by societies in times and places far distant from us now. When cooking incorporates additives that are not food, the result is inferior and troublesome. The use of food additives and fillers is like the way bad theology draws upon conventional wisdom as source material instead of biblical revelation. Like good cooking that is improved for the freshness and high quality of sources in the pantry, good theology will honor the unique authority of divine revelation in the Bible as the main thing of the theological feast.
Second, good cooks use recipes are valuable and tested formulations for bringing items of the pantry to a good result of a feast. The many varieties of sauces, cheeses, beer, breads, pastas, etc. are a long tradition collected and refined from one generation to the next. No individual cook or team of chefs could possibly do so well as a novice cook equipped with a box of recipes. Cooking has a place for innovation and discarding bad recipes. The valuable recipes to be remembered are discoveries and visions for food much like the historical theology that enriches Christians in every place. For example, traditional theology—recipes for thinking theologically—shows in the ease with which a Christian can discern the deity of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, and the providence of God while reading the Bible in a regular habit. Recipes should be respected, but they can be reconsidered, just as historical theology is helpful and valuable without being authoritative.
Third, cooking uses many skills and tools to bring out the best of foods and combine the flavors and textures in a good result. Knives, graters, seasoned pans, strainers and ovens are used with the many skills and long experience to bring about good cooking. A beautiful cut of salmon can be prepared as sushi, sous vide, steamed, baked, grilled or fried. Similarly, cultural wisdom of analytical philosophy and the sciences assist theology to convey the content of biblical revelation in a form that may be grasped by a contemporary culture.
Fourth, cooking has a goal of producing food that is good for the eater. An attentive chef constantly tastes her sauces and seared meats, tests the crispness of the vegetables, and samples the levels of salt, paprika or garlic in a dish. Similarly, a theologian must live by his theology if the result is to be good for anyone else. Food is to be eaten for the delight and nourishment of the eater. Theology is to enlighten the Christian and deepen her assurance of God’s nearness and loving care. Both theology and cooking are practical in their outcomes to bless the receiver. Good cooking is not to be merely looked at or smelled. Theology is not to be merely known or read. Both cooking and theology are for good living.
Many foods are readily pleasing with sweet-tasting flavors, but many foods are bitter and sour. Good cooking includes the bitter notes of many vegetables and herbs that deepen the complexity of a dish (wasabi, broccoli, garlic and lemon). Similarly, God has some hard things to tell us in biblical revelation, such as Hell, original sin, predestination, the cost of discipleship (our illusions of self-sufficiency must be crucified continually) and God’s claims on our absolute allegiance to him. These ingredients are initially repulsive to many Christians, like raw broccoli or Limburger cheese that many people would rather not have on their dinner plate. God supplies what is best for us, so we can accept within our theology these difficult biblical items like we also embrace the bitter and sour items in the chef’s pantry.
Finally, many good cooks agree that the secret ingredient of great food is love. Theology is also best when love moves the theologian in at least five ways: love for God, love for Scripture, love for people, love for truth and being loved by God. Cooking is an act of self-giving and hospitality to care for others in doing something good to meet their need and convey joy to them. Both cooking and theology are intensely personal and relational. They are enjoyed best when received for what they are—labors of love. The center of theology is God’s self-giving at the cross, which Christians experience in the meal of Jesus’ blood and body, encountered edibly as wine and bread. The Lord’s Supper is a meal prepared by love and served for our communion with him and one another, so his love may fill our lives in the same way.