Scripture is a Practical Theology: A Vision for Theological Education
Whenever I teach a class on systematic theology—Bibliology, Soteriology, Pneumatology—I begin with an hour-long lecture on theological method. I want our students to see that doing theology isn’t simply a matter of collecting relevant Bible texts and expositing each passage in its original context. That step is essential and foundational, but for our theological formulations to be truly biblical, they must be drawn from an exhaustive acquisition of all relevant biblical texts and then synthesized into coherent whole that comports with the rest of biblical doctrine.
But even this work, as difficult and time-consuming as it is, isn’t enough to qualify our theology as “biblical.” Just as importantly, I instruct my students to pay attention to the character of Scripture as they develop their theological convictions.
The Bible’s Pastoral Contours
While the Bible is full of direct theological statements about God, Christ, the Spirit, salvation, and a variety of other essential topics, on the whole, the Bible was not written in the genre of a theological treatise. Even the books that are characterized by dense doctrinal content have a distinctly pastoral aim. The rich theology of, say, Romans, is targeted at informing and empowering nothing less than real-world Christian obedience. After eleven chapters of careful theological argumentation, Paul launches with a “therefore” into a long section of intensely practical, down-to-earth instruction (Rom 12:1-15:21). All that profound soteriological doctrine is meant to transform one’s life and make a person more like Christ in the nitty-gritty of everyday obedience. But even before Paul gets to chapter 12, he’s already addressed the work of Christ in relation to our sanctification (Rom 6:1-14) and how the doctrine of predestination supplies the believer with assurance, even in the throes of suffering, pain, and great loss (Rom 8:28-39).
At TCBS we believe that a man’s ministry should be shaped by the Bible’s pastoral contours. The very nature of Scripture presses us to theologize with a practical aim always in view and from a heart that prioritizes the spiritual health of one’s people. Stated negatively, the nature of Scripture directs us away from the deadly practice treating doctrine as mere banter for intellectual stimulation. Even a pillar text for the doctrine of inspiration has Scripture’s practical usefulness primarily in view.
When Paul mentions the divine origin of Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16a—”all Scripture is breathed out by God”—he flanks this profound doctrinal statement with pastoral concerns: these Scriptures lead one to salvation (2 Tim 3:15) and equip one for every good work by correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16b-17). Paul follows this statement with an exhortation to Timothy to preach ceaselessly this God-breathed Scripture, focusing his efforts on the practical change that should be wrought among the members of his congregation: “…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (2 Tim 4:2, emphasis added).
In a letter to a group of persecuted Christians that is no less theologically dense than Paul’s letter to the Romans, the author of Hebrews deploys his skillful exegesis of Old Testament texts, a highly-nuanced discussion of Christ’s deity and humanity, and his careful argument for Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Covenant sacrificial system, not to astound his listeners, but to enable them to persevere in the faith and avoid eternal judgment (see Heb 2:1-5; 3:12-15; 6:1-8; 10:26-31; 12:18-29). Everything in his letter—including the exalted vision of the Lord Jesus Christ and his all-sufficient person and work—serves his pastoral aim of urging his listeners to cling to Christ and not make a shipwreck of their faith, which the past and impending persecution was tempting them to do (Heb 10:32-39). Tom Schreiner notes,
The author isn’t attempting to amaze us with his theological sophistication, his understanding of the relationship between the old covenant and the new, his reading of the Levitical and Melchizedekian priesthoods, and his construal of old and new covenant sacrifices. He writes for a practical reason, which becomes evident when we observe the warning passages that permeate the letter.Thomas R. Schreiner, Commentary on Hebrews, Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation (Nashville: B & H, 2015), 13.
The people to whom the author was writing were in such a state that he could not afford to dabble in theology for its own sake. Every pen stroke had an intentional pastoral goal: stabilize these people’s assurance, rivet them in the New Covenant, and get them to heaven. In the case of this letter to the Hebrews, theology grounded the exhortations, and the exhortations made appropriate use of the theology.
Theology Driven by a Pastoral Aim
While it will always be necessary for pastors to engage in rigorous intellectual labor over doctrine and theology, such labor can never become detached from concern for the flock’s well-being. Doctrinal preaching and theological discipleship are essential features of a healthy congregation. But a pastor whose theological labor becomes uncoupled from pastoral objectives will soon find his own soul dry and his people’s souls thirsty as well.
Our desire at TCBS is to see God shape aspiring pastors by His Spirit and His Word through instruction delivered by men whose ministries are characterized by that uncommon balance of theological rigor and pastoral wisdom. To be shaped by the Word, however, is to not only be shaped by the teaching of Scripture, but by the nature of Scripture as well. The Bible from beginning to end has a distinctly pastoral aim: salvation, worship, growth, edification, love, fruit, obedience—the glory of Christ seen and enjoyed among God’s people. This is real pastoral ministry. Anything less falls short of the biblical calling and ideal. By God’s grace, we hope to equip men to fulfill this calling and reach this ideal, for the glory of God and the good of the church.