Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (9): On Practical Theology and Washing the Cat

A good theology is the most practical thing in the world. And while you might be thinking, “Nullo modo, man. Fors fortis. It can’t be true. I have difficulty imagining anything in the world that is less practical than a discussion of the Trinity or an exposition of the Incarnation,” I’m going to argue that good theology is deeply practical, and not just for professional ministry, but for absolutely everything we do in the world.

First, let’s note that theology is deeply practical. In Christianity, theology and practice are not bifurcated. The God who speaks is the God who acts, and we who listen are those who worship and obey in gratitude and joy. The Bible’s story is one in which God speaks and acts in our midst, narrating our lives and casting us in an unfolding drama. We grow into our identity by means of this dramatic narrative. Our theology arises from within the dramatic narrative, and the narrative sends us forth anew to participate in the drama.

Another way of putting this same point is that theology arises from and issues forth in ministry and mission. Theology arises in the midst of active ministry and in turn issues forth in renewed and vigorous ministry and mission. (The reason that this point might seem foreign is that many theologies have not been written in the midst of active ministry, and it is these theologies that give the discipline such a bad name.) This deep and rich interplay between theology and mission ensures that Christian theology is not an ivory tower exercise isolated from the church’s broader mission, and it ensures that our missional endeavors are shaped and formed by sound theology. There are a thousand ways to illustrate theology’s relevance to ministry and mission, (elsewhere, I’ve provided a few examples of this), but I will refrain from doing so now because of the scope of this blog.

Second, let’s go further and note that theology is relevant and practical for absolutely everything in life, and not just for personal devotions or for “professional” ministry. It matters for work and for leisure, for worship and for play, for the arts and the sciences, for business and education. There is not one millimeter of the fabric of human life that does not have the thread of theology running through it (as I will illustrate with an “Excursus on Washing the Cat,” at the end of this post). In order to make this point, I want to draw upon a Dutch theologian of yesteryear, Abraham Kuyper.

Kuyper provides some helpful insight in understanding how theology matters for absolutely everything.[1] T. M. Moore has well-summarized the theological underpinnings of Kuyper’s view in four points.[2] First, according to Scripture, there is a deep antithesis present in the world, a great struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, between Christ and Satan, between truth and error. This great struggle manifests itself in different ways in human history, and right now it manifests itself in the challenges posed by modernism, postmodernism, scientism, secularism, etc. Christians should resist this totalitarian assault on social, cultural, and political life. We should fight it tooth and nail, not only from the pulpit, but in the university, business, arts, sciences, politics, etc., and we should resist it in an openly and robustly Christian manner.

Second, according to Scripture, God’s Word brought forth the world from nothing, and then ordered that world. Because of this creation order, there is a corollary cultural order which Kuyper called sphere sovereignty. The various spheres (or, dimensions) of culture are ordered by God and they each have their own integrity (or sovereignty) and order, and were meant to function according to unique God-given principles. Moreover, these dimensions of culture (such as art, science, politics, and education) have been hijacked by the kingdom of darkness. We agree with Kuyper that Christians cannot take the liberal route and accommodate ourselves to the prevailing cultural winds but neither should we take the “fundamentalist” or “separatist” route and withdraw from those arenas.

Third, Kuyper rejected the sacred/secular dichotomy as an unbiblical dualism because it undercuts the absolute Lordship of Christ over all realms of creation. If Christ is the creator of everything, then he is Lord over everything. No piece of our (“secular”) life is to be sealed off from Christ’s lordship. Every square inch of it belongs to Christ and ought to be made to honor him. This is why the present blog series presupposes that missional Christians not only participate in speaking the gospel and participating in missions, but also view their work, their leisure, and their studies as a way of shedding light on the gospel and working out the implications of the gospel. Fourth, Kuyper believed in freedom of conscience. When Christians recognize the antithesis present in the various spheres of culture, they work to bring those spheres under the Lordship of Christ, but the tools they use to do so are reason and persuasion rather than coercion.

