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A biblical theology is a practical theology

Posted by on Jul 20, 2009 in biblical theology, blog links, discipleship | 7 comments

There is a very interesting and very important discussion occurring in a couple of blogs. It was started by Jeff (at “The Practicing Church“) in his post called “Practicology.” After reviewing the many “-ologies” which various groups espouse or emphasize, Jeff makes the following statement:

Truth is, I’m not as impressed by how much someone knows about the Bible as I am whether someone is living out what they know.

Jeff concludes with this statement:

So if there’s an ‘-ology’ I’d coin to describe all this – I’d want it to be ‘practicology’ – the study of putting our faith into practice. A faith that works itself out in life.

Laura (at “Who in the World Are We?“) continues Jeff’s discussion in her own post called “Practicclesiology” which is focused primarily on a practical ecclesiology – a practical understanding of the church.

Laura describes the theory of ecclesiology like this:

The theory of ecclesiology consists of the rich, deep biblical truths, describing our safe identity and position in Christ as persons and community. Properly understood, these truths help us, persons and community, to live ordinary lives of risky creative participation in the world for the sake of Christ.

Next, she defines the practice of ecclesiology like this:

The practice of ecclesiology consists of the extensive and intensive influence of a church, grounded in proper understanding. A properly functioning church (persons and community) moves into the world in Christ and by the Spirit, applying a rich diversity of skills to live boldly in the world while pointing to Christ.

Finally, she combines the two into practicclesiology (a term she coined):

In sum, practicclesiology is a manner of life together that understands and lives out deep connection to Christ and one another in order to dream and risk the seemingly impossible.

In reality, it is impossible to have a biblical theology that is not practical. A biblical theology is a practical theology.

Now, I understand why Jeff and Laura are concerned about the distinction between theoretical theology and practical theology. Discussions about this distinction and arguments as to which is more important have been going on for centuries and longer.

However, when we study Scripture, we find that it is impossible to separate our thinking about God (theoretical theology) from our life (practical theology). In fact, according to Scripture, the way we live demonstrates what we actually think about God more than what we say.

In 1 John, the apostle makes the bold statement that someone who does not demonstrate love to another person does not love God, regardless of what that person may say (1 John 3:17; 4:20). James writes something similar about faith – faith that does not demonstrate itself in our lives is not faith at all (James 2:14-26). Paul follows his most theoretical argument (Romans 1-11), with an exhortation to live in accordance with this understanding (Romans 12-16). As followers of Jesus Christ, an understanding of God that does not demonstrate itself in the way we live is not a biblical theology.

How does this work with the church?

People discuss and argue about many aspects of ecclesiology. For example, many argue about whether the Lord’s Supper (Communion) should be for local church members only (closed communion) or for any believer (open communion). Someone once tried to convince me of closed communion by arguing that we should only share the fellowship of the cup and the bread with those we know. However, as I pointed out, he cannot know all the thousands of people that he meets with every Sunday. His theoretical argument for “closed communion” was nullified by his own practice.

There are positive implications of our practical theology, and practical ecclesiology in particular. For example, last Sunday we were talking about times in our lives when we grow indifferent to God.  One brother said, “This is one of the reasons that I love this church, and one of the reasons that I hate this church. I know that when we meet together, someone is going to ask me about my life and my relationship with God. This is exactly what I need, but its not always what I want, especially when I’m feeling indifferent toward God.” He’s learned that our ecclesiology is not simply theoretical… we don’t just talk about fellowship and discipleship and the “one anothers”. Instead, we try to live these things. Our ecclesiology is very practical.

In fact, besides this blog (and times when I meet with people who contacted me because of this blog), I rarely talk about “ecclesiology.” It is more important to live our ecclesiology (or any theology) than to talk about our ecclesiology (or any theology).

Someone who does not offer grace and forgiveness to others does not understand the grace of God regardless of what they say or teach about God’s grace. A person who does not accept others as they are does not understand how God has accepted us in Christ, regardless of what they say about salvation by grace and not by works. Someone who does not share his or her life with other brothers and sisters in Christ in intimate fellowship and community does not understand discipleship, regardless of what they profess about the importance of the Great Commission. Our theology is demonstrated in the way we live our lives, not in what we say or write.

