Theology or the Christian who dismisses it:
Can it be that one is irrelevant in daily life?
At its core, theology is the systematic study of God for the purposes of establishing common understandings and practices. It takes the word of God and matches it with the life of man. Theology is about thinking in line with our design, not just in fundamental questions of life, but in daily existence.
Plato labeled theology as discourse on God; Augustine said it was the discussion of God. The mystics used it for intrinsic experience. History records its focus upon Scripture, revelation, experience, and tradition. And, academia offers it as a special course worth 5 credits. But I digress.
“Theology is about thinking in line with our design.”
Two ministers recently stated in different Christian contexts, “this is not theology, this is real”, and “kids don’t need theology, they need encouragement”. In both cases, the implication is that theology is not always relevant among Christians. According to the above definitions, their statements can easily convey the meanings that “personal experience is more real than studying the Living Word” and that “kids benefit more from encouragement than they can from discussions of God.” In another case, when an elder was asked to intervene according to Scripture, the answer returned was, “I don’t really understand theology all that well, so let’s just hope that God fixes our problem for us.” What a travesty of leadership!
Everyone who claims to be Christian exercises theology, because every one of us claims to hold moral beliefs that are not equally held by everyone else. Although not everyone listens, God has a great deal to say about details we choose to believe. In other words, theology is relevant in every day matters and is not reserved territory for those holding to official titles or doctoral degrees. Just because some may be less systematic or less thorough in their approach to forming their Christian ideas than others, does not change the reality of employing theology to establish personal beliefs about God and his expectations.
“Theology…is not reserved territory.”
Those who dismiss the importance of theology in every day experience simply convey their disdain for establishing their opinions upon biblical principles. It is just another way of justifying that they want to believe whatever makes them feel comfortable and that no God-given pattern should govern their choices. In such a case, these individuals are either ignorant regarding the practical and immediate value of theology or they are deceived regarding their claim of Christianity.
What is Practical Theology, to which this author ascribes?
As a subset of theology, Practical Theology continues to seek fundamental answers, but it attempts to do so with an eye towards practical means rather than theoretical approaches. In the alternative, scholarly pursuits are greatly enhanced by those who immerse themselves in specialized educational excellence. Knowing Greek and Hebrew are veins that can unearth treasures of rare metals. Systematic reasoning on the deep questions of life can lay out a path of thought upon which the less skilled can venture. But it would be a travesty of grace to miss the power of God manifested in the theology of those “unschooled, ordinary men” who spent time living out their faith in the fields with Jesus (Act 4:13). In this comparison, both theological methods are effective mining techniques, and the pursuit of each can often produce a wider variety of gems, especially if the strengths of each are mutually embraced. But, as its own approach, Practical Theology takes Jesus’ conclusion to his Sermon on the Mount as foundational (Mt 7:24).
Here is the underlying query presented by Practical Theology: How should our beliefs be informed by how we understand and implement Scripture? In short, it acknowledges a biblical appeal for practical application as a necessary step in further religious understanding. Pursuing truth is more than a rational head game; it also requires boots on the ground. As distinguished by the author of Hebrews, understanding even the basics between good and evil is trained by constant implementation (Heb 5:14).
“a biblical appeal for practical application.”
Without trivializing the enormous personal benefits, Practical Theology attempts to mine the layers of revealed truth in a manner that can benefit humanity at large. If theology operates as a towering castle against bombardment by popular ideas, then Practical Theology ensures the training of the troops to man the castle walls, guard the gates, and identify the battle lines. If theology serves as the grand ballroom in all its decorated finery, then Practical Theology teaches the participants how to dance, when to bow, and proper etiquette for celebration. Without the contributions of theology in our daily experiences and in the discussions regarding what we ought to believe or practice, we become vulnerable to self-deception and mob-rule: the results of which can be seen in the humanistic, feel-good contagions promoted in many popular churches.
The encouragement towards implementation is aimed at greater understanding of biblical truth, at identifying the rock-solid basis for defining our beliefs and doctrines. In this way it differs from what could be labeled as Practical Christianity or good works. The latter rightly seeks to apply Christlike behaviors for the honor of God and for the good of others. Practical Theology attempts to harness such actions into further understanding of the divine Will of God; the product of which ought to further enhance our abilities to glorify God and better focus our efforts for the Kingdom of God.
