Four years ago, I wrote a post called “A biblical theology is a practical theology.” The post was inspired by several things: a couple of blog posts that I read at that time plus several years studying “biblical theology” in many different forms. There are many theoretical theologies around today – and there have been theoretical theologies around since time began. However, the “theology” that we read about in Scripture is not theoretical – it is extremely practical. And, in fact, even when we discuss theoretical theologies, our real theology is the theology that we live.
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.Â 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.
[T]he task of New Testament theology is not exhausted with statistics which produce lists of the teachings of Jesus and of his disciples. This kind of procedure would predictably lead to a historically distorted picture, a kind of compendium of abstract, timeless “doctrines” presented as the contents of a consciousness that was cut off from choices and actions. Jesus and his disciples, however, did not bear and transmit their ideas in this way. In order to observe rightly we must illumine the context which generated their thoughts and into which their thoughts immediately reentered as the basis of their work. To that extent the historian also has the task to explain, not just to report. He would lessen the grounded awareness provided by his subject if he did not also grasp the causal processes which make his subject visible. (Adolf Schlatter, The History of the Christ: The Foundation of New Testament Theology, translated by Andreas KÃ¶stenberger, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997, p 19)
The Christ-event to which the early Christian kerygma [proclamation; message] testifies is the decisive point of orientation from which the theological conception of the New Testament authors proceeds. The kerygma is not to be subordinated to the schema of a ‘biblical theology.’ The kerygma breaches the material unity of Old and New Testaments, since despite the continuity with Old Testament tradition, from the point of view both of literary history and theology the New Testament stands in a relation of discontinuity to the Old Testament. The kerygma is not the guarantee of the integrity of the biblical canon, since the material content it affirms not only stands in diastasis to the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament is interpreted in different ways. And the kerygma is not the self-evident presupposition of the unity of biblical and dogmatic theology. Rather, the New Testament kerygma assigns to dogmatic theology the task of investigating and developing the unity of theology in the past and the church’s present. (Georg Strecker, Theology of the New Testament, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000, pg. 8 )
However, biblical theology is just now coming to grips with the complexity and intentionality of the formation of the canon(s). This is illustrated by the questions and proposals raised concerning the tripartite Hebrew/OT canon and its significance for the doing of biblical theology in a world dominated by the Septuagint’s influence on the ordering of the Christian Bible. Does the Tanak in its final form exhibit an explicit, editorial canon consciousness that provides exegetical and theological clues to its meaning? Does the Hebrew canon help us solve the problem of the interrelationship among the Law, the Prophets and the Writings? In pursuing these questions, we must be clear regarding the historical reconstructions and exegetical methodology that we bring to bear in answering them, especially as they revolve around the so-called canonical seams and programmatic conclusions within the OT. (Scott J. Hafemann, Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002, pg. 18)
[T]he issue of the use of dogmatic [systematic] categories in the study of the Bible is far more complex than often assumed and touches on difficult philosophical and hermeneutical problems. Can one actually read a text meaningfully without some sort of conceptual framework? Indeed it has become obvious that much of the most profound and critical reflection on the Bible operated with various philosophical and theological categories, often as a vehicle for the critical, descriptive task (e.g. Schlatter). The great giants of biblical study from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (de Wette, Baur, Wellhausen, Bultmann, KÃ¤semann, von Rad) all worked within certain dogmatic and philosophical traditions.
In my judgment, the issue of the use of dogmatic categories for Biblical Theology calls for a careful reformulation. The often used cliche of ‘freedom from dogma’ seems now largely rhetorical. Nor can the categories of historical versus dogmatic be seen as intractable rivals. Rather, the issue turns on the quality of the dogmatic construal. It is undoubtedly true that in the history of the discipline traditional dogmatic rubrics have often stifled the close hearing of the biblical text, but it is equally true that exegesis done in conscious opposition to dogmatics can be equally stifling and superficial…
In sum, the use of dogmatic theological categories in the task of Biblical Theology touches on a basic problem of all interpretation and carries with it both the risk of obfuscation and the potential of genuine illumination. This balance between promise and threat cannot be adequately assessed by a general dismissal of all dogmatics, but must be tested in terms of adequate response to the continuing coercion of the biblical text itself. (Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993,12)
We must look at the New Testament and see what the teaching of the various writers means and whether or not the differences point to irreconcilable contradictions.