This distinction between theoretical theology and practical theology is a false distinction as far as Scripture is concerned. According to Scripture, it is impossible to know God (theology) without it affecting your life (practice). So, a biblical theology is a practical theology. A theoretical theology that does not affect a person’s life is not a biblical theology.


7 Comments

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  1. 7-20-2009

    “In reality, it is impossible to have a biblical theology that is not practical. A biblical theology is a practical theology…This distinction between theoretical theology and practical theology is a false distinction as far as Scripture is concerned. According to Scripture, it is impossible to know God (theology) without it affecting your life (practice). So, a biblical theology is a practical theology. A theoretical theology that does not affect a person’s life is not a biblical theology.”

    Agreed! In writing about practicclesiology, I, like the apostle Paul, speak as a fool, for knowledge of God, to be true knowledge, is always lived out.

    Behind my description of this false distinction is the observation that too many churches live a false ecclesiology. It is my hope that a bit of dissection–forcing a distinction between theory and practice–may shine the light of truth on a false practice that flows from a false theology.

    Like you, I rarely speak of ecclesiology (or any other -ology) in my daily life with fellow believers, for ecclesiology, like all the other -ologies of theology, is best lived.

  2. 7-20-2009

    Alan,

    You said,”Our theology is demonstrated in the way we live our lives, not in what we say or write.”

    I would add,”That’s real worship! A life which not only gives lip service to God’s majesty, glory and worth, but which reveals in practical outworking that is true. Being SEEN to be what we SAY we are.”

  3. 7-20-2009

    Laurea wrote “Behind my description of this false distinction is the observation that too many churches live a false ecclesiology.” I am not sure if theology and practice is a false distinction. Surely the theology that does not include a call to practice is going to be impotent for the Christian and the cause of Christ, but that does not mean we can equate theology with practice. They are different disciplines that each need to be pursued by the believer. The false distinction that I see is the want to short circuit our study in order to get to practice. I surely don’t want this in my medical doctor. I don’t want this in those who lead and serve (which should be all according to their gifts) in the church either.
    Let me start with the grammar problem that has been created here. An “ology” is a field of study, not a field of practice, according to the English language convention of that suffix. A practicology would be the field of study about practice, but not the practice itself. It would be like saying that a football player is involved in footballology instead of saying that he is playing football. The player needs to learn his footballology in order to be an effective football player and he needs to actually play the game in order to be a football player. One does not supersede the other.
    The Apostle Paul put it this way “totally give your life and practice to God’s service and do not be molded to the practice of this world. Instead be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Paul doesn’t say “just change your life and don’t worry about study or learning.” The renewing of your mind is essential to the life of God’s service. One is not more important than the other. Our culture is so fixed on the quick action and quick fix that study seems un-holy. One of the problems we have with our ecclesiology is that Churches are not understanding what has been taught about the church, but want to jump into action and be busy. “Martha, Martha, why are you so distracted…your sister has chosen the better way.” Churches need and need to teach a better hermeneutic so that the people understand why they need to act and not be spectators. The mule pushing the cart is not very effective.
    btw – love the discussion. thanks for allowing me to indulge.

  4. 7-20-2009

    Thanks for adding to the discussion, Alan!

    Several points I want to make here, some of which are fairly trivial and just for the point of clarity, and some which I think are important to the discussion…first, the unimportant…

    1. It needs to be said as a disclaimer that I wrote the “Practicology” article as a bi-weekly contributor to Communitas Collective, and excerpted on my on blog, href=”http:jmcq.blogspot.com”>Losing My Religion (there on your sidebar–yes, it’s me. Hi, Alan!). :) Your wording suggested to me that I am affiliated with “The Practicing Church” website, when in fact I am not, and can’t speak for them at all. This article was reposted there with permission.
    2. I actually coined both terms, “practicology” and “practicclesiology”, both as a result of my tongue being in my cheek. Laura credits me for both in her article…and btw, I claim 25 cents royalty per use. So that’ll be $1.25. And James owes me a quarter. (See? Tongue in my cheek again. Gotta do something about that…)

