Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (2): Theology Aims at the Head, the Heart, and the Hands

One of the benefits of marriage is that it brings a theologian down to earth. During the first years of my marriage to Lauren, my patient wife had to listen to hours of my theological bloviations, which I delivered with the oratorical verve of Will Ferrell and a great deal of unsuccessfully suppressed self-satisfaction. After I had finally given birth to the entirety of my “train of thought” (on creational ontology, revelational epistemology, or some other lofty topic), she would say something to the effect of “Now, what’s your point?,” “Would you please define your terms?,” or “And in what possible world does this matter?” So, in honor of my wife (to whom I owe myself a thousand times over, as she no doubt knows, though she never lets on. Or not very often), we’ll kick off this series by defining “theology,” and then proceeding to several posts that discuss “how to do it” and “why it matters.”

What is theology? If we are going to reflect upon theology, we must first define it. There exist as many definitions of theology as there are theologians, and the various ways of defining it are not necessarily opposed to one another, but one way to put it is to say that it is “disciplined reflection on God’s self-revelation, for the purposes of knowing and loving God, and participating in his mission in this world.”[1] Theology is disciplined reflection on God’s self-revelation, because the God we know, love, and obey has revealed himself in times past through his mighty acts, through his prophets and apostles, and through the incarnation of his Son, and now reveals himself through his written Word (cf. Heb. 1:1-2). This written Word is the primary source upon which a theologian draws, and is the norm by which we measure any other theological source (e.g. church tradition).

Further, theology is done for the purpose of knowing and loving God, and participating in his mission in this world. The task of theology is cognitive, affective, and dispositional. It aims at the head, the heart, and the hands. J. L. Dagg writes, “The study of religious truth ought to be undertaken and prosecuted from a sense of duty, and with a view to the improvement of the heart. When learned, it ought not to be laid on the shelf, as an object of speculation; but it should be deposited deep in the heart, where its sanctifying power ought to be felt.”[2] Theology entails more than merely acquiring information about God; it entails affection for God and submission to God. When the theologian properly attends to the cognitive, affective, and dispositional dimensions of the task, he is able to glorify God’s name. Herman Bavinck writes, “… a theologian, a true theologian, is one who speaks out of God, through God, about God, and does this always to the glorification of His name.”[3] The task of theology, therefore, is to glorify God by knowing, loving, and serving him.

One of the things I’m really driving at here is the fact that theology should not be an ivory-tower enterprise. When it becomes disconnected from God’s church and her mission, and when it becomes an endeavor undertaken by isolated “intellectuals” who are not actively serving God and hischurch, it ceases to be a truly Christian theology. When Paul did theology, he did it in the midst of ministry and mission. And his theology furthered the ministry and mission. So there is a mutually beneficial relationship between Christian theology and Christian ministry. We will talk more about this in a later installment.

[1] This definition can be further nuanced by distinguishing between more specific approaches to theology, such as biblical theology, systematic theology, and integrative theology. These nuances are briefly treated later in this chapter.

[2] J. L. Dagg, A Manual of Theology (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano, 1982), 13.

[3] Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids: Michigan, 1956), 31.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Jason B. Hood   •  

    “theology is done for the purpose of knowing and loving God, and participating in his mission in this world.” Amen.

    “Theology entails more than merely acquiring information about God; it entails affection for God and submission to God.” Amen again!

    I love the way John Frame puts it: theology is the application of God’s Word to life (which for Frame includes emotions, actions, beliefs, social relationships, etc).

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jason, thanks for stopping by the blog! Enjoyed your recent article in STR… Thanks for the Frame reference. As a matter of fact, his little booklet “Studying Theology as a Servant of Jesus” is something I read years ago which started me reflecting on the pastoral and missional aspects of the theological task.

  3. Todd Carnes   •  

    Hey Bruce, the way we say it colloquially here at Radius is that we are here to get better, not just smarter. I tried to convey this same point once in a blog post I entitled “And Jesus said, ‘Come, study Me. NOT!!'”
    It is a great challenge in our time as people tend to think you are very godly if you know your bible well, as opposed to measuring godliness appropriately measuring your love for God and others, which the Bible only facilitates that and is not that end in itself . . .

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Todd, that’s a good way to put it. Thank you for taking the time to read and contribute.

  5. Khandis Stokes   •  


    I like how all these dicussions are about how we as Christians should see the work of God and how we should carry it out as theologians.I am no where near as educated in this field as you are, but through reading the Bible and doing God’s will I am learning more and more about Christianity and what it means to be a Christian.

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Khandis, you couldn’t be more right. If you are a child of God who humbly submits to the Scriptures, and does so in conversation with a community of believers (God’s church), you are being a theologian in the truest sense of the word.

  7. Jason   •  

    He is Risen! Thank you for this piece, Bruce. You wrote, “[God] now reveals himself through his written Word (cf. Heb. 1:1-2)” I looked up that passage. It doesn’t say anything about a written Word. It says God has in these last days has spoken by His Son.

