The following is adapted by Keith Whitfield from “Theological Method: An Introduction to the Task of Theology,” by Bruce R. Ashford and Keith Whitfield in A Theology for the Church, Revised Edition (B&H Academic, 2014).
In our previous two posts, we asked the question, What does the Bible have to say about the nature and function of Christian theology and how theology should be conceived? We asserted three answers to this question, the first being that Scripture anticipates the task of theology. The second answer tells us that the Bible’s grand narrative provides the framework for Christian theology. Finally, in this post, we assert that Scripture provides the trajectory for the theological task.
There are eight biblical paradigms that provide a trajectory for the theological task.
- Theology’s Task Issues Forth from the Act of Creation (Genesis 1-2)
In the creation account, we encounter key truths that shape how we interpret our world and God’s actions in the world.
We encounter the truth that God created. The fact that creation is a gift from God and is endowed with purpose by God drives God’s imagers to think about God and speak about God.
We encounter the truth that God’s creation is good. God’s goodness is put on display by means of the splendid goodness of his creation. The splendid goodness of creation leads one to reflect upon the goodness of God himself.
We learn that God created humanity in his own image. The biblical account of creation gives special attention to the creation of humanity. Our ability to know and love God stems from our creation in the image and likeness of God. Being created in God’s image allows us to employ our spiritual, moral, rational, creative, and relational faculties in a Godward direction as we seek to theologize.
- Theology’s Task is Complicated by the Fall (Genesis 3)
The fall changed the task of theology. Theologians now must recover a right understanding of God’s plan for creation. The sources of theology are altered. After the fall, God withdrew his immediate presence from humanity, and spoke to them through his mediating word because of their idolatry and rebellion. The focus of theology is altered. Immediately after the fall, God promises to rescue humanity by means of the Seed (Gen 3:15-20). From this point, the task of theology entails apprehending, articulating, embracing, and unifying the grand story of creation in redemption.
- Theology is a Relational Discipline (Genesis 12-15)
Theology is about knowing the personal sovereign God of the universe. It is a relational discipline in which God’s imagers draw upon cognitive aspects of their relationship with God in order to know and love him more fully. Numerous biblical passages and stories deal with the tensions that exist as God’s imagers pursue knowing him. One of the most poignant is Gen. 15. When Abraham is afraid that God will not be faithful to his promises, God reassures him (Gen 15:1). In this text, we find a personal and spiritual interaction between Abraham and the Lord God. It provides a theological exposition on the promises foundational to the story of redemption and how humanity should respond to God’s initiative in salvation (Gen 11:27-50:26).
- Theology is a Life-Ordering Discipline (Deuteronomy 4-6)
In Deuteronomy 6:4-9 we discover that theology is a life-ordering discipline. The call is “Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4). Moses exhorts the people to respond to this claim, and the response required is a full-scale ordering of life. They are told to love God with all of their being, that God’s words are to be on their heart, and speak about God’s Word throughout the day, both in private and in public (Deut 6:4-9). This set of instructions from Moses is implicitly a call for them to do theology. How else is the Word of God to be “on” our hearts than through disciplined reflection upon those Words and whole-hearted embrace of them?
- Theology is a World-Interpreting Discipline (Ephesians 1:3-14)
Scripture reveals God’s universal plan for all of history. While God’s plan for all things is expressed differently at various points in the biblical story, there is one grand, divine purpose for all of creation (Col 1:16). Ephesians 1:3-14 provides extended reflection on God’s eschatological purposes. Paul claims God’s will has been unfolding throughout history, and the divine “mystery” is God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in [Jesus Christ]” (v. 10).
- Theology is a Bible-Interpreting Discipline (2 Tim 3:14-17)
In 2 Timothy 3, Paul is encouraging Timothy to remain faithful to a certain lifestyle. He warns Timothy against godless living—with its love of self, money, and pleasure; heartlessness towards others; and ignorance of the truth. He directs Timothy towards a different way of life, one that is marked by theological reflection. It is further characterized by right doctrine, godly living, and biblical virtues (v. 10-11). Paul points Timothy to Scripture as the sufficient source as he continues in the faith (vs. 14-17). Paul reminds us that theology is life-shaping, but in order for it to produce this fruit, it must be a Bible-interpreting discipline.
- Theology is a Bible-Unifying Discipline (Luke 24)
Throughout Luke 24, the disciples’ understanding developed as they encountered the Word and reflect on it. Jesus asked them why they were troubled and still doubted. In response to their confusion, Jesus returned to the Scriptures to explain again how all of Scripture testifies to him, and is fulfilled in his life, death, and resurrection. He also promised them that he would send the Spirit to empower them. The disciples could not understand fully what had happened without it being explained to them in words. Jesus could not explain fully his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and the coming Holy Spirit without demonstrating how the whole Old Testament points to him as the fulfillment of God’s promises of redemption. Sustained reflection of God’s revelation of himself and his purposes leads us to seeing the beauty and unity of the whole story of Scripture.
- Theology is a Virtue-Forming Discipline (Titus 1:1-3)
Theology is the foundation for Christian living. Our theological understanding ultimately animates and gives shape to our lives. Paul’s prayers demonstrate the connection between theology and Christian living, as he prays for the growth and maturity of the church (Eph 1:15-23, 3:14-19; Phil 1:9-11). In Titus 1:1-2, Paul makes the connection between personal faith, the knowledge of the truth, and the pursuit of godliness.
Paul points to how faith and knowledge of the truth strengthens one’s hope. Hope and godliness come from faith and the knowledge of God, and both are invigorated through theological reflection that seeks to know and love God and join him in his mission.
Keith Whitfield (@kswhitfield) is Assistant Professor of Theology and Associate Vice Presedent for Institutional Effectiveness and Faculty Communications at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Bruce R. Ashford (@BruceAshford) is Provost and Dean of Faculty, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture, and Fellow for the Bush Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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