Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (4): Theology is Not Primarily for Professors or Preachers.

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At one point in my life, I thought “theology” was for only for eccentric religious professionals who wore hounds-tooth jackets with elbow patches, smelled like papyrus, smoked hand carved pipes, sported Santa Claus beards, and talked a lot about topics such as Second Temple Judaism and revelational epistemology. In other words, I thought they were weird. I thought it would be fun to stick a theologian in a room of normal people and play the game “Which one of these is not like the others?” (It would have been an easy game. In a room full of normal people, as I saw it, a theologian sticks out like an Amish kid with a nose ring.) Or so I thought. After I had actually studied theology at Southeastern, and had met a good number of theologians, I realized that theology is something that all believers do, and it is something that is done for many different audiences. That’s the question this installment answers. For whom do we do theology? For the church? For unbelievers? For the academy? Former University of Chicago theologian David Tracy is known for arguing that theologians must find ways to interact compellingly with three distinct audiences: academy, church, and society.[1] This blog will “one-up” Tracy by arguing that theology must address at least five audiences: God, family, church, the academy, and society at large.

Theology for God:

First and foremost, theology is done for God. Just as God seeks to bring glory to his name and increase his own renown, so we must do all that we do to glorify him and make his name great.[2] The biblical testimony could not be more clear on this count. God created humanity for his glory (Is 43:7), sent his Son to vindicate his glory (Rom 3:23-26; 15:8-9), will one day fill the earth with the knowledge of his glory (Hab 2:14), so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10). In the present age, we are to do all things for his glory (1 Cor 10:31). “All things” includes the task of theology. For this reason, Barth writes, “Evangelical theology is concerned with Immanuel, God with us! Having this God for its object, it can be nothing else but the most thankful and happy science!”[3] As theologians, we have the great privilege of studying God’s Word and, in so doing, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8), delighting ourselves in the Lord (Ps 37:4), seeking him early in the morning (Ps 63:1), and savoring his words (Ps 119:103). There is nothing more wonderful than attending closely to what our Most Loved One is saying to us, and then speaking it back to him, and telling others what he has told us. Theology is done, first and foremost, for God.

Theology for the Family:

Second, theology is done in the presence of, and for the sake of, our families. Family is the most basically human of all our vocations, the one in which God’s gracious love and his providential care are most tangibly conveyed through human beings. Moreover, God instructs all believers to talk about him and his word consciously and continually within the home. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:4-9). We are called to know and love God in the midst of our families, teaching God’s Word to our families diligently throughout the day, in such a way that it functions as blinders on a horse, keeping our feet on the path of righteousness.[4]

Theology for the Church:

Third, theology is done for the church, universal and local (Eph 4:11-13). Just as the apostle Paul wrote theological epistles that benefited particular local congregations as well as the church as a whole down through the centuries, so we should do theology consciously with God’s church in mind. “Theology for the church” can be done in many ways, but we will mention three. First, the pastors of local congregations are the lead theologians for their churches. They should preach theologically, orchestrate their services theologically, and counsel theologically. Well-crafted sermons, services, or counseling sessions are examples of theology for the church. Second, a group of university and seminary professors could collaborate to write an integrative theology (such as the present volume) which takes as its primary audience the pastors, missionaries, counselors, and other ministers whom they teach. Third, a pastor, university, or seminary professor might set forth to write or teach in a manner which is technical and academic in nature. Even though this volume is written for scholars rather than for typical members of a given local congregation, it can (and should) still be done with an eye toward knowing and loving God, and building up his (universal) church as a whole.

Theology for the Academy:

Fourth, theology can be done within the academy and for the sake of the academy. Unfortunately, in the past century, Western universities have increasingly shied away from recognizing theology as a legitimate academic discipline. George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University and Stanley Hauerwas’ The State of the University speak to this situation in which Christian theology has been removed from the domain of “true scholarship” and in which Christian theologians struggle to be granted tenure.[5] We believe that this modern Western conception of theology is false. Christian theology is an eminently legitimate discipline. Theologians should do their scholarly work with excellence, constructively and critically engaging other scholars in theological studies, religious studies, comparative religions, and so forth. This task is not easy. “The dilemma for evangelical theology,” writes Clark, “is whether it can maintain intellectual integrity, as judged by the academic world, and still serve the needs of Christian believers…. This means that evangelical theologians want to do what many believe is impossible: both think critically and also recognize biblical authority.”[6] In fact, we would argue that the recognition of biblical authority should itself foster critical thinking. The rational, creative, and moral capacities necessary for intellectually rigorous theology are the very capacities through which the image of God shines. In other words, intellectual rigor is a part of spirituality (1 Pet 3:15).