We believe that Kuyper’s insights are essentially correct, especially in light of the biblical testimony about Christ as the creator, orderer, and sustainer of the world. Paul writes of Christ, “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Col. 1:16-17 NKJV). As Lesslie Newbigin argued, this doctrine makes clear that Christ is not only the Lord over all reality, but the “clue” to understanding that same reality. “The strength of the liberal tradition is willingness to be open to new truth. And the gospel itself makes this liberal mind possible; for if we know that Jesus is indeed the Word made flesh, the visible and knowable presence in the midst of history from whom and for whom all things exist, then we shall meet new experiences of any kind of reality with the confidence that we are given the clue for their understanding. But if that clue itself is questioned or abandoned, then we become clueless playthings of the winds and waves of fashion, ‘blown about by every wind of doctrine.'”[3] Likewise, Kuyper argues that a person can come to a knowledge of all sorts of (pieces of) truth even without knowledge of God’s revelation in Christ, but that if that person is to understand the relation of the parts (the big picture), one must behold God’s revelation in Christ.[4]

If Christ is indeed the creator, orderer, and sustainer of the universe, and if he is therefore the clue to understanding reality, it follows that human research projects will be found deficient unless they are founded upon, framed, and given their trajectory by the basic beliefs embedded in the Christian narrative.

An Excursus on Washing the Cat

More than a few times, my audience has had a little fun with me, on exactly this point. After I finish saying that theology is relevant to absolutely everything in the world, I might expect a playfully disguised counterpoint. “Uhh, Dr. Ashford (giggle, giggle), what about, uh, like, washing my cat (more barely snuffled chuckles)? How can the Bible help me with that, cuz I need some tips on doing it right (complicit left-eye winks toward a classmate)?” First, let me admit that I appreciate this type of question, which helps to surface some deeper issues, even if it is clear to me that my student’s deep pain (in exposing the deficiency of my argument) is not unmixed with at least a small amount of pleasure.

Second, let me say that this objection leaves me happily undeterred. As I see it, biblical theology provides the most robust assistance for washing one’s cat. (One caveat: I’m not a fan of cats, and would prefer never to find myself washing one.) Biblical theology, with its attendant worldview, provides the basic building blocks with which I can understand “catness” and certain actions such as “washing.” Being concise to the extreme, I’ll unfold my theology of cat washing in the following points: (1) The doctrine of creation teaches me that cats are part of God’s good creation, and therefore they are not inherently evil. Therefore it is OK to like cats. (2) The doctrine of creation also teaches me that cats are not created in the image and likeness of God. Only humans are. Our great dignity is that we are created in God’s image, and our great humility is that we are not God. But the big point is that God has given humans a special uniqueness, and one should not wash one’s cat with more care than one washes, say, one’s baby. (3) The doctrine of the Kingdom teaches us that God’s good creation (including the non-human creation) is groaning and awaiting redemption (Rom 8:18-22) that will one day restore and renew his good cosmos (Rev 21 & 22). We have no reason to think that the renewed cosmos will be unpopulated by cats. (4) Therefore, based on these core teachings and many others, we resolve that it is acceptable to wash the cat, but that we should not worship the cat (classical paganism), consider the cat to be part of us and us of the cat (certain strains of pantheism), be mean to the cat (classical middle school boy-ism), or chase the cat (dog-ism). In other words, if something appears to you “catly,” be careful how you treat it.

An Integrative Theology

On a more serious note, the present post has argued that theology is deeply practical, and that theology and practice cannot and should not be bifurcated. To the extent that our theologies are divorced from ministry and mission, they are not truly Christian theologies. As we have noted in the past several installments, Christian theology is a multi-faceted and integrative discipline which integrates historical, biblical, philosophical, systematic, and practical aspects in order to achieve a unified, coherent, contextual, and compelling account of the Christian message.


[1] For the best primary sources, see Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (New York: Cosimo, 2007), and Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art (Grand Rapids: Christian’s Library, 2011). A helpful secondary source is Peter Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

[2] T. M. Moore, Culture Matters (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 98-102.

