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  • Writer's pictureRobert Y. Yang

How Theology Matters: A Paradigm of Theological Disciplines

The age-old question of why theology matters will continue to be asked until Christ returns. My focus is not to answer the question why, but how. In answering the question how, it will also answer the question why.


In the movie The Karate Kid, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) instructs a boy, Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), on what to do in learning kung fu. Following a habit where Dre carelessly allows his jacket to fall on the ground, Mr. Han instructs him to perform motions with his jacket: “Hang it up, take it off, put it on, take it off, hang it up, take it down, put it on the ground, pick it up.” In the same scene, Dre asks, “Can you tell me why I’m doing this,” as Mr. Han ignores the question and repeats the instructions. After several days of the routine, frustration sets in for Dre. In a pivotal scene, after attempting to walk out on his training, Mr. Han instructs Dre to stand before him and tells him to put on his jacket. To his dismay he does so, but in this instance Mr. Han explains to Dre how (not why) each motion is to be executed—how each motion is significantly important. At the end of the scene, Mr. Han says, “Kung fu lives in everything we do, Xiao (meaning little) Dre. It lives in how we put on our jacket; how we take off the jacket. It lives in how we treat people. Everything is kung fu.” In demonstrating the how, Dre understood why anything he does, including putting on and taking off his jacket is everything.


So, the question of how theology matters is to ask how theology helps us. Too often, many Christians believe that theology is for the intellect. They say, “Theology is for those guys. All I need is Jesus.” And yet, the late Presbyterian R. C. Sproul reminds us by saying, “Theology is unavoidable for every Christian. It is our attempt to understand the truth that God has revealed to us—something every Christian does. So it is not a question of whether we are going to engage in theology; it is a question of whether our theology is sound or unsound.”[1] Just as everything is kung fu (according to Mr. Han), everything is theology.


My aim in this essay is twofold. First, before we dive into a discussion on theology, we will start with an overarching umbrella, using philosophy to capture a holistic paradigm of Christian teaching and learning that drives all Virtuous Christian Knowing.[2] Only then will we dive into the second point, a paradigm of theological disciplines, which is embedded within the holistic paradigm and places the “meat on the bone” for all believers. Before the essay is over, my hope is to establish categorical frameworks within the minds of the readers for knowing God, his will for our lives, and, as the title states, for knowing how theology matters.


Intersection of Philosophy and Theology


It is important at this juncture to understand how philosophy and theology intersect. Believing by faith apart from reason is not what the Bible teaches. Köstenberger states well in saying, “The Bible doesn’t ask us to adopt a BLIND faith but a REASONED faith - a faith that can honestly ask the hard questions and then go out in search of real, measurable, credible answers.”[3] This discipline that takes the hard questions and goes out to answer them with reasoning is called Logic. However, before hard questions are addressed, we must ask ultimate questions, and this is where philosophy intersects theology. The discipline which attempts to think hard and deeply about fundamental questions is philosophy of religion.[4] We will see it playing out in the next section below.


Virtuous Christian Knowing


A holistic paradigm of Christian teaching and learning utilizes the three major areas of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology and organizes them into a three-tier concentric circle to formulate its overarching framework. At the inner core circle, metaphysics asks a fundamental question that drives all Virtuous Christian Knowing, which is what is ultimate reality? The answer prompts at the second-tier circle a question of epistemology that asks how do I know? Once known (or progressively knowing), at the third-tier circle a question of axiology asks how am I then to live?

 

Within this holistic paradigm or philosophical framework, Virtuous Christian Knowing is extrapolated to the categories “for redemptive personal identity—as comprised by gospel, imagination/worldview, and discipleship—in which (a) gospel (Rom 1:16) is one’s life-defining Truth, (b) imagination/worldview (Eph 1:18) is one’s life-informing framework, and (c) discipleship (John 15:8) is one’s life-living practices.”[5] It is the believer’s personal pursuit of Truth that  “(a) recognizes biblical priorities; (b) seeks biblical implications; and (c) engages in biblical commitments and practices.”[6] These patterns can be viewed in Figure 1 below.


Figure 1.


Paradigm of Theological Disciplines


Embedded within the holistic paradigm is this paradigm of theological disciplines. The paradigm can be viewed in Figure 2 below.[7] Knowing God takes shape structurally with these building blocks of theological disciplines; the placing of the “meat on the bone” that every Christian does whenever the Bible is read. The emphasis of a building block is that a discipline is contingent upon another before it—a prerequisite of sorts as believers work their way towards a Virtuous Christian Knowing life. In other words, believers find answers to ultimate questions when they engage in and apply theological disciplines. These building blocks of theological disciplines not only work towards a Virtuous Christian Knowing life but also flexible to work in the reverse direction towards God. As believers engage in a particular discipline, they have the freedom to move to contingent disciplines to unveil further clarity. In summary, the building blocks of theological disciplines serve the believers in knowing God and living a life conforming to his purpose and standard.


It is appropriate at this point to comment that blocks called God and Holy Scripture are not disciplines or fields of study but the object and source in which the disciplines are exercised. Their inclusion within Figure 2 is for illustration purposes only to ground the significance of the theological paradigm to God and his Word.


God. The object of any theological paradigm is God. Theology by definition is the study of God. “‘In the beginning, God…’ (Gen. 1:1). The Bible does not begin with a rationalistic argument for the existence of God but rather assumes that he exists, that he existed before the beginning of all things outside himself, and that there is only one God.”[8] Therefore, he is ultimate reality—the necessary being, the Uncreated One that caused all other things to be.


