Wednesday, December 16, 2009


I have noticed a critical tension between some seminary students and their teachers. This tension can be described as a conflict of ideals between theory and practice. Specifically, the conflict clearly seen in between what teacher has to say about theology and how a student believes that discipline to be relevant to the practice of ministry. To put it more bluntly, many who are preparing to enter ministry do not believe that the discipline of theology has any direct relevance for the practice of their ministry. However, I would contend that the discipline of theology is essential for the task of ministry. This is true because “theological discourse” provides the essential framework, which defines Christian ministry. This does not mean that the tasks of ministry and theology are completely identical. However, Christian ministry and theology do have two overlapping concerns: the knowledge of God and the systematic study of Scripture. In the final analysis, the so-called conflict of ideals is a disingenuous barrier set up by the seminary student. However, this does not have to be the case. If the relationship between theology and ministry is understood properly, then both the minister and the theologian can work together in such a way that complements the other for their mutual benefit.

Before I explain what I mean by this, let me state that the primary purpose of this essay is to underscore the direct and immediate relevance of the discipline of theology for the seminary student who is planning to enter into a primary role of ministry (i.e. pastor, missionary, Christian educator). The secondary purpose is to enter into a dialogue with those who are critical of the idea that theology has any place in the practice of ministry. The essay will therefore be divided into two parts. The first part shall give my argument for the place of theology with in the task of ministry. The second part shall provide some of my answers to objections to this idea, which I have encountered over the years. I will conclude this essay by inviting the reader to respond to several questions that I have for him or her.


If seminary student is to understand the relevance of theology for his ministry, then he must understand the place of theological discourse with in his ministry. I would argue that the place of theological discourse is essential for the task of ministry, because theology provides the essential framework, which defines Christian ministry. In other words, if a ministry is truly Christian, then it must be practiced with a mental framework that has been shaped by theology.

In order to show the reader how this is true, let me first define what I mean by Christian ministry. Christian ministry is primarily the task of making known the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that it may be further appropriated in the lives of God's people and made available to those who have not heard. Notice, that I am using two words to describe what most pastors or missionaries may generically refer to as ministry. According to my definition, the term "ministry" primarily designates the task of making known and making available. The term "Christian" primarily designates what kind of ministry is being practiced. Of course, the term “Christian” refers to the total content of the Gospel as represented in the canonical Scriptures and shaped by theological discourse. According to this terminology that what defines ministry as “Christian” is not that a Christian is the one who is practicing, although it should certainly be the case that a Christian is the one who is practicing the task. My point is that logically Christian ministry is defined by the total content of Scripture and as a consequence Christians are the ones who fill the various roles of ministry

So now what do I mean by theology? Of course, theology can be generally defined as the study of God. Additionally, Herman Bavinck defines the task of theology as “thinking God's thoughts after him and to trace their unity.”[1] More specifically, theology can be defined as: primarily the task of acquiring knowledge about God through a careful study of his creation and through his revealed for the purpose contributing to a common place of discourse that seeks to glorify God and edify his saints. Notice that theology is in task that is focused on studying God in the various ways he has been revealed. In addition, notice that this task has the purpose of contributing to a commonplace of discussion. This means that there is a defined field of discourse in which theology is discussed.
So how are these two concepts related? First, it must be stated that both theology and ministry are a task. Second, they are tasks concerned about the knowledge of God as it is revealed in the Scriptures. Third, they are both concerned about establishing a common dialogue. Fourth, they share an identical method, although this is not always very obvious).

How do ministry and theology differ? Fundamentally they only differ with regard to different with regard to three things: purpose of method, audience, and way of reasoning. First, the purpose of the theological method used to acquire knowledge of God whereas the purpose of the method of ministry is to make God known. Second, the task of ministry is more concerned about the public proclamation whereas theology is more concerned about the private academic discussion. This means Christian ministry is more concerned about a wide reaching public dialogue whereas the task of theology is more concerned about a more narrowly defined in-house dialogue. Third, a minister may be more concerned about providing a deductive approach to Scripture whereas a theologian may be more concerned about conducting an inductive analysis of Scripture. In other words, a minister is probably more inclined to reason starting with the facts of the Gospel and ending with a deduction concerning its most relevant implications for his/her listeners. The theologian, however, may be more inclined to conduct inductive analysis of Scripture starting with a question about what may not be presently known about any given portion of Scripture.

