Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (9): On Practical Theology and Washing the Cat

A good theology is the most practical thing in the world. And while you might be thinking, “Nullo modo, man. Fors fortis. It can’t be true. I have difficulty imagining anything in the world that is less practical than a discussion of the Trinity or an exposition of the Incarnation,” I’m going to argue that good theology is deeply practical, and not just for professional ministry, but for absolutely everything we do in the world.

First, let’s note that theology is deeply practical. In Christianity, theology and practice are not bifurcated. The God who speaks is the God who acts, and we who listen are those who worship and obey in gratitude and joy. The Bible’s story is one in which God speaks and acts in our midst, narrating our lives and casting us in an unfolding drama. We grow into our identity by means of this dramatic narrative. Our theology arises from within the dramatic narrative, and the narrative sends us forth anew to participate in the drama.

Another way of putting this same point is that theology arises from and issues forth in ministry and mission. Theology arises in the midst of active ministry and in turn issues forth in renewed and vigorous ministry and mission. (The reason that this point might seem foreign is that many theologies have not been written in the midst of active ministry, and it is these theologies that give the discipline such a bad name.) This deep and rich interplay between theology and mission ensures that Christian theology is not an ivory tower exercise isolated from the church’s broader mission, and it ensures that our missional endeavors are shaped and formed by sound theology. There are a thousand ways to illustrate theology’s relevance to ministry and mission, (elsewhere, I’ve provided a few examples of this), but I will refrain from doing so now because of the scope of this blog.

Second, let’s go further and note that theology is relevant and practical for absolutely everything in life, and not just for personal devotions or for “professional” ministry. It matters for work and for leisure, for worship and for play, for the arts and the sciences, for business and education. There is not one millimeter of the fabric of human life that does not have the thread of theology running through it (as I will illustrate with an “Excursus on Washing the Cat,” at the end of this post). In order to make this point, I want to draw upon a Dutch theologian of yesteryear, Abraham Kuyper.

Kuyper provides some helpful insight in understanding how theology matters for absolutely everything.[1] T. M. Moore has well-summarized the theological underpinnings of Kuyper’s view in four points.[2] First, according to Scripture, there is a deep antithesis present in the world, a great struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, between Christ and Satan, between truth and error. This great struggle manifests itself in different ways in human history, and right now it manifests itself in the challenges posed by modernism, postmodernism, scientism, secularism, etc. Christians should resist this totalitarian assault on social, cultural, and political life. We should fight it tooth and nail, not only from the pulpit, but in the university, business, arts, sciences, politics, etc., and we should resist it in an openly and robustly Christian manner.

Second, according to Scripture, God’s Word brought forth the world from nothing, and then ordered that world. Because of this creation order, there is a corollary cultural order which Kuyper called sphere sovereignty. The various spheres (or, dimensions) of culture are ordered by God and they each have their own integrity (or sovereignty) and order, and were meant to function according to unique God-given principles. Moreover, these dimensions of culture (such as art, science, politics, and education) have been hijacked by the kingdom of darkness. We agree with Kuyper that Christians cannot take the liberal route and accommodate ourselves to the prevailing cultural winds but neither should we take the “fundamentalist” or “separatist” route and withdraw from those arenas.

Third, Kuyper rejected the sacred/secular dichotomy as an unbiblical dualism because it undercuts the absolute Lordship of Christ over all realms of creation. If Christ is the creator of everything, then he is Lord over everything. No piece of our (“secular”) life is to be sealed off from Christ’s lordship. Every square inch of it belongs to Christ and ought to be made to honor him. This is why the present blog series presupposes that missional Christians not only participate in speaking the gospel and participating in missions, but also view their work, their leisure, and their studies as a way of shedding light on the gospel and working out the implications of the gospel. Fourth, Kuyper believed in freedom of conscience. When Christians recognize the antithesis present in the various spheres of culture, they work to bring those spheres under the Lordship of Christ, but the tools they use to do so are reason and persuasion rather than coercion.

