Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (5): Theology Has Everything To Do with Reason, Culture, Experience, and Tradition.

This blog series is based upon the conviction that God can be known. But this conviction raises the question: If we believe that God can be known in a true, trustworthy, and sufficient manner (albeit not comprehensively or univocally), where do we look for such knowledge and how do we speak in such a manner? Upon what sources does a theologian draw when looking for raw material about God? And if there is more than one source for such material, how do we order the sources in priority? “Judgements about sources,” John Webster writes, “go hand-in-hand with acceptance of norms, that is, criteria by which decisions may be reached about which sources furnish the most authentic, reliable, and persuasive Christian teaching.”[1] This post argues that we look first and foremost to Scripture, but always also draw upon reason, experience, culture, and tradition.


As we will note repeatedly throughout this series, faithful Christian theology is built on Christian Scripture as the primary source for theology and the norm above all norms. If Scripture is indeed the very breath of God (2 Tim 3:16-17), and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, we would denigrate Scripture only at the expense of losing theology’s goal altogether. We reject any view of theology that explicitly or implicitly allows tradition (Roman Catholicism), experience (Liberalism), reason (Modernism), or culture (Postmodernism) to subvert the authority and primacy of Scripture. However, our recognition of Scripture’s primacy does not somehow deny the significance of tradition, experience, reason, or culture, each of which is essential to the task of theology.


Most theologians agree that reason plays a significant role in the task of theology. However, exactly what type of role is up for debate. David Clark clarifies three senses in which we employ a concept of “reason.”[2] First, one can speak of reason in the sense of autonomous reason, reason which insists on living independently of God. Gerhard von Rad describes this type of reason: “Man has taken leave of the relation of dependence. He has refused to obey and has willed to make himself independent. No longer is obedience the guiding principle of his life, but his autonomous knowledge and will.”[3] Second, one can speak of reason as the totality of our knowledge capacities. In this use, reason denotes the ability to think about anything at all. Third, one can speak of reason in order to denote one facet of our knowledge capacities, the aspect which we use to make valid arguments. Of the three senses of reason, we reject only the first, autonomous reason, because this type of reason subverts sound theology in its attempt to be independent of God (thus subverting God). The second two senses, however, we affirm, as theologians certainly must rely on their God-given rational faculties in order to reflect upon God’s self-revelation in a disciplined manner.


Theology is necessarily conceived in a cultural context and articulated in cultural forms. Indeed, one’s culture provides the language, conceptual categories, media, artifacts, and environment in which theology is done.[4] In fact, God’s act of creation explains the God-givenness of culture. God created his imagers to interact with his good creation, tilling the soil, naming the animals, and otherwise practicing loving dominion over his good creation. The result of such interaction is human culture. The theologian cannot escape his cultural context, nor should he want to. Instead, the theologian works hard to properly leverage his cultural context for the task of theology. Proper leverage flows from lashing one’s theology to the Scriptures, conceptualizing and expressing it in appropriate cultural forms (language, conceptual categories, etc.), and continually bringing the results back to Scripture for correction in light of its transcultural authority.[5] Further, culture directly affects the theologian’s use of other sources of theology, in that it affects one’s manner of reasoning and it provides the linguistic categories within which one conceives and articulates one’s experience.[6]


In a broad sense, one’s “experience” is anything that arises in one’s life journey. In a more focused and theological sense, “experience” refers to our subjective feelings and emotions. In both senses, experience plays an inescapable role for the Christian theologian. In the broader sense mentioned above, our journey in life is what prepares us to understand the words of Scripture. Scripture teaches us about God, and does so analogically. It draws upon our experience of fatherhood, to teach us about God the Father; it draws upon our experience of love to teach us that God is love; and so forth. In order to understand God, one must be situated in experiential reality. Likewise, in the more focused sense mentioned above, our feelings and emotions can be helpful. They can be an impetus for the theological task in that our feelings and emotions lead us to ask questions of the Scriptures, to vigorously pursue the mind of God (e.g. the Lament Psalms, such as Ps. 42; 69). They also can be a result of the theological task in that Scripture, and its attendant evangelical doctrine, calls forth wonder, delight, fear, and other emotions.[7] In fact, as Alister McGrath and others have noted, “Christian doctrine provides the framework within which we interpret our own experience, thereby nuancing, enriching, and deepening our experience.”[8]


