Essay / Education

Pastoral Theologians Part 2: A Practical Theology

At the core of the Christian faith is the belief that God did not rest content with using any effective means to save us from our sin, and creation from its ruin. Rather, God made himself the means of our salvation. The same one who brought us into existence brought us out of corruption and into relation with himself—but God did this precisely by means of himself. To put it briefly, God made himself a means. God made himself be effective. God made himself practical. And not just A means. He made himself THE exclusive means of creation’s well being.

God made himself practical. To study God and his ways simply is to study the God who made himself practical. To study theology in any other way than one which acknowledges God as means, is to worship God poorly, or worship a false God altogether. Doctrine must not be merely abstract, for God is not merely abstract. The practical God is known through doctrine that is equally practical. This is not to say that God is merely a means—for he freely made himself to be both our beginning and end, and the means to arriving at that end. So God is no mere tool; but the point stands: our God, the maker of heaven and earth, made himself to be a means, to be practical.

And this does not mean that doctrine is practical when it comes to the person and work of Jesus alone—for the person and work of Jesus has its meaning, content and direction only as the work of the Triune God—the eternal Son become man, sent by the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, the creator become creature to reclaim his creation, fulfilling his covenant with Israel by bringing in the Gentiles in the formation of the church, which awaits the second coming of its Lord. No part of doctrine is left out of the practicality of God, for it was the fullness of God that dwelt among us, and therefore the fullness of God that made itself practical.

Whether we are speaking of the divine processions, the filioque, creatio ex nihilo or the hypostatic union—these are the realities of God through which and by means of which he made himself practical for us and for our salvation. If some aspect of doctrine can be shown to be impractical for the life of the church altogether, and to bear no fruit whatsoever in the Christian life in its struggle against sin, then we can be confident it is a false doctrine, having no part in the God who made himself practical for us. To worship God properly is to worship God as the one who made himself a means.

Curricular Implications

Such reflections are not without curricular implications, but I will sketch these only briefly. Essentially, it means that faculty committed to this vision will be committed to covering less content in class. If we are to take time to explore the implications of different doctrines to such topics as divorce, adoption, sex-trafficking and passive-aggressive friends, we simply won’t be able to cover as much material.

And I am fine with that. My goal is not to impart content. My goal is to invite my students into life and craft of theology.

In other words, I am not trying to provide them with all the answers or information they need. That would be ridiculous. If I, in some 15 years of formal theological study, have not found all the information and answers I need, how would they in their short time as undergraduates? My goal is to invite them into a way of life, a way of thinking theologically, that will hopefully shape their decisions and patterns after they graduate—that will hopefully lead to their ongoing theological study (perhaps formally, but probably not).

Given that goal, information, while important, takes a definitively secondary role. The purpose of theological education is for me to share with my students a compelling vision of the theological life, through my own example and that of the sources we interact with. So of course this involves a great deal of content. But the most important thing I can share with my students is a sense of the wonder, meaning and significance of this content. And it is the last of these that claims our attention at the moment. My governing premise as a teacher is that my students will be far more likely to continue their theological studies (regardless of the career they pursue), if they have a sense of the significance of the work they are doing. And this significance works in two directions.

First, it funds worship. The better we know our God, the better we are able to praise him and delight in sharing this joyful calling with the angels. Second, it funds the Christian life. And this is what my students long to see. They long to see how doctrine informs the hurts and struggles in their own lives and that of their friends. If they can see that—if they can get a glimpse of theology in all its splendor speaking to such painful experiences—they just might be sold on the life-long value of this work.

To do this, we will have to cover less content. But by covering less content, we stand a chance of converting more students to the theological calling of the Christian. And if we succeed, in the long run we will help them cover far more content as they heed the call heard by Augustine: tolle lege.

Career Implications

One further implication will suffice—and I will be brief. If we become committed to the task of weaving together doctrine and the Christian life, we must prepare to share the pain of our students. And this will require heart-ache, preparation, sacrifice, decreased publication output, and a host of other evils which in the long run pale in comparison to the joy of loving a student well. And to do this, we must be aware of our role within the church. I am no Messiah, I am no savior. I love my students as a member of the church, inviting and calling other members to play their role as well in the life of this student (and vice-versa). I am a part of the body of Christ, and therefore play a real but small role in the life of each student. Because my role is real, it is significant, and gives me great joy and energy. And because it is small, I avoid the pitfalls (I hope) of pride and its attending evils.

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