So in what way is theology essential for ministry? If ministry is primarily concerned with the public proclamation about the knowledge of God, then logically theology is a prerequisite task since theology aims at acquiring that knowledge. This means that a ministry cannot be called Christian unless it is defined by the content produced by the task theology. In other words, one cannot broadcast anything about God (in a Christian manner) unless one first knows something about God. The bottom line is that any Christian who neglects the task of theology within his/her ministry lacks the essential content that should rightfully frame Christian ministry.

This understanding is significant because ministry and theology are essentially bound together at an ideological level. That is, they are in complete agreement with regards to the content of their task (knowledge of God); the method of their task (exegetical analysis); and the function of the task (i.e. discourse in reference to the mission of the church). They only differ with regard to the ways they appropriate to their task: purpose of method (acquisition versus making use of); audience (public versus academic); and direction of reasoning (inductive versus deductive. This means that theology and ministry are in substantial ideological agreement and only differ inferentially.

So if it is indeed true that both theology and ministry maintain similar ideals, in what ways can they complement each other? They complement each other with regard to how they differ in their approach to the exegetical method. Theology primarily aimed at acquiring knowledge through the use of that method for the purpose of contributing to a place of common discussion. That "place" for the theologian is not only the walls of academia but also the walls of the cathedral. Theology has direct implications for the church. However, the minister is presumably the one who is standing within the church. This means that the theologian aims at contributing to a discussion that involves ministers. In a way, the minister is a recipient of the theologian, in another way he is also a contributor to that commonplace. The minister may be able to acquire public responses to the Word of God. That is, as he engages with his church/the world he will presumably find questions that the theologian may or may not have acquired otherwise. In this way, the theologian and pastor complement one another.

The minister must keep one ear attuned to the discourse of theology as well has the discourse of the public. If the minister fails to acknowledge first the priority of the theological task, then he will fail not only his public audience but also his theological audience. That is, the minister will fail to be in a position to actually contribute to theological discourse. Consequently, the theologian will fail to receive any questions or concerns that are more likely to be directed at those practically involved in ministry. The bottom line is that those who are involved in practical ministry are capable of protecting theology from becoming merely an academic discipline. I realize that the responsibility here is not merely one-sided, but my point is that the division between academia and ministry is not essentially an ideological divide. The division can be attributed to a failure to continue practicing theology within the field of ministry.


Over the course of the past seven years I have encountered about ten objections to the idea that theology is essential for the task of ministry. Now, although many of these objections are accusatory in nature, I believe most of them are motivated by a genuine desire to serve other people in ministry and glorify God. In addition, although some of them may be framed in a derogatory manner, most of them address genuine concerns within the field of theology. The reason I can say that genuine is that theology has answers to these objections. In the following paragraphs I hope to provide some answers to these objections. My answers are by no means complete, but I hope that they at least facilitate a common point of understanding between the theologian and the minister.

Objections regarding the practical relevance of theology

OBJECTION #1-“I just want to serve God.” The idea here is that serving God is somehow distinct from studying God. However, I would argue that it is impossible to serve God without also studying him. In fact, We do Him a great service by studying Him. For how else can know that we are serving God unless we know precisely who He is? How else can you God but through a consistent discipline of acquiring knowledge about God. The bottom line is that this objection places unfair judgment upon the theologian. It seems that studying God is not in any way a service to God.

OBJECTION #2—“I just want to be practical.” This objection is a little bit more understandable. Theology is decidedly theoretical and ministry is more task oriented. However, these two still require one another. In minister cannot practice the task of Christian ministry without reference to the task of theology. Notice that both the minister and the theologian are doing something. The difference in their task is the goal. The goal of the theologian is to acquire knowledge about God, but the goal of the minister is to help others know about God so that they can apply his word to their lives. Notice that both the theologian and the minister are trying to convey knowledge about God. In a sense both are theoretically bound together. Theoretical simply means to show what is known. The theologian is trying to see for himself more clearly so that he can articulate a coherent theology about what he learned, but the minister is attempting to convey to others what is already known about God. The bottom line is that the theologian is concern about the status of the knowledge of God but the minister is concern about other peoples awareness and application of that knowledge. So is it wrong for the minister to be practically oriented? By no means! However, he must recognize that his practice is framed in a large degree by theological discourse.