Christian theology is always and necessarily written in historical context. In particular it is written in the context of church history and the historical development of Christian theology. Christian tradition provides the context for, and is a source of, theology. But how so? Three theories vie for acceptance. First, the Catholic Church has recognized a dual-source theory of tradition, in which, “‘tradition’ was understood to be a separate and distinct source of revelation, in addition to Scripture. Scripture, it was argued, was silent on a number of points, but God had providentially arranged for a second source of revelation to supplement this deficiency: a stream of unwritten tradition.”[9] Second, some Anabaptists evidenced a rejection of tradition, arguing that we have the right to interpret Scripture however we please under the guidance of the Spirit. For example, Sebastian Franck rejected the Trinity and the divinity of Christ because he thought (through his private interpretation) they rested on inadequate biblical foundations.[10] Third, this chapter recognizes a single-source theory of tradition. Along with many Patristic and Reformation era theologians, we suggest that “theology is based on Scripture, and ‘tradition’ refers to a ‘traditional way of interpreting Scripture’.”[11] The early church fathers referred to the “rule of faith,” in which they recognized that there is a proper order and connection to the biblical narrative, and if this order and connection is ignored, one will misread texts of Scripture and misconstrue Christian doctrine. The rule of faith, therefore, is a safeguard against misinterpretation and self-serving construals of the text.[12]


Christian Scripture is the primary source and supreme norm for Christian theology. Scripture, and Scripture alone, is inspired by God and profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). As the theologian interprets Scripture, he seeks illumination from the Christian tradition and uses his God-given rational faculties and experience in order to appropriately conceptualize and articulate an evangelical theology within a particular cultural context.

[1] John Webster, “Introduction: Systematic Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook for Theology (Oxford: Oxford University, 2007), 2.

[2] Clark, To Know and Love God, 299-301.

[3] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1973), 78.

[4] Kevin Vanhoozer, in line with his conception of doctrine as drama, puts it this way: “Culture sets the stage, arranges the scenery, and provides the props that supply the setting for theology’s work.” Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 129.

[5] For further reading on this process of contextualization, see Bruce Riley Ashford, “Gospel and Culture,” in Bruce Riley Ashford, ed., Theology and Practice of Mission: God, the Church, and the Nations (Nashville: B&H, 2011), 109-127.

[6] Regarding the relation of culture and reason, we note that one must distinguish between substantive and formal rationality. Formal rationality is built upon basic laws of logic which are transcultural, but substantive rationality is always rooted in a tradition. Substantive reason always operates within a worldview, and worldviews are always religiously oriented. Regarding culture and experience, we note that culture provides categories by which we experience our “experience.” At the heart of culture is language, and one’s linguistic apparatus directly and pervasively affects one’s ability to conceptualize and articulate one’s experience.

[7] This is Karl Barth’s point in his treatment of the theologian’s feelings of wonder, concern, commitment, and faith in relation to the task of theology. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 63-105.

[8] Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 71.

[9] McGrath, Christian Theology, 139.

[10] McGrath, Christian Theology, 140.

[11] McGrath, Christian Theology, 138.

[12] See John Behr, Way to Nicaea, 17-48, for a helpful discussion of the rule of faith and its use by Irenaeus in arguing against the Gnostics.

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (4): Theology is Not Primarily for Professors or Preachers.

At one point in my life, I thought “theology” was for only for eccentric religious professionals who wore hounds-tooth jackets with elbow patches, smelled like papyrus, smoked hand carved pipes, sported Santa Claus beards, and talked a lot about topics such as Second Temple Judaism and revelational epistemology. In other words, I thought they were weird. I thought it would be fun to stick a theologian in a room of normal people and play the game “Which one of these is not like the others?” (It would have been an easy game. In a room full of normal people, as I saw it, a theologian sticks out like an Amish kid with a nose ring.) Or so I thought. After I had actually studied theology at Southeastern, and had met a good number of theologians, I realized that theology is something that all believers do, and it is something that is done for many different audiences. That’s the question this installment answers. For whom do we do theology? For the church? For unbelievers? For the academy? Former University of Chicago theologian David Tracy is known for arguing that theologians must find ways to interact compellingly with three distinct audiences: academy, church, and society.[1] This blog will “one-up” Tracy by arguing that theology must address at least five audiences: God, family, church, the academy, and society at large.

Theology for God:

First and foremost, theology is done for God. Just as God seeks to bring glory to his name and increase his own renown, so we must do all that we do to glorify him and make his name great.[2] The biblical testimony could not be more clear on this count. God created humanity for his glory (Is 43:7), sent his Son to vindicate his glory (Rom 3:23-26; 15:8-9), will one day fill the earth with the knowledge of his glory (Hab 2:14), so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10). In the present age, we are to do all things for his glory (1 Cor 10:31). “All things” includes the task of theology. For this reason, Barth writes, “Evangelical theology is concerned with Immanuel, God with us! Having this God for its object, it can be nothing else but the most thankful and happy science!”[3] As theologians, we have the great privilege of studying God’s Word and, in so doing, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8), delighting ourselves in the Lord (Ps 37:4), seeking him early in the morning (Ps 63:1), and savoring his words (Ps 119:103). There is nothing more wonderful than attending closely to what our Most Loved One is saying to us, and then speaking it back to him, and telling others what he has told us. Theology is done, first and foremost, for God.