[3] Newbigin, Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 70.

[4] “Suppose that you had succeeded in attaining an adequate knowledge of all the parts of the cosmos, the product of these results would not yet give you the adequate knowledge of the whole. The whole is always something different from the combination of its parts. First because of the organic relation which holds the parts together; but much more because of the entirely new questions which the combination of the whole presents: questions as to the origin and end of the whole; questions as to the categories which govern the object in its reflection in your consciousness; questions as to absolute being, and as to what non-cosmos is. In order to answer these questions, you must subject the whole cosmos to yourself, your own self included; in order to do this in your consciousness you must step out from the cosmos, and you must have a starting-point . . . in the non-cosmos; and this is altogether impossible as long as sin confines you with your consciousness to the cosmos.” Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 113.

Theology & Culture (5): Case Studies (Augustine, Kuyper, Hubmaier, Lewis, Schaeffer, Neuhaus)

Upon arriving at Southeastern Seminary in 1996, I had little or no motivation to study church history and historical theology. I wanted to learn “the bottom line” on the major biblical and theological issues, and then get on with the business of sharing the gospel and defending the faith. My assumption was that I could learn the “bottom line” quickly, and ought do so through my personal Bible study and some books written by late 20th century evangelicals.

This assumption, however, was unhelpful. In relying exclusively on my personal Bible study and a handful of contemporary evangelical books, I was missing out on the instructive and inspiring stories of men and women of old, and the enduringly influential books that many of them wrote. I was naïve to think that I could not benefit from the theological and ministerial lessons to be learned from the universal church, lessons which can be learned by reading books written by Christians who lived in centuries past or by Christians who live “apart” from me geographically and culturally.

Since that time, I have grown to love and appreciate historical theology and global theology, and try to teach my courses in conversation with those theologians. In my recent Theology & Culture seminar, we discussed historical figures such as Balthasar Hubmaier, Augustine of Hippo, Abraham Kuyper, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Richard John Neuhaus.

Augustine of Hippo

From Augustine’s City of God, we learned that the church needs to cultivate theologians who are able to speak with power and prescience to their socio-cultural contexts. On August 24, 410, the Alarics/Goths sacked Rome. The Roman intellectuals and common people scrambled to interpret this event, to make sense of it. Many of them concluded that the Roman gods were taking revenge because the Roman people had embraced Jesus Christ. Their argument was political, arguing that the Romans had abandoned their founding myth (Romulus and Remus, the Aeneid, etc.) in favor of the biblical narrative. It was also religious, arguing that the Romans had abandoned their gods in favor of Christ. Finally, it was philosophical, arguing that the Romans had departed from Platonism in favor of the Incarnation. On this backdrop, Augustine received a letter from Marcellinus, a Christian who walked in power circles in Rome, asking for help in answering the Roman narrative.

Augustine responded to Marcellinus with a 1,000 page letter. In his letter, the City of God, Augustine argued that the Roman intellectuals’ interpretation was wrong. He did so by arguing that Rome’s story was only one small story in the midst of a much larger narrative which is grounded in Christian Scripture. He argued that there are really two cities, the city of God and the city of man. Each city has a basic love-either God or idols. Each city is symbolized in the Bible by an earthly city-Jerusalem and Babylon. Each city has a telos-eternal life or eternal death. In making his argument, Augustine not only provided a powerful biblical theology, he also demonstrated that he knew the Romans’ literature, philosophy, politics, and history. He referenced their great authors with ease, quoted them favorably when possible, and showed how they fell short of Christian truth. He unmasked their political pretensions, showing that although Rome claimed to love justice, they really loved domination. He unmasked their religious pretensions, showing that their intellectuals didn’t really believe in the gods anyway. He unmasked their philosophical shortcomings, showing that Christianity outstrips Platonism.

His critique of Rome was theological, meaningful, dialogical, timely, fair, reasoned, evangelistic, and eminently learned. Our evangelical churches can learn from this; we ought to encourage our people, our pastors, and our professors to nurture in one another the desire to exegete culture as well as Scripture, to cultivate the head as well as the heart, to always be ready to give reason for the hope within and to do so in a cogent and persuasive manner as Augustine did.

