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.