Theology for the Family:

Second, theology is done in the presence of, and for the sake of, our families. Family is the most basically human of all our vocations, the one in which God’s gracious love and his providential care are most tangibly conveyed through human beings. Moreover, God instructs all believers to talk about him and his word consciously and continually within the home. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:4-9). We are called to know and love God in the midst of our families, teaching God’s Word to our families diligently throughout the day, in such a way that it functions as blinders on a horse, keeping our feet on the path of righteousness.[4]

Theology for the Church:

Third, theology is done for the church, universal and local (Eph 4:11-13). Just as the apostle Paul wrote theological epistles that benefited particular local congregations as well as the church as a whole down through the centuries, so we should do theology consciously with God’s church in mind. “Theology for the church” can be done in many ways, but we will mention three. First, the pastors of local congregations are the lead theologians for their churches. They should preach theologically, orchestrate their services theologically, and counsel theologically. Well-crafted sermons, services, or counseling sessions are examples of theology for the church. Second, a group of university and seminary professors could collaborate to write an integrative theology (such as the present volume) which takes as its primary audience the pastors, missionaries, counselors, and other ministers whom they teach. Third, a pastor, university, or seminary professor might set forth to write or teach in a manner which is technical and academic in nature. Even though this volume is written for scholars rather than for typical members of a given local congregation, it can (and should) still be done with an eye toward knowing and loving God, and building up his (universal) church as a whole.

Theology for the Academy:

Fourth, theology can be done within the academy and for the sake of the academy. Unfortunately, in the past century, Western universities have increasingly shied away from recognizing theology as a legitimate academic discipline. George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University and Stanley Hauerwas’ The State of the University speak to this situation in which Christian theology has been removed from the domain of “true scholarship” and in which Christian theologians struggle to be granted tenure.[5] We believe that this modern Western conception of theology is false. Christian theology is an eminently legitimate discipline. Theologians should do their scholarly work with excellence, constructively and critically engaging other scholars in theological studies, religious studies, comparative religions, and so forth. This task is not easy. “The dilemma for evangelical theology,” writes Clark, “is whether it can maintain intellectual integrity, as judged by the academic world, and still serve the needs of Christian believers…. This means that evangelical theologians want to do what many believe is impossible: both think critically and also recognize biblical authority.”[6] In fact, we would argue that the recognition of biblical authority should itself foster critical thinking. The rational, creative, and moral capacities necessary for intellectually rigorous theology are the very capacities through which the image of God shines. In other words, intellectual rigor is a part of spirituality (1 Pet 3:15).

Theology for Society:

Fifth, theology can be done for society at large. Theologians can do their work with an eye toward various publics, taking into account their questions and concerns, and communicating in a way we hope will be meaningful and compelling. C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer are examples of public theologians. Lewis was known for mediating Christian truth by means of radio talks, fiction literature, apologetics, and even debates. Schaeffer did theology in public by means of speeches, videography, and popular level books; he addressed existential and ethical issues which were immediately relevant to society as a whole, and used those issues to invite people to consider Christian truth. The point here is that the Christian faith is not something to sit back and stare at, but something to lean forward and look through. The Scriptures are like a pair of spectacles through which we view the world. The Christian theologian is uniquely positioned to speak truth about issues of interest to any person in any walk of life.

Theology with Faithfulness and Excellence:

For whichever audience a theologian intends to teach, preach, or write, it is incumbent upon him to do his work faithfully in the hopes that he might be able to do his work with excellence. Excellence cannot always be achieved, though faithfulness can. A theologian can always do his work faithfully, by lashing his theology to Scripture, and doing so in order to know and love God, and participating in his mission in this world. To the extent that he is able, he will also draw upon theology’s various sources, integrate its various sub-disciplines, and remain in conversation with philosophy and other fields of learning. Most importantly, he will work hard to evoke from his students a curiosity and excitement about the things of God. For, to be a lazy teacher, preacher, or writer is a sin. Although George Steiner was not writing about theologians, his words are instructive: “To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. . . . Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, unconsciously or not, cynical in its mere utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by its roots. Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented.”[7] Theology is done for the purpose of knowing and loving God, and equipping his people to join his mission; therefore theologians work hard to teach, write, and preach with excellence, so they can be maximally meaningful and compelling.

[1] David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 3-46.

[2] John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998). James M. Hamilton, Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).

[3] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, 12.

[4] For a fine example of a theological text written to help parents teach biblical truth to their children, see Bruce Ware, Big Truths for Young Hearts: Teaching and Learning the Greatness of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009).

[5] George Marsden, The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University, 1998); Stanley Hauerwas, The State of the University (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).

[6] Clark, To Know and Love God, 200.

[7] George Steiner, Lessons of the Masters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 18.

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.