Abraham Kuyper

Abraham Kuyper’s biography and his Lectures on Calvinism showed us a Christian who, like Augustine, not only critiqued culture but made culture. He was a pastor, a journalist, a newspaper founder, a professor, a university founder, a parliament member, and a Prime Minister. From these manifold and unique vantage points, Kuyper sought to work out the implications of the gospel.

Kuyper was known for several teachings that framed his views on theology and culture. The first is antithesis: he believed that there is a great battle between the kingdoms of God and the kingdom of men, and that the intellectual elite in modern society tend to encourage a swan-step conformity to a-theistic and secular ideals. The Christian community needs to resist this conformity. The second is sphere sovereignty: he believed that various spheres of human culture (arts, sciences, politics, religion, etc.) each function because of a God-given purpose, are independent of one another as spheres, but are never independent of God as Lord. Christians, therefore, ought to resist false sacred/secular dichotomies in favor of allowing the Christian worldview undergird our culture work in these spheres.

The third is the cultural mandate: Kuyper believed that God created humans as cultural beings who ought to do their culture work to God’s glory. The fourth is the significance of culture: as T. M. Moore describes Kuyper’s view, “Redeemed culture-culture used under the lordship of Christ-is most conducive to promoting the well-being of people and the glory of God, while sinful culture undermines human dignity and leads to social and moral degradation.”* It is incumbent upon the Christian community to put forth a sustained effort in cultural matters.

From Kuyper, we learn the church’s need for a comprehensive and sustained approach to its cultural context, which includes not only cultural exegesis but constructive cultural work. We learn that we should not rely exclusively or even primarily on political coercion, but rather work in a comprehensive manner to be salt and light in every sphere of culture.

Hubmaier, Lewis, Schaeffer, and Neuhaus

Because the blog format is limited, I will be concise to the extreme in mentioning that: (1) from Hubmaier, we learn the necessity of preaching the full gospel with its prophetic edge “against” our cultural context (though truly this is to be “for” our cultural context), even if we suffer greatly for doing so; (2) from Lewis, we learn the power of speaking and writing the gospel in an aesthetically attractive manner, and of doing so through many years of hard intellectual work; (3) from Schaeffer, we learn to do deep cultural exegesis, to proclaim the gospel in the context of love and community, and to do so with confidence that the Christian worldview is the only one that can make sense of the world empirically and existentially; and (4) from Neuhaus we learn ways in which the church can retain her Christian convictions while standing in the public square seeking to glorify God and promote the common good.

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*T. M. Moore, Culture Matters (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 106.

Theology & Culture (1): Introduction

In 1998, at the age of 24, I left the United States for the first time and moved to a predominantly Muslim republic in the former Soviet Union. I had never traveled further west than San Antonio, further north than the tip of Maine, further east than Nags Head (NC), or further south than Miami. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of cultural wedgies the next two years were for me?

The first week in country, I was introduced to a special drink called “kuhmis,” which my buddies told me “will taste a lot like an American milkshake.” And truly, it was white and frothy just like a vanilla milkshake. But it turns out that it was white and frothy because it was fermented camel’s milk. At some point in history, a Middle Eastern or Central Asian entrepreneur decided to take some camel’s (or horse’s) milk, allow it to rot over a period of time, and then bottle it as a delicacy. Later that week, I also was served fish jello for breakfast.

The second week in country I was introduced to the “banya.” My buddies told me that it “will be a lot like an American sauna.” And sure enough, it was a square room with a lot of heat. But there were a few differences. One difference lay in the fact that steam was generated by pouring vodka onto a barrel full of hot coals. (I wanted to join in, but I couldn’t find my bottle of Nyquil.) Another difference lay in the fact that Central Asian saunas have bundles of birch branches in the corner, with which the men whip one another about the back, starting at the heels and working methodically and consistently up to the shoulders. Afterwards, they go outside the banya and roll around in the snow. I’m not kidding. I’ve never prayed so hard for the rapture.

