Theology for the Church: A New Focus

From Academics to Discipleship

Call me a nerd and I might just take it as a compliment. Of course I’ve been called far worse, but more often than not I actually think I am a nerd, and am quite okay with that label. I love to study, I can’t help it. Whether thinking about The Great Swamp Fight (1675), the Doctrine of Revelation, or the significance of The Dark Knight I am captured by studying the nuances and details. I love to read, analyze, write, and discuss everything…sometimes (often?) to the exhausting of my more than patient wife. But, in all my studying, here’s something particular that I’ve come to learn: an overly academic mind can be a detriment to the church. There has long been a trend in theological study to direct the discipline almost exclusively towards academia. Theology, however, must be done for the church, and that requires a slightly different approach.

It’s not, of course, that I am against academia. I both received my education from and now work in advanced academia. And there is a proper place for studying the nuances of Karl Barth’s contribution to the doctrine of revelation, or the spirituality of the Cappadocian church fathers, etc. But this is not what the average church member needs. They do need theological education mind you (Brad Waggoner demonstrated this well in his book The Shape of Faith To Come), but they do not need all these nuances and varieties. They do not need to know about all the meticulous theological debates. Furthermore, and more pointed for my post today, they do not need to be taught that theology is a list of propositions to be believed and defended. For many an average Christian theology is the stuff of academia, not because it merely deals with controversies among theologians, but rather because it seems to have so little bearing on their day-to-day lives. What I propose, then, is that the church needs a shift if the focus of theological education at the local church level, and a shift in methodology.

I received a great theological education from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I value that education and see the real importance of pastors going through formal academia to better prepare themselves for leading the church. Learn Greek and Hebrew, pastors, so you can properly interpret the text. Learn Systematic Theology and church history so you can understand the big themes of Scripture and the essential doctrines of our heritage, both for resisting the errors of the present and for going deeper into your understanding of God’s character and work in Scripture and life. I believe some level of formal training serves the church well, but it is not for everyone! Nor do I believe that were everyone to go through such training that it ultimately would better our churches. Professional theologians, because it is their job, can nitpick over the details and esoteric matters of theology, but I don’t know how the infralapsarian versus supralapsarian debate could help the church. I don’t see the direct application of dissecting eschatological views, the authorship of Hebrews, or the validity of theistic evolution for the single mom trying to keep her faith afloat. It’s not that these things are meaningless or of no value, it’s just that in terms of theologically educating the church we need to focus on application, practical theology, and not on academic discussions. Theology is not the language of the ivory tower solely! It is the language of the car mechanic, the foster child, the local insurance claims adjuster. We, as leaders in the church, must bring theology home to them.

This shift in focus, then, requires us to spend more time drawing connections between key doctrines and real life. It requires less time discussing the historical evolution of the doctrine, the Greek and Latin terminology behind it, and the slew of books which debate it. We need to spend more time showing our congregation how the atonement applies to their fractured relationships (see Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Death By Love); or how the doctrine of God helps me when I am battling depression (see John Piper, When I Don’t Desire God). I truly love John Frame’s discussions of how true theology must be practical. “Meaning is application” he says. So until we are able to do something with the theological knowledge we receive we have not truly understood it. In many ways I fear that the church has not helped people to understand the Scriptures and the God of them because they have not sought to help them apply theology.

In a lot of settings churches are great at dispensing knowledge, but not so great at helping people live out what they learn. This is why a book like David Platt’s Radical is so earth shaking and sky-rocketed to the top of the charts when it first came out. It was directly applicable and so controversial to our “understanding.” The church must do more than dispense academics. We must do theological education that is practical. Discipleship is not the same as being able to restate the arguments of the Council of Nicaea, it is living like Jesus for His glory. This requires more practical theological education. To better help us in teaching this way I want to prose, next, a methodological shift.

For more on this check out the audio from Joe Thorn’s lecture: How Theology Can Kill Your Church Portions of the lecture touch on the very point I am making here.

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