OBJECTION #3—“I don't think it really makes a difference whether I am a Calvinist or an Arminian.” I would argue that it does make a difference. In fact, it makes an essential difference if one is conducting a ministry on the basis of the Scriptures. To say that it doesn't would mean that an interpretation of Scripture is merely governed by an arbitrary interpretation of it. The deeper concern in his complaint is that historical disputes about theology are simply just that. They are disputes that have happened in the past but do not really continue to the present day. In fact, the person that made this complaint argued with me that the only one who cares about disputes between Calvinism and Arminianism are academic theologian. I would contend that this is not wholly true. For although a missionary can/will encounter people who have never heard about this dispute, he will in all likelihood run into this conflict. In other words, the disputes that we learn about in history are likely to occur again in different environments and in somewhat different terminology. The history of theology not only informs us about the past but it also prepares us for the future.

Objections regarding What Can Be Known about God

OBJECTION #4—“I think God is much bigger than Calvinism.” This objection is unfair. The objection is unfair because characterizes the limits of a theological statement (i.e. the synod of Dort) as a theological failure. Basically, this objection argues that the five points of Calvinism say absolutely nothing about the mystery of God and therefore anyone who calls themselves a Calvinist does not believe that there is any ministry about God. This simply is not true. Yes, it is true that the five points of Calvinism do not fully capture who God is in all of his glory and ministry. However, is not true that Calvinism has simply failed at this point. In addition, I don't know of anyone who has claimed that God is identical with Calvinism. Calvinism is most definitely a theological construct and God is the creator and Redeemer of the universe. There simply is no comparison at this point. The question is not: what is bigger God or Calvinism? The question is: does Calvinism say something true about God?

OBJECTION #5—“I don't think we should know everything about God.” Yes, this objection is absolutely right. There are things that we can and ought to know about God, however there are also things that we should not know about God. Calvin repeatedly makes this point throughout his institutes. He calls this the “pious limits” about our knowledge of God. Meaning, that that Christian epistemology also contains ethical limits. These limits can be discovered in several ways. The first way is motivation. Every question about God has a specific motivation, however if that motivation seeks to subordinate God or somehow placed him on trial (e.g. Exodus 17), and that question is improper to ask. Another way to limit is set is by Scripture itself. If the Scripture does not address the question, it could be possible that it is not a question we need to ask but this is not an absolute rule. However, there are also places in Scripture which specifically forbid certain questions (e.g. Romans 9:20). Ironically, the same person that make this objection also think the objection about God being bigger than Calvinism!

OBJECTION #6—“knowledge puffs up.” Logically, the idea is that somehow there is a causal link between intellectual endeavors and pride. Theologically, the idea is that a true follower of Jesus somehow must maintain an anti-intellectual stance. This position seems to justified by Jesus himself. Repeatedly is portrayed in the Gospels as somebody who is constantly criticizing the intelligentsia of his day. In many ways this is true. However, this does not mean that Jesus himself was anti-intellectual as such. In fact, Jesus often astounded people with the fact that he had such great learning. In addition, Jesus did not criticize the impact of intellectual pursuit itself. In fact, in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus has a special blessing reserved for those who aspire to become scribes for Jesus.


OBJECTION #7—“Theology is for professors and not those in the field” this is a very understandable objection because it rightly recognizes the difference of arenas for each task. However, I would contend that this criticism over plays the distinction in such a way that it undermines the unity of theology and ministry. Yes, it is true that theology and ministry operates within two different spheres of discourse. Theology operates with in a more academic sphere of discourse where as ministry operates with in a more public sphere of discourse (the exception to this rule is college ministry, which is by definition both public and academic). However, one should not overlook the continuity between theological and ministry. The minister should understand how theological discourse operates within the mental framework of ministry in such a way that it supports supports continuity. In addition, it should be noted that one should not mistake the audience of theological discourse for the purpose of theology. In many ways the audience of theological discourse is primarily an academic audience, however the purpose of that discourse is for the building up of the church. This does not mean there is no such thing as purely academic theology, however Christian theology in its surest form seeks to build up the church and glorify God. The minister is somebody (ideally) who is an academic recipient of theological discourse, but a publisher of sorts for theology. If I could rephrase this objection, then I would say: the audience of theological discourse is primarily for academic professors and the overall purpose for theology is for the church, which includes those with in the field. Or my counter and objection would be: theological discourse is for theological professors and those in the field, but it is not for those who constitute the public audience of the field.