Cultural oddities aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being immersed in a very complex culture, a culture which was a multi-layered synthesis of Soviet-era atheism and Central Asian Islam. On Friday evenings, I could pay a dollar to attend world-class symphonies and piano concerts at the performing arts center one mile from my apartment. On weekday mornings, I took language lessons in Russian and Tatar, discovering how human languages provide people with unique categories for thinking and with unique advantages and disadvantages when mediating the biblical gospel. On weekday afternoons, I taught at three of the universities that were cultural legacies of years past. In the evenings, I drank hot tea (the manly drink of choice in Central Asia, best imbibed with a spot of milk and a spoon of sugar) and watched snow fall on a mosque and an Eastern Orthodox cathedral which stood immediately outside my apartment window. Often, I had a huddle of undergrad or grad students in my apartment, inundating me with questions about why I believe in God (atheists) or how in the world I could believe that “a man was God” (Muslims).

In the space of two years, I began to realize more fully the deep and resonant effects of religion upon culture, and vice-versa. I was living in a socio-cultural context that had been almost entirely devoid of evangelical gospel influence for generations. At the same time, I began to read Abraham Kuyper. (On my journey to Central Asia, I had packed one suitcase of clothes and four suitcases of books. Nerdy, no?) Upon reading Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Al Wolters, and Francis Schaeffer, I began to realize that Christian theology is relevant to every dimension of culture (arts, sciences, public square, the academy, etc.) and to all of our human vocations (not only family and church, but also workplace and community). Therefore Christians are called to glorify God by working out the implications of a Christian worldview in every aspect of their lives.

Aside from my salvation, that was probably the most profound theological awakening I have ever had, even to this day. In the twelve years since then, I have slowly but steadily built upon the conviction that the Christian mission includes the outworking of the gospel in every dimension of a given culture, in every human vocation, and across the fabric of human existence. Though I’ve read it or heard it quoted probably hundreds of times, I am still struck by Kuyper’s claim: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”* In Pro Rege, he writes, “The Son [of God] is not to be excluded from anything. You cannot point to any natural realm or star or comet or even descend into the depth of the earth, but it is related to Christ, not in some unimportant tangential way, but directly.”**

This means that absolutely everything in life matters to God. He cares not only about the goings-on within the four walls of a congregational gathering but also about the goings-on in other corners of society and culture. We must live Christianly not only as the church gathered, but also as the church scattered. We must take seriously our interactions in the arts (music, literature, cinema, architecture, etc.), the sciences (biology, physics, sociology, etc.), the public square (journalism, politics, economics, etc.), and the academy (schools, universities, seminaries, etc.).

For this reason, I applied (with David Nelson) several years ago for a teaching grant from the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Yale CFC awarded us the grant, and we began teaching a seminar in Theology & Culture. In mid-January, I offered this seminar for the sixth time, and it turned out to be one of the best teaching and learning experiences of my life. As I observed our students discussing and debating these issues, and as I fielded their questions during and after class, I realized again the manifold and pervasive ways in which our answers to “theology and culture” questions affect our daily lives. For this reason, and at the prompting of some students, I’ve decided to provide a blog series along the lines of the major topics of discussion in our Theology & Culture class.

Because of the limited nature of a blog format, I will be able to provide a broad-brush treatment of some of the important issues at the intersection of theology and culture, but not an in-depth treatment. In upcoming installments I will treat (1) alternative views of Christianity and culture, (2) a theology of culture, (3) historical cases studies such as Hubmaier, Augustine, and Kuyper; (4) theology in cultural context, (5) theology and vocation (6) theology and the arts, (7) theology and the sciences, (8) theology and the public square, (9) theology and the academy, and (10) some book, journal, and website recommendations.

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*Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in James D. Bratt, ed. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

**From an excerpt translated by Jan Boer, You Can Do Greater Things than Christ (Nigeria: Jos, 1991).