Theology for Society:

Fifth, theology can be done for society at large. Theologians can do their work with an eye toward various publics, taking into account their questions and concerns, and communicating in a way we hope will be meaningful and compelling. C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer are examples of public theologians. Lewis was known for mediating Christian truth by means of radio talks, fiction literature, apologetics, and even debates. Schaeffer did theology in public by means of speeches, videography, and popular level books; he addressed existential and ethical issues which were immediately relevant to society as a whole, and used those issues to invite people to consider Christian truth. The point here is that the Christian faith is not something to sit back and stare at, but something to lean forward and look through. The Scriptures are like a pair of spectacles through which we view the world. The Christian theologian is uniquely positioned to speak truth about issues of interest to any person in any walk of life.

Theology with Faithfulness and Excellence:

For whichever audience a theologian intends to teach, preach, or write, it is incumbent upon him to do his work faithfully in the hopes that he might be able to do his work with excellence. Excellence cannot always be achieved, though faithfulness can. A theologian can always do his work faithfully, by lashing his theology to Scripture, and doing so in order to know and love God, and participating in his mission in this world. To the extent that he is able, he will also draw upon theology’s various sources, integrate its various sub-disciplines, and remain in conversation with philosophy and other fields of learning. Most importantly, he will work hard to evoke from his students a curiosity and excitement about the things of God. For, to be a lazy teacher, preacher, or writer is a sin. Although George Steiner was not writing about theologians, his words are instructive: “To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. . . . Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, unconsciously or not, cynical in its mere utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by its roots. Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented.”[7] Theology is done for the purpose of knowing and loving God, and equipping his people to join his mission; therefore theologians work hard to teach, write, and preach with excellence, so they can be maximally meaningful and compelling.


[1] David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 3-46.

[2] John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998). James M. Hamilton, Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).

[3] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, 12.

[4] For a fine example of a theological text written to help parents teach biblical truth to their children, see Bruce Ware, Big Truths for Young Hearts: Teaching and Learning the Greatness of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009).

[5] George Marsden, The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University, 1998); Stanley Hauerwas, The State of the University (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).

[6] Clark, To Know and Love God, 200.

[7] George Steiner, Lessons of the Masters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 18.

  11Comments

  1. Jason   •  

    Christ is in our midst! Excellent article, Bruce. Thanks for posting it.

    I especially appreciate your emphasis on the family. One of the things I enjoy about the correct church is that the kids, from the youngest to the oldest, attend the Lord’s Day service with their parents. Can it be a little distracting at times with kids crawling around? Sure. But the benefits outweigh the negatives. In the Protestant church traditions I was brought up in, the kids were always separated from the parents at some point during the service. I can’t tell you how many false things I was taught by God only knows who during those times of separation, things that my parents would’ve been able to correct immediately had they been aware. The family is very much the “first church.” The correct church emphasizes that truth within her traditions.

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jason, thanks for weighing in. When I lived in Central Asia, I worshiped in a house church, and we worshiped with the entire family in our midst. I like that model, despite the fact that the kids can be a bit distracting. Children learn from the patterns of worship, from watching their parents worship, and from participating in worship.

  3. Phillip   •  

    Amen Bruce! At SEBTS I learned the great narrative of scripture like never before and that theology encompasses all of life! Thankful for the Word of God and what the Lord is doing at Southeastern.

  4. Pingback: Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (4): Theology is Not Primarily for Professors or Preachers. « TUPOSMinistries

  5. Russell   •  

    Bruce, I appreciate your thoughts of doing theology. Too often people in our churches, as well as some pastors, leave it up to the Pastoral position to be the main source of doing theology. As a youth pastor I have become convinced that we don’t completely understand in our churches the power the parents have over their kids. It is important to remember that theology is not that something that can only be done in the “church” or sanctuary. In fact, it begins in the family. What a powerful article to remind us who can do theology, and where it can be done.

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Philip, thanks for the kind words man…

  7. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Russell, that’s right. As I see it, we haven’t theologized well in the home, and that has negatively affected student ministry (your specific calling)but also all of the church’s other ministries.

  8. Pingback: Theologisirea ca slujire – Update | Marius Cruceru

  9. Joel Rainey   •  

    “To study theology for the purpose of gratifying curiosity, or preparing for a profession, is an abuse and profanation of what ought to be regarded as most holy. To learn things pertaining to God, merely for the sake of amusement, or secular advantage, or to gratify the mere love of knowledge, is to treat the Most High with contempt.” -J.L Dagg, 1857

    Thanks for taking the spirit of this quote and modernizing it for us in this post. Excellent!

  10. Jon Sherrill   •  

    Hey Bruce, great post, as always! Great model, motive, aim, for doing theology. prayed for you today.

  11. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Joel and Jon, thank you friends!

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