Theology That Matters: How True Orthodoxy Empowers Orthopraxy

Theology That Matters: How True Orthodoxy Empowers Orthopraxy

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Practical Theology?

For the last two years or so I’ve had the awesome and sometimes excruciating privilege of attending seminary while also serving as a student ministries pastor at my church. Every week, I migrate between the spheres of Wesley Biblical Seminary and DaySpring Community Church. Juggling these two facets of my life has forced me to think about how the biblical and theological work I do at seminary intersects with the very practical discipling I do at my church.

It’s easy to get excited about the intricacies of Trinitarian personhood in the classroom, but it’s another matter altogether to be able to connect that truth to the life of a teenager in a meaningful way. And how do the three hours I spent exegeting the Greek text for my sermon make a difference in the life of the sixteen-year-old girl in my youth group whose motivation to be there has much more to do with the cute guy sitting next to her than God or anything I have to say about Him? As I was doing an inductive study of 1 Timothy for one of my classes a few months ago, I caught a glimpse of the apostle Paul’s vision for how theology and in-the-trenches life and ministry fit together.

Paul’s Vision

In 1 Timothy, Paul writes to encourage and instruct his protégé Timothy, a church leader who is probably at Ephesus. In the opening passage of this epistle, Paul reminds Timothy that the reason he left him in Ephesus was so that Timothy could exhort certain persons “not to teach any different doctrine” (1:3). The Greek verb Paul uses here is heterodidaskaleo, literally “to teach differently” (much like our English word heterogeneous). In this case, the “difference” is not in the manner of teaching but in the content. In the passage, Paul makes a key contrast between this false teaching and the “sound doctrine” that accords with the gospel which Timothy is supposed to proclaim (1 Tim. 1:10). Paul uses a very interesting Greek word, hugiainō, to describe the nature of this doctrine. This word has two basic spheres of meaning: (1) to be healthy (medical imagery), and (2) to be correct. In this case, I don’t think we have to choose between the two. As Bill Mounce has argued here, the doctrine that Paul is talking describing is both correct and spiritually healthy, in contrast to the incorrect and spiritually diseased doctrine of the false teachers.

As much as we would like Paul to expound exactly what this sound doctrine is, he doesn’t. Instead of spelling it out for us, Paul highlights the difference between false teaching and sound doctrine by contrasting the fruit they bear (1:4-6). Whereas sound doctrine is associated with “love that issues from a pure heart,” the aberrant teaching distracts people from godly living. His emphasis is not an idiosyncrasy of this passage alone. As Paul returns to this theme of sound doctrine throughout the epistle (4:6-16; 6:2-10), the pattern holds. Paul never gives a systematic treatise of what Timothy is supposed to teach, probably because Timothy knows the essence of it. By the end of the epistle, we know two things about this sound doctrine: (1) it accords with the gospel, and (2) it agrees with the words of Jesus. What Paul talks about much more is the fruit that this sounds doctrine produces in the lives of believers.

Although Paul speaks of this fruit in many ways, there is one word in 1 Timothy that epitomizes the fruit of the gospel: eusebeia, which comes across in many of our English translations as ‘godliness’ or ‘piety’. A prominent Greek lexicon defines this word as “awesome respect accorded to God” (BDAG, 412). This word occurs only 15x in the NT, and eight of those are in 1 Timothy. It seems that this word is especially important to Paul’s message in this epistle. In the context of this epistle, eusebeia is an awesome respect for God that radically affects the way we live in relationship with both God and men.

What this means for theology

The explicit connection Paul makes between sound doctrine and the life of godliness that it should produce is both powerful and challenging. Paul’s concern for sound doctrine is not abstract, but intensely practical. The reason Paul wants Timothy to promote sound doctrine and confront aberrant teaching is so that Christians can live godly lives truly redeemed by Christ. Thus, for Paul, orthodoxy is necessarily wed with godly living. I’d like to outline two implications of this interpretation, first for the value of theology, and second for our practice of theology.

Before I get too much further, let me put to rest any fears that by connecting theology and practice I’m advocating a social gospel. I’m not. This interpretation does not diminish the importance of orthodoxy in the least. (Although Paul does not expound the content of good doctrine in detail here, he does do so elsewhere, as does the rest of the canon.) On the contrary, linking theology and practice makes orthodoxy paramount by connecting it to the heart of the gospel—radical, lived out faith in the Three-One God. Sound doctrine preserves the power and potency of the gospel for the lives of God’s people. For this reason (and others), good theology and the hours that we spend growing as theologians are infinitely valuable.

At a denominational meeting a few months ago, I was having a discussion with two fellow ministers. During the course of the conversation my interest in biblical studies and plans to go on for doctoral work came up. “Man, I don’t want to go that deep [into Scripture]!” was the reply. Sadly, the only difference between my friend and many people in congregations and pulpits today is that he was honest. I’m not trying to create a theological litmus test, but I will say this: If sound doctrine is necessary for godly living, then it is inherently valuable; and growing as a Biblicist and theologian ought to be a vital part of your ministry.

However, while this connection Paul makes between –doxy and –praxy shows us the value of what we do, it can also critique our practice of theology. Is our so-called orthodoxy actually what Paul is talking about here? Does it indeed culminate in godliness, or is it simply something to which we assent but by which we do not live? For Paul in 1 Timothy, true orthodoxy always empowers orthopraxy. “Orthodoxy” that does not empower orthopraxy is but a hair’s breadth from heresy, and even that is probably too generous. Far too often our “sound doctrine” ends up looking more like the meaningless speculations Paul mentions than “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1:4-5). Perhaps the greatest (although not the only) test of our orthodoxy today is whether it culminates in gospel-centered living.

Theology That Matters

Paul’s vision for the relationship between theology and godly living in 1 Timothy is simple and extraordinary in the same breath. It is also difficult. However, such a marriage between theology and practice is exactly what our world needs. Gone are the days when people would respond to the gospel based on reason alone. Our world needs the truth of the gospel in all of its complexity and multivalence, but lived out through the lives of God’s people. As ministers of the gospel and people of God, may we proclaim a gospel that is biblically and theologically rich, while living lives that confirm the truth of our message.


3 Responses

  1. Robert Traina of ATS used to say this: “You do what you believe, and you believe what you do.” Orthodoxy and orthopraxy is a whole, and we couldn’t split them if we wanted to.

  2. To me, Oden’s Paleo-Orthodoxy came to mean, “In theory, the Early Church, and the Orthodoxy they produced, is an accurate assessment of the Gospel, but I’d rather do things my own way/praxis in a more recent and more familiar “tradition.” Then, God busted me on that. Glory to God!

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