We believe that Kuyper’s insights are essentially correct, especially in light of the biblical testimony about Christ as the creator, orderer, and sustainer of the world. Paul writes of Christ, “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Col. 1:16-17 NKJV). As Lesslie Newbigin argued, this doctrine makes clear that Christ is not only the Lord over all reality, but the “clue” to understanding that same reality. “The strength of the liberal tradition is willingness to be open to new truth. And the gospel itself makes this liberal mind possible; for if we know that Jesus is indeed the Word made flesh, the visible and knowable presence in the midst of history from whom and for whom all things exist, then we shall meet new experiences of any kind of reality with the confidence that we are given the clue for their understanding. But if that clue itself is questioned or abandoned, then we become clueless playthings of the winds and waves of fashion, ‘blown about by every wind of doctrine.'”[3] Likewise, Kuyper argues that a person can come to a knowledge of all sorts of (pieces of) truth even without knowledge of God’s revelation in Christ, but that if that person is to understand the relation of the parts (the big picture), one must behold God’s revelation in Christ.[4]

If Christ is indeed the creator, orderer, and sustainer of the universe, and if he is therefore the clue to understanding reality, it follows that human research projects will be found deficient unless they are founded upon, framed, and given their trajectory by the basic beliefs embedded in the Christian narrative.

An Excursus on Washing the Cat

More than a few times, my audience has had a little fun with me, on exactly this point. After I finish saying that theology is relevant to absolutely everything in the world, I might expect a playfully disguised counterpoint. “Uhh, Dr. Ashford (giggle, giggle), what about, uh, like, washing my cat (more barely snuffled chuckles)? How can the Bible help me with that, cuz I need some tips on doing it right (complicit left-eye winks toward a classmate)?” First, let me admit that I appreciate this type of question, which helps to surface some deeper issues, even if it is clear to me that my student’s deep pain (in exposing the deficiency of my argument) is not unmixed with at least a small amount of pleasure.

Second, let me say that this objection leaves me happily undeterred. As I see it, biblical theology provides the most robust assistance for washing one’s cat. (One caveat: I’m not a fan of cats, and would prefer never to find myself washing one.) Biblical theology, with its attendant worldview, provides the basic building blocks with which I can understand “catness” and certain actions such as “washing.” Being concise to the extreme, I’ll unfold my theology of cat washing in the following points: (1) The doctrine of creation teaches me that cats are part of God’s good creation, and therefore they are not inherently evil. Therefore it is OK to like cats. (2) The doctrine of creation also teaches me that cats are not created in the image and likeness of God. Only humans are. Our great dignity is that we are created in God’s image, and our great humility is that we are not God. But the big point is that God has given humans a special uniqueness, and one should not wash one’s cat with more care than one washes, say, one’s baby. (3) The doctrine of the Kingdom teaches us that God’s good creation (including the non-human creation) is groaning and awaiting redemption (Rom 8:18-22) that will one day restore and renew his good cosmos (Rev 21 & 22). We have no reason to think that the renewed cosmos will be unpopulated by cats. (4) Therefore, based on these core teachings and many others, we resolve that it is acceptable to wash the cat, but that we should not worship the cat (classical paganism), consider the cat to be part of us and us of the cat (certain strains of pantheism), be mean to the cat (classical middle school boy-ism), or chase the cat (dog-ism). In other words, if something appears to you “catly,” be careful how you treat it.

An Integrative Theology

On a more serious note, the present post has argued that theology is deeply practical, and that theology and practice cannot and should not be bifurcated. To the extent that our theologies are divorced from ministry and mission, they are not truly Christian theologies. As we have noted in the past several installments, Christian theology is a multi-faceted and integrative discipline which integrates historical, biblical, philosophical, systematic, and practical aspects in order to achieve a unified, coherent, contextual, and compelling account of the Christian message.

[1] For the best primary sources, see Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (New York: Cosimo, 2007), and Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art (Grand Rapids: Christian’s Library, 2011). A helpful secondary source is Peter Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

[2] T. M. Moore, Culture Matters (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 98-102.

[3] Newbigin, Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 70.

[4] “Suppose that you had succeeded in attaining an adequate knowledge of all the parts of the cosmos, the product of these results would not yet give you the adequate knowledge of the whole. The whole is always something different from the combination of its parts. First because of the organic relation which holds the parts together; but much more because of the entirely new questions which the combination of the whole presents: questions as to the origin and end of the whole; questions as to the categories which govern the object in its reflection in your consciousness; questions as to absolute being, and as to what non-cosmos is. In order to answer these questions, you must subject the whole cosmos to yourself, your own self included; in order to do this in your consciousness you must step out from the cosmos, and you must have a starting-point . . . in the non-cosmos; and this is altogether impossible as long as sin confines you with your consciousness to the cosmos.” Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 113.

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