    You then continue, “This written Word is the primary source upon which a theologian draws, and is the norm by which we measure any other theological source (e.g. church tradition).” What written Word? Given my Baptist heritage, I’m assuming your “written Word” is Holy Scripture. So Holy Scripture is our primary source of theology, more than church tradition. Then my most important question is: since when? I mean that question literally. There were early churches for many years, hundreds even, without the Holy Scriptures or with very incomplete Scriptures. They still taught of the Word’s Resurrection, of His Divinity, of the Trinity, of the Holy Apostles’ teachings, and of a host of other critical Christian theological truths. This is because the holy and honorable Apostles taught followers of the Way to hold the traditions they had been taught, whether by word of mouth or by written word (c.f. 2 Thess 2:15, 1 Cor 11:2). The right church had right traditions, and still does. Contrast that with false traditions of men condemned in Col. 2:8. So, in addition to written words, we have right traditions and wrong traditions, and the church is to preserve the right ones.

    All this to say… I’m more than a little uncomfortable saying Holy Scripture is the primary source I should draw my theology from, above right church tradition, when I know a primary reason I even have Scripture is the early right church traditions. Doesn’t it make more sense to embrace and value those early church traditions right along with Holy Scripture? To say Scripture is primary is, to me, like saying the chicken is secondary to the egg it gave to me

    That being said, I do love the line, “Theology entails more than merely acquiring information about God; it entails affection for God and submission to God.” That is so essential, and I’m encouraged to see that is where you place the most emphasis.

  8. Bruce Ashford   •     Author


    Thank you for your comments, especially your first sentence. Ours is an Easter faith in a risen Lord! Your Orthodox) tradition has been foremost in recognizing that fact.

    You noted my Heb 1:1-2 reference, which speaks of God revealing himself to the apostles, the prophets, and through Christ himself. Implicit in this verse is the fact that our access to God’s words to the prophets and apostles, and through the Word himself, now comes through Scripture. In 2 Tim 3:10-17, Paul tells us that Scripture theo-pneustos (God-breathed). This word couplet is a hapax legomena, a word that Paul invented as he sought to establish biblical authority.

    You are right to note that many people throughout history did not have access to the written Word. (The Orthodox church, in particular, developed a master pedagogy for oral learners). I’ll also note that many believers today do not have access to the written word, often because they also are oral learners. For this reason, we pass on to them the teachings of Holy Scripture, and do so orally and by other means.

    You mention that you are uncomfortable saying that Scripture is the primary source for your theology, and that the only reason we have Scripture is that it was handed to us by tradition. I’ll agree that the church protected and guarded the Scriptures and handed them to us, but I wont’ agree that this means that “tradition” (divorced from the revealed word) is on par with Scripture.

    Irenaeus called Scripture the foundation and pillar of our faith.

    Clement called it the first principle of instruction.

    Origen referred to the Bible as the starting point of theology.

    Cyril of Jerusalem rejected any tradition that did not have biblical support. He stated that the reason he relied on the Creed for his teaching is that it was a faithful summary of Scripture.

    Chrysostom urged his people to be theologians and to do so by obtaining their own copies of Scripture and ponder Scripture at home.

    Hilary of Poitiers refuted the Arian tradition based on biblical exegesis.

    Augustine said that Scripture is the highest pinnacle of divine authority.

    John Cassioan referred to the creed as the epitome of the biblical message, and that it was normative only because it adequately reflected Scripture.

    My favorite Orthodox theologian writing on this topic is John Behr, The Way to Nicaea. Its a three volume series…

    Jason, thank you for your thoughtful reflections.

  9. Jason   •  

    Bruce, Christ is in our midst! Thank you for your kindness and hospitality. I’ve read the Hebrews 1 passage many times. I don’t see “God’s word now comes through Scripture” implied anywhere therein. It says to me that God’s Word has come through the Son. This reminds me of how notoriously hard Scripture is to understand at so many points. This is evidenced by our disagreement on Hebrews 1, by the many divisions in Protestantism, and also by the holy Apostle Peter’s warning in 2 Peter 3:16 that Scripture can be twisted easily, that even Scripture can actually become incredibly destructive to the faith. I can testify that the Scriptures have certainly been used to destroy me at times.

    This is not to say twisted traditions can not also destroy us also. They can. I agree that “tradition” (divorced from the revealed word) is not on par with Scripture. However, the holy traditions married with the holy Scriptures are equal in authority to me. Scripture is called God-breathed, yes. However, much more than Scripture has been spoken into existence. The Spirit breathed onto us guides and directs. From the very beginning of Christianity, the holy traditions were not divorced from the holy Scriptures in likewise guiding the followers of the Way.

    I don’t mean to diminish the importance of Scripture. It is certainly the pillar of my faith, as you quoted Irenaeus saying, and my priests encourage me to read it at home. However, the church is also the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). Irenaeus himself also said in Against All Heresies, “… the import of the tradition [in the Churches] is one and the same… the preaching of the truth shines everywhere… For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?.. True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and… the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures…”

    May God’s peace guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus,


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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *