The Christian lives coram deo (“before God”). This is true, whether the home is on view, the study or the church or the academy. Living intentionally before God involves a number of practices (regular patterns of activity), which stem from our espoused beliefs and values. The importance of our practices came home to me some years ago, when I had the wonderful experience of spending a yearlong sabbatical in Cambridge. I got to know numerous doctoral students and scholars from all over the globe.
In some cases, a great change in their theological outlook took place, especially among some doctoral students from conservative religious backgrounds. The deeper their entry into their projects and under the guidance of their supervisors, the more they changed their theological commitments. If the supervisor did not believe in intercessory prayer but only in meditation, then after a while, so too did some of the doctoral students.
In some cases, a great change in their theological outlook took place. If the supervisor did not believe in intercessory prayer but only in meditation, then after a while, so too did some of the doctoral students.
For some of these students, reading Scripture reduced to only a critical venture, rather than a devotional one as well. Key practices that make up an evangelical life were replaced by others. These other practices (e.g. meditation replacing prayer) made little sense on a classically orthodox understanding of theology, and so their theology moved in a different direction to make sense of the changes in their practices. I think of a former student of mine—I will call him John—who came from a conservative college to study theology. He read and read. Soon he was enamored with a particular take on social justice. Over time his conservative distinctives melted way.
Observing such changes made me realise the key roles that certain practices play in our life as Christian scholars and theologians. As a consequence let me offer the following wish-list.
1. The Practice of Reading Scripture for Transformation
Working as a systematic theologian requires that I not only know the primary text (Scripture); but also how that text has been read through the centuries right up to my own day; and how Scripture impinges upon my own cultural-historical setting.
Is there more needed, though, to enable the deep reading of Scripture as a practice? The key to a deep reading of Scripture is to practice biblical meditation (e.g. Psalm 1:1-2). J. I. Packer sums up biblical meditation beautifully in his classic work Knowing God. It is turning what we learn of God into prayer and praise to God.
2. The Practice of Prayer and the De-Centered Self
Simone Weil described prayer as paying attention to God, and so it is. We lift up our eyes to the hills and we pray “Our Father in heaven …” (Psalm 121:1 and Matthew 6:19, respectively). It is a practice that lifts us up out of ourselves and helps keep us from self-absorption. It is a transitive activity. A regimen of praying is integral to theologians’ flourishing. Evagrius Ponticus, an early church figure, put it well, “If you truly pray, you are a theologian.” Meditation alone does not suffice—especially if it takes the form of a journey inwards.
3. The Practice of Generosity in Service
Living in a society that enables 24 hour shopping, one wonders if Descartes’ dictum cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) has now become: “I consume therefore I am.” For the Christian theologian, the challenge is to be counter-cultural on this point by balancing consumption with generosity. The direction inward balanced by a direction outwards. In practice this means being intentionally generous with hospitality, making time for others and giving material aid to those who need it.
The fact is, that we can love our book and article writing, but they cannot love us or others. I recall a conversation from years ago with a theologian who had been through a recent divorce. He lamented the fact that that he had put ministry before family. He was so sad. He tried to amend his life by rebalancing his priorities, but his spouse took this as an attempt to rescue his career—not a genuine response of love.
Suffice it to Say
More could be written, but there are understandable limits of brevity to be observed. The practices of fellowship and bearing witness would be next on the list of desiderata. The theological task is communal, not solo. Our primary mode of life is to be in Christ and to be in Christ with others—the church. The scholarly guild is important to academics but, as D. A. Carson says, it is the church which will go into eternity, not a universities, colleges or seminaries. Again, we talk about what we value. If we never talk about Christ to others, what does it say about where our heart is?
The contention of this essay is that godly practices really matter. Having an espoused theology, but lacking a matching operational theology (evidenced in an active embrace of the means of grace) is to put oneself in an ungodly dissonant position. Such dissonance can only be lived-with for so long. My former student John handled the dissonance by dropping his former godly practices.
Having an espoused theology, but lacking a matching operational theology, is to put oneself in an ungodly dissonant position. Such dissonance can only be lived-with for so long
In the light of stories like John’s, I counsel my students to keep at those practices which are in-keeping with a robust biblically informed faith. I do so as dean in my orientation talk to new students, and I do so also as a theological educator in my theology classes. If, as Proverbs counsels us, we are to guard our heart above all else—for from it flow the springs of life—then we need to pay attention to our godly practices (Proverbs 4:23). When those change, our theology may too.
 Quoted in Bernard McGinn and Patricia Ferris McGinn, Early Christian Mystics: The Divine Vision of the Godly Masters (New York: Crossroad, 2003), 55.