I will never forget my first day of Systematic Theology. (The year was 1996. Think Billy Ray Cyrus. America Online. Super Nintendo. Doc Martens. Et, as they say, cetera). I had decided to take Systematic during my first semester and the opening class period would be the first experience I would have in a seminary environment. I sat on a row with J. D. Greear, Keith Errickson, Micah Patisall, and Chris Thompson. As Dr. Patterson began class, he announced that he would begin by handing out the class “syllabi.” As he said this, I leaned over to a friend and mentioned that the proper plural of syllabus is “syllabuses,” not “syllabi.” At this point, Keith raised his hand, was acknowledged by the teacher, and proceeded to say, “My friend Bruce has a problem with your grammar.” I’m not joking. Dr. Patterson looked at me and said, “Yes?” To which I responded, “No sir, there is no problem with your grammar. My friend is joking.” The professor, however, insisted that I should put on my big boy pants and tell him what I really thought. So I did. I proceeded to unload my theory that syllabus was not derived from the Latin and therefore the plural should be syllabuses. Dr. Patterson thought about it for a second or two, looked at me, and said, “no, –buses are things that children ride to school, and since you know so much about everything, I will grade your weekly quizzes out loud, in front of the entire class, for the rest of the semester.” And that he did. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of theological wedgies the remainder of the semester was for me?
In all seriousness, however, I loved Systematic Theology. There is nothing more satisfying, more unsettling, more helpful, and more practical than asking the really big questions about God, man, salvation, the church, and last things. First and foremost, we studied the text of Scripture, drawing upon the resources of the entire canon to answer each question. Along the way, however, we investigated what the church fathers and the Reformers had to say on any of these doctrines, and learned to defend and apply those same doctrines. I was forced to write my first bona fide research paper. I had never written a paper in Turabian style and had no idea how to argue a thesis. I chose to argue for the divine inspiration theory of Scripture (vs. human constructivist and human response models). After having mustered all of my bibliographic, analytic, and stylistic resources, I managed to complete my paper. I received it graded the next week. At the end of the paper, Dr. Patterson devoted several paragraphs of red ink to the shortcomings of my paper, gave me a few words of encouragement, and then ended with this sentence, which I will never forget: “Mr. Ashford, we will make a real scholar of you yet, if it kills us both in the process.” Hmmm. Even though I had just been informed that (1) I was not a real scholar, and (2) that to make me one might actually kill my professor in the process, I found myself encouraged, oddly enough, that I might one day make a decent theologian. There was light at the end of the tunnel.
Since that day, many things have changed. I lived and served in Central Asia for two years, came back to the States to work on a Ph.D. in Theology, worked in student ministry as an itinerant preacher, was hired to teach intellectual history at The College at Southeastern, transferred over to the mission department, got married to Lauren and had two little girls, became a pastor/elder at The Summit Church, and finally now split my time between the theology and missiology departments at Southeastern. Throughout all of these changes, however, one of the things that did not change was the desire to do theology-the desire to know and love God, and participate with him on his mission. There is nothing more important, more rewarding, more practical, or more exciting than “doing theology.” And, in fact, every Christian is called to be a theologian (although most will not be professional theologians or systematic theologians, per se) precisely because theology is all about knowing and loving God, and joining him in his mission.
Now, I find myself teaching theology at Southeastern, and trying to explain to first and second year students how one goes about the task of theology. I have not found this to be an easy endeavor (and I’ve got a long way to go until I can do it well) but it has been a rewarding journey and fruitful in many ways.
The present blog installment is the first in an ongoing series, “Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus,” which will deal with the task of theology, including questions such as: What is the purpose of theology? What is the relationship of theology to worship, discipleship, and mission? Why do we have confidence that we can know anything at all about God? Should our theology be affected by such things as reason, culture, experience, and church tradition? What is the relationship between theology and philosophy? Between theology and science? Between faith and learning? Who is our primary audience when we do theology? These are deep and powerful questions and, unfortunately, our treatment of them will have to be concise and in most cases surface-level. But hopefully the series somehow will be helpful in sustaining an ongoing conversation on the most exciting endeavor in all of God’s good creation: doing theology as a servant of Jesus.