    Now for the more important…

    3. I’m actually a bit concerned that people are starting to take these terms a little too seriously. “Practicology” was never intended to be a literal term, nor was “practicclesiology”. Both are parodies to make a point…not for scholars and theologians to analyze and prove whether they are or are not legitimate terms. Taking it that far risks missing the point entirely–or even worse, *proving* my point. They aren’t real words; have a sense of humor, people!

    4. As to the content of the discussion itself…I think Alan is correct in his assessment overall, and Laura agreed. The difference between theory and practice is primarily a result of our way of thinking (patterned after Greek dualism). It’s very easy for people to learn a lot *about* God and the Bible, and discuss it fluently, as long as nothing is actually required of them. What Alan has put forth–that theory and practice are intertwined–follows *belief* more than actual knowledge. The Biblical (and Hebraic) view is that belief translates to action. In other words, if you don’t live it, you never really believed it. So I think we differentiate between theoretical and practical because that’s how lots of folks think; but at some point they need to be connected. So I think this is a very good point.

    Finally, back to the not-so-important…

    5. I find it amusing and ironic that I began the article poking a bit of fun at all the -ologies, -isms, and -eutics thrown around by scholars…and gauging from the discussions, it has caused these words to be thrown around all the more. It seems we just added a couple of -ologies to the arsenal. :D

  5. 7-20-2009

    Laura,

    I agree. The church has become a source for education, but not an example of transformation in too many instances.

    Aussie John,

    Yes, that’s real worship. Its exactly what Paul was writing about in Romans 12:1-2, as James mentioned in the comment following yours.

    James,

    There are certainly valid academic reasons to study various theoretical aspects of theology, ecclesiology, etc. But I don’t think we should confuse those with discipleship. Education is not the same thing as discipleship. You paraphrased Paul as saying, “The renewing of your mind is essential to the life of God’s service.” I agree. But notice that the “renewed mind” leads to a life of service. The renewed mind never ends with the mind alone. Thus, I still maintain that for a follower of Jesus, the distinction between knowing God and living a life that demonstrates that knowledge is a false distinction – you can’t have one without the other. (And, yes, it would be wrong to say that you can live a life that honors God without knowing God as well.)

    Jeff,

    Thanks for kicking off this discussion, and thanks for pointing us to your original article. You said, “In other words, if you don’t live it, you never really believed it.” Yes, I agree that is the Scripture view of discipleship and following Jesus.

    -Alan

  6. 7-20-2009

    James, you said: “Surely the theology that does not include a call to practice is going to be impotent for the Christian and the cause of Christ, but that does not mean we can equate theology with practice. They are different disciplines that each need to be pursued by the believer. The false distinction that I see is the want to short circuit our study in order to get to practice.”

    I agree wholeheartedly. After a good night’s sleep and some morning pondering, I have changed my thinking here: the distinction is not a false one. Rather a false separation is at issue. The theoretical side of theology, as you have correctly noted, is critical to the mental transformation needed for a live that continues to more adequately reflect Jesus. Both theory and practice are inadequate when standing alone.

    Jeff, you said: “In other words, if you don’t live it, you never really believed it. So I think we differentiate between theoretical and practical because that’s how lots of folks think; but at some point they need to be connected.”

    Not only is that how most folks think, but I think the distinction is needed to shine corrective light on inadequacies in either. We must guard against the separation that is all too easy to do, whether tending toward theory or practice. However, reflective practice requires that we look carefully at both.

    and: “It seems we just added a couple of -ologies to the arsenal.”
    :-)

    Alan, I join Jeff in thanking you for adding to the dialogue.

  7. 7-20-2009

    Laura,

    I like the concept of a “false separation” as opposed to a “false distinction”. False separation indicates that true theology and true practice co-exist, and that without one, the other is not complete… much like two sides of a coin.

    -Alan

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