By Caleb Hutcherson
Another Sunday afternoon and we’re walking home from church, my kids and I, through densely packed streets of Hamra, Beirut. My eldest and I are discussing how Ramadan is approaching and how for our family it means we’ll refrain from eating in public in this neighborhood during the daytime in solidarity with our Muslim friends and neighbors. We then talked about various motives for why Muslims fast, why our family decided on this practice, and how we account for what we do in the name of Jesus Christ.
As we did this, I got to thinking again about a theological dilemma lurking underneath our talk. It’s the question: what comes first, doctrine or practice? Is there some Bible verse or doctrinal position telling us what we should or should not do as a Christian family living among Muslim friends during the month of Ramadan? Or is our practice as a family shaping our reading of the Bible and theology to explain what and why we do what we do?
This dilemma isn’t new. Rather, the tension between these two ways of doing theology plays out in many of the practical questions my students bring to our online class forums to discuss:
“Professor, what do you think about baptism over a WhatsApp video call?”
“What should I say to my non-Christian friend who asked me to interpret his dream, the one where Jesus filled him with His light and saved him?”
“A transsexual person recently challenged me on how our church has treated them, what should I do?”
“We’ve been working with our Muslim neighbors to offer vocational training for some young men in the neighborhood, but now some people want to make coming to a Bible study a required condition to participate in the training…what should I do?”
Some followers of Christ, when faced with these kinds of practical questions, prefer to look first at the traditions of their denomination, doctrine first if you will, regarding baptism, dream interpretation/ecstatic experience, transsexuality, or a theology of common good. From right doctrine, principles can then be derived to guide right practice. For some of the questions above, doctrine indeed can serve as a guide to connect theology and practice. But perhaps not for all of them.
Other followers of Christ, however, take a different approach to connecting doctrine and practice. This approach prioritizes the event of the Spirit of Christ at work in the situations represented by the above questions. Experience precedes doctrine, giving shape to theology in a process of reflecting on the work of the Spirit in light of Jesus’ practice, and subsequently (potentially) allowing this experience to reshape their reading of the Bible and Christian tradition, as they consider new ways of shaping practice in the future.
So, which of these is the right way to do theology?
Perhaps it is helpful to recognize that there are historical precedents for both these ways of doing theology (“doctrine first” or “practice first”) that go back to the early church. In his book The Shape of Practical Theology, evangelical practical theologian Ray Anderson illustrates both of these patterns in the life of the church in the book of Acts.
Peter, James, and John, all “pillars” of the church in Jerusalem, all exemplify a pattern of doing theology that appealed to steadfastness, continuing the tradition, and maintaining continuity of practice and thinking of the Jewish community of Christ-followers. Though Peter came to understand himself as God’s agent to preach to the Gentiles (Acts 10), he also struggled to move outside the traditions of Jerusalem (Gal 2:12). Theirs was tendency towards a “traditional-hierarchical” model of mission, as Anderson identifies it, that based its authority on a sense of continuity with what had come before, both within Jewish tradition and Scripture.
On the other hand, Paul’s pattern of doing theology can serve as an example of a practice first pattern of doing theology, one takes its start in the new work of the Spirit in people’s lives. In this way of doing theology, the mission and ministry of the church is primarily identified by the praxis of Pentecost – that is reflection on the boundary-breaking, transformative action of the Spirit of Christ in and through people. Perhaps because of his own supernatural conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), Paul’s way of doing theology often seems to start from actions that reflect Jesus (Acts 16, 17).
Anderson points out how this action in Paul’s life then leads to deeper reflection on theological ideas such as the nature of the church, the meaning of the resurrection, and Jesus as God incarnate, followed by ideas for further renewing practices. Paul’s practice of mission, therefore, might be understood as “entrepreneurial-situational” as he interprets what is happening through Jesus’ practice (or Christopraxis). Paul’s reflections on the liberating, empire-subverting work of the Spirit that he witnessed in the expansion of the church later shaped his main message in his pastoral letters for why what was happening was, indeed, in the name of Jesus Christ.
Despite what it seems, I am not pitting these two traditions of doing theology against each other. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive to each other. Rather, I think it is helpful to recognize that they are, in a way, two sides of the same coin – a cyclical process of making connections between practice and doctrine…what we call doing theology.
I am deeply committed to connecting doctrine and practice.
But the processes that we use to do theology shape the nature of the outcome of our doing theology. And there is a danger, I have found, when doctrine first approaches become the primary mode and model for doing theology.
The danger is that we marginalize the liberating function of the praxis of the Spirit in my students’ (and kids’) contexts, experiences, and insights. Instead of the praxis of Pentecost, institutionalized theology is transferred to them to replicate and transfer to others. Doing theology essentially becomes an exercise of power.
When we see problems of authority and power in the church, perhaps we need reexamine how the processes for doing theology may be contributing a skewed understanding of power. While I value historical theology and appreciate tradition, and I do recognize a role for doctrine-first approaches, I am finding a practice first approach to be an important and necessary way to do theology in response to all kinds of issues facing followers of Jesus today, particularly because of the way it flips the table of authority and power in the practice doing theology.
This practice-first approach decenters the teacher as the final authority in talking about God. Instead, it creates the space for my students (and my kids) to wrestle with how to make connections between action and doctrine themselves. It opens doctrine and tradition as something to which they participate and shape, rather than only receive, as they reflect on the love of Jesus at work through the Spirit of Christ around and through them.
A simple practice that my wife and I adopted years ago to acknowledge our neighbors’ fasting during Ramadan has opened all kinds of doctrinal and theological discussions in our family. Likewise, seeing my students take action that transforms people and society in their contexts, and then reflect on that in light of the love of God, witnesses to Christ. The resulting God-talk they articulate in reflection on those actions will shape our theology of technology, gender, and authority (for example) in years to come. My prayer is that I don’t extinguish the work of the Spirit in these young theologians. Rather, as we take actions together that testify to the transforming love of Jesus in practice, we come to know him more fully.
Caleb Hutcherson teaches in the area of historical and theological studies at ABTS.