Two Necessities for Every Pastor: 2) Think Theology

Last time we talked about the importance of exegesis. This time we’re moving on from exegesis to theology (as you do). In the environment in which we live and minister today, it’s very easy to outsource and hence downplay both theology and exegesis. So many other things are being presented to pastors as ‘essential’ that the time consuming work of exegesis and theological reflection can easily appear too demanding and best left to someone else. Yet, my argument is that we outsource exegesis and theology at our peril. Christ works powerfully by His Word, and our ministry is essentially a Word-ministry.

2) Think Theology

Okay, so we can see the importance of exegesis readily enough. But theology? Yes, theology. Now, you might be tempted to think I’m biased here. After all, the word theology is in the name of this blog, I used to teach theology at a seminary, and I’m working on a PhD in systematic theology. But I assure you, none of those are the reason that I say that thinking theologically is essential to the ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Rather, it’s the other way round; it’s because I’m convinced that thinking theologically is so essential to the work of the ministry that I spent a few years teaching theology to future pastors and seem to be spending forever on doctoral research.

So why am I convinced that it’s essential to think theology? Well, what is theology? At its most basic level of definition, theology is thinking about God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture. And that means that good theology must be rooted in careful exegesis. But theology goes beyond exegesis and does some things that exegesis can’t. Exegesis can only tell me what a particular Scripture text says. But what if someone in my congregation raises a question to which I can’t quote a memory verse in response. Then I need to think theology.

And in reality, that’s nearly every question. If someone asks me ‘who has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God?’, then I can happily reply by quoting Romans 3:23, but what if they ask what’s sin?, how have we all sinned?, what is the glory of God?, or what does it mean to fall short of it? To think about any of those questions means we need to think theology?

Whereas exegesis looks at what individual texts tell us, theology reflects on how God has revealed Himself in the whole of Scripture. And that means we don’t only think in memory verses. In fact, thinking in memory verses (or proof-texts, as theologians like to call them), divorced from the bigger picture of theology might end up confusing rather than clarifying. For example, someone once told me off for having a slow hymn in church by writing a few verses from Psalm 150 on a piece of paper and passing it to me during the service. For that person, the proof-text they sent me was the knock down argument that all songs must be upbeat and happy. Yet, if they had even thought about the whole context of even that one book of the Bible, they would have seen that God’s praises are to be sung in a wide variety of genres and styles, even including laments. Theology helps us to read texts in their full biblical context.

But that’s not all theology does. Notice I didn’t entitle this section ‘know theology’, but ‘think theology’. You see, theology helps us think about things, and theology is something that needs to be thought about. It isn’t a matter of mastering the contents of one Systematic Theology and occasionally thinking about how it relates to our exegesis, but rather a matter of how we think about things. Remember, theology is reflecting on God as He has revealed Himself to us. So, theological thinking should be God-centred thinking. As I look at the world around me, at my church, at the situations we face, I have, essentially, two choices in how to think about these things: either a man-centred approach or a God-centred approach (which, of course, would be a Christ-centred approach). The man-centred approach is the pragmatic approach. I look at the church and ask, what can we do? I look at a situation and ask, what will work? The God-centred approach is theological thinking. I look at the situation in light of God’s self-revelation. As David Ford (the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge) puts it, ‘Theology hopes in and seeks God's purposes while immersed in the contingencies, complexities and ambiguities of creation and history.’ (Christian Wisdom, p.4)

In other words, to think theologically is a different mind-set. We don’t approach Christian ministry in with a business mind-set, a pragmatic mind-set, or a success-oriented mind-set. Rather, we are to approach the realities of life with a Christlike mind-set which seeks His glory above all, and which is firmly rooted in His self-revelation in Scripture.

Here’s how Michael Lawrence answers the question of why think theologically:
‘Because theology is the application of truth to life, because theology is the foundation for every good work; because theology provides the framework and the worldview that allows us to make sense of our lives and this world in relation to God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.’ (Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, p.111)
Of course, to think theologically, we first need to be theologically grounded. We need to know ‘the faith once delivered’ (Jude 3). We need a good grasp and understanding of the rudiments of theology. But yet, that isn’t an end in itself. From that theological foundation, we then learn more and more to think theologically. And that’s something we have to do all the time in ministry. Michael Lawrence gives some examples of situations where you need to think theologically:
‘you experience the need for systematic theology every day in ministry. It’s systematic theology that you draw on when you
· Need to counsel a pregnant teenager to keep her child rather than abort.
· Teach on our responsibility to be good stewards of the world God made.
· Comfort parents whose adult child has abandoned the faith he was raised in.
· Train other church leaders in how the local church should be organized and governed.
· Explain to a visitor that Jesus intends us to be members of local churches, and not just the universal church.
· Explain what baptism and the Lord’s Supper mean.
· Explain to the local chairman of the Republican/Democratic party why he can’t have ten minutes to address your members at the next business meeting.
· Need to help your elders think through what it means to love the illegal immigrant neighbours in your town.
You see what I mean. I could make that list go on almost forever. All of these are questions that we face all of the time, and yet there’s not a simple narrative in the Bible that we can turn to for an answer.’
(Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, p.87)
Pastors need to think theology all the time. It’s not just about the rare doctrinal controversy that occasionally arises, but about the very fabric of our ministry.

One last quote from Lawrence to close:
‘If we are to faithfully give witness to Christ, the Lord of Life, in this age, then we must recover not simply the ability to think theologically, but the commitment to do so together in the life of the local church. Until we recover theological vision in the church, the nerve that gives rich and profound biblical life to our worship and mission will remain cut.’ (Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, p.110)