Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (11): Some Thoughts on Theology, Philosophy, and Science

Many of the most formative moments of my life occurred during college (waaaayyy back in the mid 90s). I had just recently truly embraced Christ and had begun to realize the moralism and self-righteousness that had blurred my spiritual and theological vision. During those years, I began to realize that, if the gospel is true, then it is relevant to absolutely every realm of thought. More to the point, I began to realize that it is relevant to disciplines such as philosophy and science, which have often been held up as the rational ideals and cultural authorities for any civilized person. In the first centuries of the church’s existence, philosophy held the position of “cultural authority” (for many people), while in the past several centuries, science has held that position (for many people). In fact, when Christians do theology publicly, the elephant in the room usually is “the sciences.” Perhaps no subject has been so sharply divisive over the past centuries. One thinks of Galileo’s persecution at the hands of the Catholic and Protestant churches, of the divisive nature of the Scopes monkey trials, and of the acrimony that sometimes exists today between theologians and scientists.

In light of the robust presence of philosophy and science in our cultural spaces, and in light of the contributions that have been made by philosophers and scientists, this installment (together with the next two installments) argues that theologians benefit from dialogue with philosophers, scientists, and those who work in other fields of learning. In such encounters, how should theologians view the fruits of philosophy, science, or some other discipline, especially if the practitioners with whom they interact are not believers and do not take into account the teaching of Christian Scripture?

Levels of Reflection:

Before tackling the notions of philosophy and science separately (in the next two blog installments), first we must provide a conceptual map relating those disciplines to Scripture, biblical theology, worldview, and systematic theology. Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen provide such a map.[1] In their view, Scripture is the inspired Word of God. Biblical theology is the study of Scripture which conceives of and articulates Scripture as a unified and coherent narrative which is the true story of the whole world. Worldview consists of the basic beliefs drawn from the biblical narrative, in interaction with a particular culture’s basic beliefs.[2] Systematic theology and Christian philosophy both arise from Scripture, biblical theology, and worldview. They, like worldview, are abstractions from the biblical story. Other disciplines (e.g. the arts, the sciences, business, economics) arise from Christian philosophy and systematic theology, drawing upon them as they study the particulars of their own creational reality.

The larger model, therefore, has five tiers:

Scripture (God’s Word written)

Biblical Theology (the story of the Bible)

Christian Worldview

Christian Philosophy & Systematic Theology

Other Disciplines

They further explain this model by means of an analogy, comparing knowledge with a tree.[3] In this analogy, the roots of the tree are “faith,” or the direction of the heart. All humans practice faith, either in God or in idols. The base of the trunk is biblical theology, providing the foundation and trajectory for the growth of the tree. The main body of the trunk is a Christian worldview, which in turn has two main branches, namely, systematic theology and Christian philosophy. Growing from those two main branches are further branches, which represent the special sciences, the various disciplines which each have their own creational integrity. In this view of things, Christian theology and Christian philosophy stand side-by-side in the search for truth. Neither discipline seeks to build its knowledge independent of God’s revelation. Both disciplines arise from the biblical narrative and its attendant Christian worldview, and therefore find themselves in a healthy and fruitful dialogue and partnership with one another.

[1] Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An Invitation to Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 26-28.

[2] Goheen and Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads, 27.

[3] Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, Liberating Christian Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, forthcoming 2012), chs. 1-2.

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.

Aspect 5(b): A Mission Driven by Biblical Theology (Christ, Spirit, Man)

(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

We believe theological and missiological method must be tethered to the doctrine of Christ. It is said that a Hindu once asked Dr. E. Stanley Jones, ‘What has Christianity to offer that our religion has not?’ He replied, ‘Jesus Christ.'” Indeed, Jesus Christ is central to Christian belief and practice, and he is the driving force in our missiology. He stands at the center of the universe, at the center of the Scriptures, and at the center of our missiology. It is part and parcel of the church’s mission to proclaim the Scriptures, which proclaim none other than Christ himself. Both the Old and New Testaments are Christocentric-Christ himself is the axis of the testaments, the linchpin of the canon. The purpose of the Scriptures is to present Christ (Luke 24:27). One implication of this doctrine is that our Bible teaching and preaching should be Christocentric. We should preach both the Old and New Testaments and should preach them both with Christ at the center. It is very possible to preach expository messages, verse by verse through the Bible, that are not, in any meaningful sense of the word, Christian. Instead of being distinctively Christian, our messages are often moralistic and legalistic, differing very little from the moral exhortations of a Jewish rabbi or Muslim mullah except that we attach an “appendix” about Christian salvation at the end of the message.[1]

The doctrine of the Holy Spirit also is not incidental to the church’s mission. In addition to the Spirit’s agency in teaching, convicting, illuminating, empowering, and restraining, the Spirit also gives gifts to each person (1 Cor 12:11) and enables believers to bear fruit (Gal 5:22-23). These gifts and fruit are most fully put on display in the harmony that is found among a community of believers. An implication of this truth is that church planting is often best done in teams, as the multiple members of a team use their spiritual gifts together, and bear fruit together one with another. The result is that those who are watching will see more clearly what Christ intends for his church. Another implication is that a new convert can immediately be considered a “new worker,” a part of the team, as he is surely already gifted by the Spirit and capable of bearing fruit. Immediately he can give testimony to Christ and edify fellow believers.

In the biblical doctrine of man, we learn that God created man in his image and likeness, so that man would worship and obey him. The creation narrative teaches us that Adam was in a rightly ordered relationship with God, with Eve, and with the rest of creation. At the Fall, however, Adam and Eve rebelled against their creator, setting themselves up as autonomous. In so doing, they became idolaters. We, Adam and Eve’s progeny, have rebelled against our creator, setting ourselves up as autonomous-we are serial idolaters, enemies of God, seeking goodness and happiness on our own, apart from him. Our relationship with others is broken-rather than loving our fellow man, we find our relationships marked by gossip, slander, abuse, rape, war, murder, and other symptoms of the Fall. Our relationship with the created order is broken-rather than unbroken harmony and interdependence, we experience pain, misery, and natural disaster. Our relationship with ourselves is broken-we are alienated even from ourselves as we use our capacities inappropriately (spiritual, moral, rational, relational, creative, etc.) to perpetuate our idolatry rather than to worship the living God. The effects of the Fall are profound and comprehensive, penetrating man at all levels of his being.

Upon recognition of the horror of the Fall and its effects upon man, we must plant churches that seek to glorify God and minister to man at all levels of his being. These churches will realize the deep and pervasive effects of the Fall on the human heart, and preach a deep and powerful gospel message that is the human heart’s only hope. They will use all of the God-given capacities they possess (moral, relational, rational, creative, etc.) to minister to fallen man. They will proclaim the gospel not only when the church is gathered (the church’s corporate worship) but when it is scattered (through vocation and through the various dimensions of human society and culture). They will seek to minister not only to the common man, but also to the educated, the affluent, and the powerful. And in doing these things, in proclaiming and modeling God’s gospel to His good world, they are glorifying him and enjoying him now and forever.

[1] This is Graeme Goldsworthy’s point in Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000). Goldsworthy observes that many pastors and lay people find it difficult to preach meaningfully, and Christianly, from the Old Testament. He applies biblical theology to the task of preaching Christ-centered sermons. Other helpful texts for preaching the OT canon are Bryan Chappell, Christ-Centered Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005) and Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004).