Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (3): Any Theology Separated from Scripture, Worship, Obedience and Mission is not Christian Theology at All.

Of the many reasons I love teaching at Southeastern (and hope to do so ad multos annos) is our President’s vision for the institution and for theological studies. He is determined to forge a path for our faculty and students whereby theology is riveted to the Christian Scriptures, but also to worship, obedience, and mission. In the first case, we must allow our theology to arise from God’s authoritative word, which testifies to his Son (the Word), rather than arising from human experience, contemporary culture, etc. In the second case, we must do theology in tandem with worship, obedience, and mission. In fact, every time, I roll out one of my theological speculations, his first question is whether or not it arises from worshipful obedience and issues forth in worshipful obedience. This way of doing theology is healthy, in my opinion, and it finds support in the apostles, the early church, and in the best of the Christian tradition, since that time.

In the last installment, we defined theology as “disciplined reflection on God’s self-revelation, for the purposes of knowing and loving God, and participating in his mission in this world.” In future installments, we will talk about the audience of theology, the tools of theology, and the relationship of theology to other disciplines such as theology and philosophy. But first, I want to take a moment to speak about the relationship of theology to the four concepts mentioned above: Scripture and its grand narrative, as well as worship, obedience, and mission.[1] First, theology arises out of the biblical narrative. The Bible is composed of sixty six books with multiple genres, and is written by numerous authors in a diversity of historical and cultural contexts. However, this diversity is part of a beautiful unity which can be seen in the Bible’s overarching story. This story begins with God’s creation and humanity’s rebellion, and then proceeds with God’s unfolding plan of redemption. The biblical narrative is the true story of the whole world. Furthermore, it is dramatic in nature, inviting us into the story so that the story will shape our lives. Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen write, “[The biblical narrative] functions as the authoritative Word of God for us when it becomes the one basic story through which we understand our own experience and thought, and the foundation upon which we base our decisions and our actions.”[2] Finally, this narrative is un-substitutable: it should not be discarded in favor of alliterated moralisms, philosophical syllogisms, devotional truisms, or any other substitute.

Second, theology arises from and issues forth in worship and obedience. On the one hand, theology arises from worship as we seek to understand, conceptualize, and articulate the God whom we cherish. Likewise, theology arises from obedience; if we want to know and love God more truly, will allow ourselves to be conformed to the image of Christ, in order that we will be able to see him and hear him more clearly. On the other hand, theology issues forth in worship and obedience. Michael Horton writes, “When the doctrine is understood in the context of its dramatic narrative, we find ourselves dumbfounded by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, surrendering to doxology (praise). Far from masters, we are mastered; instead of seizing the truth, we are seized by it, captivated by God’s gift, to which we can only say, ‘Amen!’ and ‘Praise the Lord’.”[3] Without close attention to the biblical narrative and its attendant evangelical doctrine, our worship and obedience are at best unfocused and at worst idolatrous. However, when we consciously submit to the biblical narrative and its teaching, the flame of our worship and obedience is fueled by the oxygen of Word and Spirit.

Third, theology arises from, and issues forth in mission. The early church is a prime example. On the one hand their theology arose in the midst of their God-given mission. Paul’s epistles, for example, were written as he proclaimed the gospel, planted churches, and suffered for the sake of his faith. But on the other hand, their robust and powerful theology caused their mission to flourish.[4] This mutually beneficial relationship arises from the fact that God’s Triune nature is the foundation of mission and his Triune life provides the pattern for mission.[5] God is missional, therefore theology is missional. Mission is based upon God, therefore mission is theological.[6] The biblical narrative, from which Christian theology arises, is nothing if not a missional narrative.[7] Any theology that purports to be Christian but does not arise from mission and issue forth in mission is not a truly Christian theology at all.

[1] This is similar to Michael Horton’s “drama, doctrine, doxology, and discipleship,” in Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 13-34.

[2] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 21.

[3] Horton, The Christian Faith, 22.

[4] See I. Howard Marshall, New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 34-37, 717-726. Marshall argues that mission is the core of the New Testament.

[5] For further reading on the Triune God as the foundation and pattern of mission, see Keith Whitfield, “The Triune God: The God of Mission,” in Theology and Practice of Mission, ed. Bruce Riley Ashford (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011), 17-34.

[6] This is a central thread in Christopher Wright’s grand treatment of mission as a hermeneutical key for the biblical narrative. Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006).

[7] For a brief exposition of the biblical narrative in relation to the concept of mission, see Bruce Riley Ashford, “The Story of Mission: The Grand Biblical Narrative,” in Theology and Practice of Mission, ed. Bruce Riley Ashford (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011), 6-16.

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  1. Benjamin   •  

    Doc, this is great stuff! Thanks for prescribing a method for theology that not only challenges our thinking, but deeply stirs our affections for Christ, and puts our hands to work as we take part in His Mission!

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