Holy Scripture. The source of all theological disciplines is the Holy Scripture. “The revelation of God was captured in the writings of Scripture by means of inspiration, which has more to do with the process by which God revealed himself than the fact of his self-revelation. Second Timothy 3:16 makes this claim when it states, ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God.’”[9] As God is true, flawless, and trustworthy, so is his Holy Scripture.


Hermeneutics. The study of the science of biblical interpretation; principle of interpretation is called hermeneutics (from the Greek word hermēneuō, which means “to interpret”). “Proper hermeneutics are the interpretive rules applied by exegesis in order to find the single meaning God intended to convey in the text.”[10] Exegesis, by contrast, is the skillful application of hermeneutics.


Biblical Studies. As the name implies, biblical studies is the study of the Bible itself. There are several methods to biblical studies, but I believe the most comprehensive method to understanding Scripture is the inductive method. “With an inductive approach to Bible study, you explore the Bible and arrive at conclusions only once you’ve compiled all of the evidence.”[11] This method consists of three basic steps: observation (what does the text say?), interpretation (what does the text mean?), and application (how does the text apply?). This approach is analytical by nature where a part is examined in order to gain a better understanding of it.


Biblical Theology. A broad definition of biblical theology is “the discipline that seeks to understand the theological message; or messages, communicated through the variety of literary phenomena within the various books of the Bible.”[12] Biblical theology helps us understand the Bible as a whole and how each individual book understood in their particular context contributes to the one big story. Unlike biblical studies, biblical theology is synthetical in nature where multiple parts are cross-examined to form a coherent whole.


Systematic Theology. This discipline seeks to understand what the whole Bible teaches on any given subject. “Systematic theology involves collecting and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics and then summarizing their teachings clearly so that we know what to believe about each topic.”[13] As biblical theology is one-dimensional appropriating a topic within its biblical narratives, systematic theology is two-dimensional appropriating a topic to contemporary culture.


Practical Theology. A definition of practical theology is “the organization of Scripture with an emphasis on the personal application of doctrinal truth in the lives of the church and individual Christian.”[14] In Figure 2 below, I have this discipline broken down to actual areas of life applications such as practice of ministry, disciple-making, missions, ethics, evangelism, and apologetics. In other words, practical theology is the application of the Bible’s teaching to inform how a believer is to live in everyday life.


Church History and Historical Theology. “Church history is history about the church. Historical Theology is theology developed through history.”[15] Although these are important disciplines to the formation of theology, they are not foundational building blocks established in Scripture. Both disciplines play a vital role in the development of Christian growth throughout history and find their significance in the faithful saints in which generations later stand on.


Figure 2.


Conclusion


Knowing God is more than just knowing about God. Knowing God is ultimately about knowing God revealed through Scripture that informs believers about the Creator and how we ought to live in a Virtuous Christian Knowing life with all wisdom and understanding. I trust that the categorical frameworks discussed in this essay will be a mechanism in which all believers will be keen to understand and apply its disciplines for spiritual growth—to conform to the image of the Son. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thes. 4:3).


Lastly, we must revisit the question how. It denotes a method or a manner in which something is performed. How puts the reader into a state of action. In answering how theology matters, it ought to put a believer into a state of reflection—to reexamine whether the application is grounded in Scripture. For one’s own application is only as sound as one’s own understanding.


The end of all things is theology: knowing God in Christ. Theology is practical because it is all about waking up to the real, to what is. It means participating in a life of God and being transformed into the image of the Son. Right understanding of God and his world counts for nothing if it does not sink into our hearts and find expression in our lives. Following in the footsteps of Mr. Han, theology is in everything we do. It is in how we treat people. It is in how the sun appears every morning. It is in how marriages between a man and a woman are celebrated.

Everything is theology. 


 

***footnotes***


[1] R. C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2014), 12.


[2] I am indebted to Dr. John David Trentham at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for his invaluable insights. His paradigm for biblical philosophy is monumental in my own theological formation in the area of Christian education and teaching. A phrase I often quote from him is “a biblical church is a teaching church,” which is my primary focus in the life of a church.


[3] Andreas Köstenberger, Darrell Bock, and Josh Chatraw, Truth Matters: Confident Faith in a Confusing World (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2014), 12.


[4] See C. Stephen Evans and R. Zachary Manis, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking about Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVaristy Press, 2009), 17.


[5] John David Trentham, from a handout called “Virtuous Christian Knowing and Learning.”


[6] Ibid.


[7] I was first introduced to this paradigm of theological disciplines by Dr. Bruce Ware at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the course Systematic Theology I. Dr. Ware calls it “Evangelical Systematic Theology” in relation to other theological disciplines according to his lecture notes. I modified the paradigm by adding God and Holy Scripture as building blocks to the illustration to inform readers of the objects and sources of these disciplines.


[8] John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, eds., Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 144.


[9] Ibid, 71.


[10] Ibid, 134.


[11] Richard Alan Fuhr Jr. and Andreas J. Köstenberger, Inductive Bible Study: Observation, Interpretation, and Application through the Lenses of History, Literature, and Theology (Nashville, TN: B&H Academics, 2016), 35.


[12] Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations and Principles (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 39.


[13] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 21.


[14] MacArthur and Mayhue, Biblical Doctrine, 35.


[15] From a lecture by Dr. Bruce Ware at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the course Systematic Theology I.

 

Robert Y. Yang (BS, Purdue University) has been married to Tey for over 15 years and has faithfully served the local church in many different capacities from being an elder to the treasury to national leadership. He is currently pursuing an MDiv in Great Commissions Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY and, also, is a covenant member at Covenant City Church. Robert and Tey are passionate about living life with the church, discipling believers who can then disciple others, and missionary engagement with hopes of seeing their lives used toward this end through the sending of the local church.

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