OBJECTION #8—“What does the professor know anywaythis criticism is down right belligerent, however it does aim at a genuine concern for theology. The criticism is basically seeking to understand the relationship between a theological criteria and a professional theologian. However, if one wants to question the credentials of a particular professor, one must understand what constitutes as a proper theological criterion. One must come to terms with what theology is as a discipline, how it is practiced, what are its sources, what is its purpose, and finally what is it significance. In other words, one cannot make this criticism sincerely unless one first take seriously the task of theology as a whole. If one was in ministry arbitrarily (that is, without any proper, clear, inconsistent criterion) criticizes a particular professor, then that person is setting themselves up to be judged in a similar manner. This is simply an unfair criterion and does not allow for mutual respect and a complementary relationship.

OBJECTION #9“Jesus wasn't a Calvinist”-- this criticism can be read in two different ways. First, Calvinism should not be adopted on the basis that Jesus himself did not describe his own theology in the same terms of Calvinism. Secondly, there is no theology that should be adopted by the church, which has not first been adopted by Jesus. Since the paper is focused on theology in general, we will assume the latter interpretation. I will grant to this objection that there should be no theology that contradicts what is essential to Jesus is theology, however quite frankly the scope of Jesus's teachings simply does not account for the whole of theology. In fact, there are many questions that Jesus’ teachings do not address. This does not mean that any doctrine that is formulated beyond the scope of Jesus’ historical teachings should be rejected. A famous example of doctrine that goes beyond the scope of Jesus teaching is of course the question of the Gentiles. The scope of Jesus Ministry was simply to the lost sheep of Israel. This did not mean he never made an exception to this rule, but he was very much focused on ethnic Israel. However, after his death there were many who began to convert to “the way” who were not of ethnic Israel. This brought about many questions that simply had not been addressed before this point in time.

An objection regarding my definition of Christian ministry

OBJECTION #10-“Phil’s model of ministry basically assumes a pastor/teacher role, which does not adequately include every type of ministry, specifically Mercy ministries and support role ministries.”-- this is a very strong criticism, which requires some further explanation. Basically, this criticism challenges my definition for ministry, which is: the task of making known the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that it may be further appropriated in the lives of God's people and made available to those who have not heard. This criticism correctly recognizes that this definition of ministry only converse the tasks of teaching, preaching, and evangelism. The objection is that I do not make room for any type of ministry and that is further removed from the task of preaching. The implied conclusion is: therefore there are other ministerial roles that do not require theological discourse.

I have three problems with this objection. First, the definition of so-called “support role.” Second, the logic of the objection. Third, the blatant lack of biblical evidence for this objection.

First, what do you mean by “support role”? Do you mean that your task necessarily supports somebody who is directly involved in the tasks of teaching/preaching/evangelism or that your task somehow generally supports the task of teaching and preaching? My suspicion is that many people who make this objection are invoking the latter definition of support role. My fear is that we have too hastily created a secondary role of ministry, which we believe to be both necessary and somehow less responsible for biblical teaching and clearly defined theological doctrine. As a consequence, I believe that this thinking has permitted an indefinite amount of so-called “specialized roles” for ministry. In other words, if this objection is to be maintained, one must take the former definition for “support role.”

Second, the logic of the objection is invalid. Even if the objector takes the former definition for “support role,” his/logic is in error. His argument goes something like this: Phil’s definition for ministry excludes the place of support role Ministry; I am in support role Ministry; therefore I am excluded from the task of theology. However, I would contend that this objector's definition of support role does not allow for this argument because their task is one of necessary involvement with somebody who is primarily involved with teaching/preaching/evangelism. This means that their task necessarily ameliorates the conditions for the primary role minister. If it is true that they are this closely involved with the task of teaching, then that means this person will need to be thinking along the same lines as the one they support. It is true that they may not be as directly involved with the task of teaching, but this does not free them from the task of thinking along these lines. For example, a church administer is someone who fits this definition of the “support role” very well. A church administer does many tasks which seem atheological in nature (e.g. receiving phone calls, planning meetings, responding to e-mails, organizing church functions). However, notice that all of his/her tasks operate within a church context. This means that the very nature of his/her tasks is always assuming the broad question: what is the church? This means that all of the tasks are in some way addressing the question about ecclesiology. Imagine the infinite amount of scenarios that could go horribly tragic, if the church administer did not think with reference to the church. This means that he/she would neglect to think about proper conduct and church structure. In many ways, the church administer should be more careful about theological analysis than the pastor because the church administer must answer a whole host of questions that do not have direct and immediate answers within the scope of Scripture! In addition, it must be noted that this present paper is actually also addressing ecclesiological questions. Very broadly this paper is a dressing a question about the nature of the relationship between seminary and regular church practice.