At this point, I am saying no more than that in modern congregations we sometimes find widely differing forms of expression used by people whose basic beliefs are much the same and that in the same way there may be a New Testament equivalent. There are outstanding thinkers and writers in the New Testament, but, however great their differences, we must be clear that they were members of the same community of faith; they did not emerge from some wilderness, barren of religious convictions. They were all shaped by their contact with Christ, but also to some extent by the community to which they belonged. What they wrote is Christian teaching, however individual their expression. And they all wrote under the tutelage of the same Holy Spirit. (Leon Morris, New Testament Theology, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986, p. 17)
[A] few basic convictions have generally characterized Old Testament theology. First, it must have a historical base. Second, it must explain what the Old Testament itself claims, not what preconceived historical or theological systems impose upon the biblical material. Third, when part of Christians theology, as this book attempts to be, Old Testament theology must in some way address its relationship to the New Testament. Fourth, by joining with the New Testament to form biblical theology, Old Testament theology offers material that systematic theologians can divide into categories and topics for discussion. Fifth, by stating what the Old Testament says about God’s nature and will, Old Testament theology moves beyond description of truth into prescription for action. After all, if interpreters agree that the Old Testament teaches that God commands certain behavior, it seems evident that a description has discovered a norm. One may obey the normative command or not, but the fact that a norm has been uncovered remains unchanged. (Paul R. House, Old Testament Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 1998), p. 53)
While some trace the origin of biblical theology to the Protestant Reformation, and others to J.P. Gabler’s 1797 address, ‘An Oration on the Proper Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each,’ the fact is that the Christian church was concerned from a very early date to articulate a ‘biblical theology’ in some form. As far as is known, the actual term (theologica biblical, biblische Theologie) was first used in the early 1600s, but the attempt to discern a unified and consistent theology in the scriptures of the OT and NT is much older.
It might be argued that biblical theology has its origin within the Bible itself. Summaries of ‘salvation-history’ found in the OT (e.g. Deut. 26:5-9; Neh. 9:7-37; Pss. 78, 105, 106) and also in the NT (Acts 7; Heb. 11) trace the continuity of God’s dealing with his people. The NT Gospels and epistles interpret the Christ event in the light of the OT, but also reinterpret the OT in the light of the Christ event. Paul, it has been suggested, was the first ‘Old Testament theologian,’ and the same claim could well be made for the writer to the Hebrews. (C.H.H. Scobie, “History of biblical theology,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner; Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), 11)
[B]iblical and Old Testament theology are marked by disagreement and debate. This should not surprise us. In the course of more than two centuries, disagreements are bound to emerge regarding the nature and task of any area of academic inquiry, as they have in our case. The reasons for disagreement are not only academic. According to one biblical theologian, “the current crisis in church and theology” could explain why biblical theology commands special interest. In such a situation, he wrote, “many different attempts at biblical theology will have their place.” Indeed, he reported that scholars use the term biblical theology to mean six quite different things, and he tried to chart his own course through that diversity. (Ben C. Ollenburger, “Old Testament Theology before 1933″ in Old Testament Theology: Flowering and Future (Edited by Ben C. Ollenburger; Eisenbrauns, 2004), p. 3)
Yesterday, I published a post called “Treier on Biblical Theology and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture.” There continues to be a discussion about the definitions of both “Biblical Theology” and “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” with some overlaps.
Today, Scot McKnight posted his own definition of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture in his post “Ancient-Future Interpretation 1“:
The theological interpretation of Scripture is to read individual passages in the Bible through the lens of one’s orthodox, community-shaped, and confessional theology. This approach is a desired approach. It’s the ancient approach. (italics in original)
What do you think of McKnight’s definitions? Any concerns or approvals?