Practicable Theology

A seminary friend and I have recently been lamenting the current state of theological education. As Paul David Tripp notes in Dangerous Calling (which I am currently reading but should have been required in seminary), the seminary has gone much the way of the university and the rest of the academy: discrete specializations all fighting for academic (and thus financial) priority. That means every professor must advertise her/his field as the most important, and that means producing increasing levels of scholarship (significant or trivial) to support that claim, and that means teaching becomes secondary, and that means bad things happen.

For my own life, it’s had both immediate and long-term repercussions. While I abandoned the thoughts of doctoral work in biblical studies coming down a mountainside in South Korea, the current trends in the field make me confident in that decision. Instead of seeking biblical truths to convey to future preachers — something now relegated to the once-defunct field of biblical theology — biblical scholars are more focused on inscriptions, dissecting tiny portions of manuscripts, and searching for anything that might subvert longstanding beliefs (note, for example, the alacrity with which the field adopted its “New Perspective on Paul”). None of those things has any bearing whatsoever on the life of the people in Pewville, as a favorite mentor likes to say. They aren’t concerned about possible textual variants in a single verse in Jude across the manuscript tradition. They’re concerned with what that verse might mean for their marriage, their salvation, their children. Quite a disconnect from the academy at present.

It seems every seminary or similar institution has a department or school of “practical theology.” It usually houses things like counseling, family studies, preaching, worship, and Christian education — you know, all those places where the theological rubber meets the ministerial road, so to speak. If you want to know what to preach, study systematic theology; if you want to know how to preach, study practical theology.

I think it’s a false dichotomy, one artificially imposed by an overly-specialized academy. You can’t do ministry without knowing the God who calls and commissions you; if you truly know that God, spent years learning about Him, you’ll have no choice but to engage in ministry in some fashion. God is both the substance and the power of preaching, for a sermon is the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit. If either element is missing, word or power, logos or pneuma, then it isn’t a sermon — and it isn’t preaching.

As the sermon, so every other act of Christian worship. All worship, whether song, sacrament, or sermon, requires a soul attuned to the Spirit of God enabled by a theological vocabulary to engage with the Divine. (We cannot praise Jesus if we do not know his name, after all.) For this reason, many authors are once again reminding us of two core truths: orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy, and theology must result in doxology. If our beliefs about God are right (orthodoxy), then we will do the right things based on those beliefs (orthopraxy). What forms the basis of orthopraxy, those right actions? Doxology, praise of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our beliefs, our paradigms, our knowledge — in short, our theology — must bring us to our knees at the foot of the cross. If it does not, it is a useless mind game and nothing more.

This is why all theology must be practical. Every ounce of the finest scholarship we can muster should be used by that body of believers at worship, the Church. If it cannot be put into practice in some fashion, explicitly or implicitly, it is at best a distraction and at work a useless egotism. That’s why I advocate for “practicable theology,” theology put into use by a local congregation seeking to praise an Almighty God. We can know words about God without knowing the Word of God, and that is a grand temptation and greater tragedy for all those who inhabit academia.

We cannot let our church members fall into the same trap. We, as shepherds of the flock, must give them a practicable theology which matters in their daily lives, a theology that enables them to walk in worship, to become living sacrifices offered to our Holy God.


F.A.Q.: God of the Gaps

The universe is filled with questions we haven’t answered. Some of these are mundane; others, less so. Some are matters of opinion without an objective answer. Some are disagreements over facts. Just for a sample, here are the top five unanswered questions I’ve been pondering as of late:

  1. Theodicy and the evolution of the role of Satan in evil
  2. If environmental conditions in infancy contribute to someone being a morning person or a night owl
  3. At what point in the conception/separation of the embryos of identical siblings (twins, triplets, etc.) their individual souls are embodied, because if souls are “given” at the moment of conception, that creates problems with the correlation of body and soul (I also have questions about conjoined twins)
  4. The significance of the overlap in apologetics for various monotheistic religions (specifically, “Why does the argument for the existence of my God not work for the existence of your god?”)
  5. Why does my office phone ring every time — and some days exclusively — when I leave to use the restroom?

I’m calling those “unanswered,” not “unanswerable,” for a reason. Some of those may have answers we just haven’t found yet. (If you know one of those answers — especially the last one — please let me know.)

Of course, everyone has his or her own list of unanswered questions. Some of them we’re tempted to answer like we’re in Sunday school: “Why X?” “Jesus.” And for some of those, that’s probably the only correct response. Other times, however, God becomes a cop-out response to things we don’t know. This is what we call “the God of the gaps.” There’s a gap in human knowledge, so we insert God as the answer and then use it as proof of His existence. This is what happens frequently when you hear someone say, “Only God could do that!” about a perfectly scientific question.

Let me give you an example. A rather (in)famous conservative talk show host once declared the tides could not be explained; high and low tides occurred simply because God personally made the waters move. Of course, any schoolchild can tell you tidal forces arise because of the gravitational influence of the moon (and, to a lesser extent, the sun). God isn’t needed to directly interfere with ocean levels — but He was invoked to fill a gap in knowledge. Many of these gaps seem to center on the human origins debate, but there’s another gap at the forefront these days: cosmogony, the origin of the universe.

I watched a debate last year (obligatory New Year’s reference) between a Christian apologist/philosopher of science and an atheistic cosmologist. The scientist argued either the universe is eternal without a cause or that work on quantum gravity shows something really can come from nothing and thus the universe spontaneously arose from that nothingness. Either way, he said, there was no reason to say God had to create/cause the universe; that particular gap — the origin of everything — had been filled. And without that gap, he had no use for the God of his Christian debate opponent.

There are many things wrong about a God of the gaps. First of all, there will always be fewer gaps today than there were yesterday. Human knowledge is ever expanding; we learn new things every day. Eventually we may run out of those scientific gaps; where will God live then? What will be His purpose, His power? That leads to a second thing: if God is not God in our knowledge, then He cannot be in our ignorance. There is more to the Almighty than being an acceptable way to say “I don’t know.” If the whole point of God is to explain the inexplicable, where is salvation? The cross? The resurrection? God is not your cop-out answer; He is the Redeemer of the universe. That means there is always a role for God, always a reason and necessity for His existence, no matter how many or how few gaps there are in our knowledge.

Jesus isn’t an encyclopedia. He’s the lover of your soul.

I understand the Christian temptation to plug God into the gaps, but we needn’t and we shouldn’t. What we know, not what we don’t, is enough to prove His existence. And unless we leave those gaps open to inquiry and discovery, we will stifle the growth of human knowledge. God gave us minds with the capacity and the desire to understand His creation; I suggest we use them. After all, all truth is God’s truth, and we learn about Him as we learn about the universe.

Ask unanswered questions. Seek answers. Share them with the world. Glorify God in the process.