Grounded Theology

This morning, not having to work, I was able to get up with Laura and make two lattes, one in a travel mug for her, and one in ceramic for myself. It has been a nice morning, sipping a nonfat Toffee Nut latte and spending some personal time in the Word.

Something in Mark stuck out to me while I was reading. In Mark 10:45 Jesus says, importantly, “For the Son of Man came not be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” In the Gospels, this is a significant statement, illuminating the point of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. A number of times, I have read or heard this expounded in light of the doctrine of penal substitution — the heart of the atoning work of Jesus on the cross: him, in our place — a substitute — bearing the punishment, the penalty, of our sin. Obviously, we must recognize this point or we miss the point completely, because Jesus’ death must be interpreted correctly if we want to understand the Gospel.

When reading and thinking on this verse, however, I (personally) have functionally overlooked the first word — “for” (the Greek word gar). This word most often introduce a ground clause. A ground clause provides a reason, a “ground”, a basis for a previous assertion. Another way to look at the “for” in Mark 10:45 would be to see it as explanatory for the previous statement(s). I think that here it introduces a ground clause, but, either way, the point is virtually the same: Mark10:45 relates in an underpinning sort of way to the previous verses.

The previous context of 10:45 finds the James and John asking Jesus to sit at his right hand upon his ascension to glory. Jesus responds — “It is not mine to give.” And the other disciples were indignant, so that Jesus uses the opportunity to teach:

And calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45).

Here Jesus explains the nature of greatness and priority in the Kingdom — service and slavery to all others. Of course, I had known this before — that true Kingdom leadership is a servant leadership, modeled after the service of Christ to his own.

What I noticed prominently, however, this morning was the relationship between 10:42-44 and 10:45, especially relating to the ground clause. It has profound implications for anyone who wants to be a “theologian” or enjoys studying theology. Jesus gives the most important explanation of his death in a specific context — a context of discipleship and practice. Jesus’ theology demands action and a specific mindset for his disciples — his humility demands such a likeness from them. “I am this therefore you should also be. I do this therefore you should also do. Follow me.”

Now, as a seminarian, often studying theology abstractly, reading books and discussing it conceptually, this gets in my business. Of course, I knew this already. I knew that my theological study should not be an abstract or disconnected discipline. But God’s word, in its living and active way, cut into me and dropped the point home when I read this passage. If I had been Jesus, I probably would have repeatedly emphasized the nature of my sacrifice. I would have drilled it into the heads of those fishermen — “This is the point,” I would have said, in a disconnected way. But the real Jesus is different. His main point was not the theological underpinnings, but the command upon his followers. Without the theological grounding, of course, the command would have not had legs to stand on, but that grounding was just that — a grounding, a basis, a reason. With it Jesus undergirded the main thing he was teaching his disciples — “Be and do a certain way”.

Sometimes, I have heard the discussion of “orthodoxy” (right doctrine) and “orthopraxy” (right practice). Jesus teaches us how these intertwine and interrelate — right theology bases right practice. In case you’re wondering, Paul saw it the same way too — his epistles consistently put doctrine up front, and connect it with a “therefore” to practice. Take an Ephesian example: “God has done this in the Gospel (chapters 1-3), therefore live a life worthy of your calling (4:1ff).”

Scripture, then, puts the the terms of the commingling of theology and practice in two ways:

1. Do and be like __________, for God did and is like ________.

2. God did or is like__________, therefore do and be like ___________. This says the same thing, relating theology and practice to each other in the same way. Theology gives the basis for Christian action and character. In the circles I run in, the danger is theology being cordoned off from practice. In other circles is the danger and reality of practice severed from theology. But both are inadequately naked without the other.

This convicts me to not allow my theology to stand alone in such a naked way. It must ground action: My is Lord thus, therefore so must be I.

May God give me grace.


About Danny Slavich

I am a Christian husband, father, pastor, and poet. I lead Pembroke Road Baptist Church a multi-cultural, multi-generational church in urban South Florida.
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3 Responses to Grounded Theology

  1. Lee says:

    Danny – This is very helpful to me as a detail person who can sometimes miss the big picture, as I mentioned elsewhere recently.

    For example, while I’ve been studying Colossians of late and have spend the past couple of days in the first part of chapter 3, it wasn’t until I pondered what you wrote above that it clicked in my head that 3:3-4=theology(where I admit I had been focusing) and 3:5-11=application of the preceding theology (where I need to focus more!)

  2. drewdixon says:

    Great post Danny! We really cannot read the NT without being continually challenged to let the holiness of God move us to action.

    Sometimes the challenge even precedes the theological grounding like in Phil 2:4-11, the great Christology is begins with the charge-“have this attitude in yourselves” which was also in Christ Jesus.”

    I like what Dr. Vickers says, “if we have good theology but don’t put it into practice, then we are no better than the demons!”

  3. Pingback: Selfishness and Death in Christ « Almanac of Captivity

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