It by no means is intended to be a replacement of putting ones religion into practice, but as a method of study it attempts to consider both personal belief and ecclesiastical doctrinal formation through the lens of application. It assumes that right understanding of God’s word is not possible without also living it along the way, and that by insights gained through biblical obedience one ought to grow in grace and knowledge rather than persist in always maintaining original views or behaviors reflective of the limits of what one can grasp of truth prior to beginning to live it out in daily existence. We are admonished to follow our leaders “as they follow Christ”, which requires the theologian to walk his talk. Those who are careful to learn from living it are promised that it will directly impact the salvation of themselves and others (1 Tim 4:16).
Practical Theology considers “personal belief…through the lens of application.”
As a practical approach, it utilizes the resources readily available in a prioritization fashion.
- Spirit Led. It takes as a preliminary necessity that one must be born-again with the Spirit of God leading all aspects of a person’s life and pursuits. Where the fruit of such is lacking, understanding and maturity must also be nascent. Great education may spawn human wisdom, but understanding the things of God cannot occur with any degree of reliable insight without the specific direction of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 2:11).
- Scriptural Authority. It then approaches Scripture as the preeminent authority in all matters related to the Divine. As coined by others, sola Scriptura establishes the word of God as the uncontested baseline for all matters for which it addresses. It also takes as a given that whenever the Bible comments on a subject, it interprets other passages with higher authority than any reasoned exegesis–for Scripture is not conducive of private interpretation (2 Pet 1:20). As a result, select theologies that elevate particular verses in contrast to other passages are suspect from the outset.
- Growth by Application. As its label indicates, Practical Theology employs the practical efforts of the disciple to implement the principles, commands, and freedoms noted in Scripture for the purpose noted under point 7 and as instrumental in gaining deeper understandings of the truths embedded in God’s word. For those desirous of intimately knowing God, our Lord states, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (Jn 13:17).
- Confirmation versus Formation. In this approach to theology, experiences confirm and inform rather than establish doctrines. Church traditions, creeds, and scholarly commentaries also contribute towards informing and backing up one’s conclusions, but they are not expected to reign uncontested as foundational absolutes, if the Bible itself points elsewhere. For example, those who relate a near-death experience, may bolster beliefs already documented in Scripture, but such occurrences are not sufficient for establishing reliable beliefs different from biblical revelation.
- Verification by Feedback. This system also reviews the practical implications (or fruit) of established theologies as part of a feedback loop in considering the real-world impact of doctrines. If the beliefs continue to reflect the fullness of revealed truth, then their results on the lives of people, churches, and nations ought to demonstrate consistent integrity with Scripture. If the results, even if unintended or unforeseen, show signs of departure from the truths of God, then part or all of the original theologies should be reconsidered. It is understood that often the reason former creedal statements may diverge from upholding righteous behaviors is due to the broken nature of the implementors. However, it remains the case that some religious beliefs need to be reworked to conform, not to modern life, but to the fullness of God’s word–something, that for whatever reason, may not have enjoyed the clarity of what the Spirit is now revealing in conformity with Scripture.
- New Covenant Filter. Numerous guidelines exist to help serious students of God filter through to the bedrock of divine truth, but one in particular needs special attention. As revealed by Jesus, his blood, which alone enables Christians to come reconciled before the Father, conveys the New Covenant through which all of Scripture must be viewed (2 Cor 3:14). Without recognizing the universal impact of this change, revelation of truth is but an empty echo.
- Seeking Glory First. Theological pursuits of any variety must have a starting point, an idea regarding ultimate purpose upon which everything else stands. Although not unique to Practical Theology, the universal answer to God, to questions of any nature, to definitions of purpose for life all point to one thing: for the glory of God! This realization is without exception; every aspect of truth, every indication of Scripture, all occurrences in life have one continuing, unchanging thread–everything exists and occurs for the glory of God. Any theology that can be built must rest upon that revealed, uncontested absolute and must also operate with submissive support.
“For the glory of God!”
Practical Theology helps us grasp why: Why does God expect such-and-such? Why should I believe this extraordinary claim? Why is faith satisfying when facing the unknown? Why God? Why pain and suffering? Why the Cross? Why me? Why hope?
It does, however, require that we fully invest ourselves in living out Scripture. Our experience is not meant to interpret the Bible, but biblical-guided obedience ought to produce scriptural maturity.
Readers are invited to consider the impacts of this approach evidenced in books written by this author as well as the other posts on this site.
How have your understandings of God been improved as you took him at faith and began applying what he says in his Word?