Third, this objection has a blatant lack of evidence from Scripture. Please do not be deceived. The idea of the “support role” is not a modern invention. This role has clear historical precedent in the book of Acts. The book of acts describes a scenario where “widows were being neglected in the daily distribution,” (Act 6:1 ESV). After this scenario is brought to the awareness of the disciples, they respond, “"It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. (Act 6:2 ESV). Notice, the disciples are the one who recognize that their primary task is the proclamation of the word of God. They are the ones who recognize that there is tasks that need to happen within a church context that are not strictly oriented with reference to teaching. The apostles therefore create the “support role” ministry, but not without reference to a theological criteria. The apostles state, “pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.” (Act 6:3 ESV). Notice the rough criteria here: a good reputation, a believer, and one who is wise. There is much to be said about this criterion, but let me draw your attention to the last criteria: wisdom. What is wisdom? Wisdom is basically skill or application of knowledge. The idea of wisdom here is in reference to knowledge of Scripture. Later on in the story Stephen is portrayed as somebody who is doing signs and wonders among the people and disputing theological matters with the local intelligentsia in the synagogues. Luke states, “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” (Act 6:8-10 ESV). Notice that Luke uses the same word “wisdom” with reference to Stephen. This is actually the second occurrence of the word “wisdom” in Acts. Notice that this word is not in reference to his ability to wait tables, but it is with reference to his ability to make intelligent dispute with the local intelligentsia.

Now, it could be argued that Stephen is certainly a unique case. It could even be further argued that the church at Jerusalem by no means represents the ideal church. I can gladly acknowledge both of these truths, however the idea that a “support role” Minister should be without the qualification of “wisdom” is not so easily cast aside. The apostle Paul states later on that deacons (that is, the office that was first created in Acts 6:1), “They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience,” (1Ti 3:9 ESV). This means that deacons must be clear on the doctrines of faith. How else can one have a clean conscience about faith unless one has first come to terms with doctrine?

The bottom line is a “support role” Minister must operate in a necessary relationship to the task of preaching. This means he/she should always be working with reference to a broad theological reference. Although their task may not be as immediately involved with teaching/preaching/evangelism, their task still requires that they think along the same lines as the ones they support. Finally, Scripture itself prescribes the requirements of “wisdom” and “a clear conscience” for these roles. This means that “support role” ministries have a scriptural mandate to fulfill despite any attempts they may make advance against my basic argument.


In conclusion, I have argued that the task of theology is the essential for the task of ministry because theological discourse provides the basic framework for Christian ministry. This does not mean that ministry and theology are identical. Theological discourse aims at a specific academic audience whereas ministry aims at a broad public audience, which is not necessarily academically oriented. However, the minister is simultaneously part of the theological audience while being a mouthpiece for the knowledge of God. The minister maintains a dual identity with the theologian because he shares two concerns with the theologian: the knowledge of God and the exegetical method. If the minister is willing to acknowledge his dual identity, then he is in a position to not only provide a clear theological understanding to his audience, but also complement the theologian by providing questions for theology, which have been posed by his broader public audience. That is, the minister is in a position to receive questions that the professional theologian may otherwise neglect. My hope is that the minister can recognize this dual identity so that he may rightfully claim his vital role within the field of theological discourse. This way there can be practical continuity between the seminary and the pulpit.
My argument for the place of theology is not without some objections. Many of these objections are genuine. However, some of these objections are simply unfair caricatures of the nature, limits, method, and scope of theology. My hope is that I have provided some substantial replies to these objections. In effect, I hope I have made a contribution towards further discussion. I invite the reader to provide further objections or perhaps replies. Let the reader know that my high purpose and all this is theology for the glory of God!

[1] Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, vol., 1, translated by John Vriend, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 25