Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (1): The Most Exciting Endeavor of All

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.

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  13Comments

  1. S Bullard   •  

    Love this, Bruce. Keith was unbelievable, wasn’t he? I just can’t imagine saying something like that to Hauerwas on the first day of my first class … Patterson sounds like a terrific teacher!

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Scottie, hey man! Great to hear from you. Yep, I would like to see Stan the Man’s response to the same situation. I’d imagine it would be equally colorful. :-)

  3. Andy Cockrell   •  

    I feel like I should send you some money for the privilege of reading this. I’m not, but it is definitely a better read than other stuff that I have been forced to pay for.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Andy: No really, you can send money. Not a problem. Never a problem. :-)

  5. Jason   •  

    Hi Bruce. I met you once when you spoke at my Young Life in high school about, oh, 14 years ago. :) . . . . I was raised in the Southern Baptist Convention he presided over, and at the time whether or not to drink seemed to be a big controversy. As I reached the drinking age I had to decide what to do. I read a paper by [an SBC scholar] to help me. He basically concluded alcohol is bad (“not God’s ideal”), and my Bible is probably translated wrong (Jesus probably made grape juice, not wine). Because of him, I decided to abstain from alcohol. I re-read [this scholar’s] paper one day seven years later. I realized he made virtually no references to Christian history, only to Scripture and to his scholarly understanding of certain words therein. Regarding John 2, he concluded, “In Jesus’ miracle at Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11), one can [not] affirm with certainty that Jesus turned the water into a non-intoxicating wine nor that He drank no wine Himself.”

    That’s when I realized that any system of theology taken apart from the witness of Christians before us can bring very little certainty. Different Protestant Bible scholars had varying (but loglical) opinions on so many things, whether wine, salvation, or even the divinity of Jesus Himself. I confided with a friend about my thoughts, and he pointed me toward Eastern Orthodox Christianity. I tried it, and I began to experience Christianty in the light of history. Finally a theology began to emerge that not only could fit logically with what the Scriptures said but also had that extra assurance of the witness of the historical church.

    I just discovered your blog (which is kind of a blast from the past). I’m looking forward to following this series as I go through catechumen classes at my church. God’s peace to you.

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jason, great to hear from you. Thanks for taking the time to read the blog and to comment. I hope the series is in some way helpful to you.

  7. Roger Simpson   •  

    Dr Ashford:

    You are asking good questions: How do we know whatever it is we know about God? How can we “test” that this stuff is true? And if it is true, what are the practical consequences?

    This is one of my favorite topics. However, as a layman I don’t have a full tool kit to be able to explore such things.

    A few months ago I was at the Southwestern Bookstore in Ft. Worth. I picked up a book on epistemology: “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview” by Moreland and Craig. Holding the Bible as a unique case of course, I’d say Moreland and Craig is in the top tier of the five most useful books about Christianity.

    Another book in the top five is the book edited by your boss, Dr. Akin: “A Theology for the Church”.

    Christianity is attractional when you look into it. So it is strange that people reject it out of either defiance or ignorance. I think there is enough background noise, even in our current secular society, to tickle the curiousity about Christianity to the extent that any thinking person would at least check it out.

  8. Jonathan Catanzaro   •  

    Doc,

    I never grow tired of hearing that story.

    Blessings to you,

    Jonathan

  9. Jody Blanton   •  

    Bruce, congrats on your two little girls! Just found out.
    I came through SEBTS in 03-06 and now serve in SE ASIA.
    There are many venues in which theology can be taught or passed from one believer to another person, seminary being one. Would you say that two of the most important venues in which this should take place is from parent to child (Deut. 6:4-9) and from one disciple of Jesus to another disciple (Mt. 28:19-20, 2 Tim 2:2)?
    I am glad you are helping people connect theology with practical life, ie. head, heart, hands. It seems that many relegate theological understanding to seminaries and church leaders. Maybe I am wrong.

  10. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jody, hey bro! Yep, you couldn’t be more right on the “venues” you listed. One of the next posts will deal with five “audiences” for theology, and two of those audiences will be family and church. Thanks for your input. Grateful for your service in SE Asia.

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