Where Theory and Practice Embrace: T.F. Torrance on the Relation between “Kerygma” and “Didache” (Reformission Monday)

Some types of separation are good, but many are not. One of the most damaging forms of separation, at least from my perspective as a missionary, is that which is often drawn between “theory” and “practice”. While there is a sense in which these two terms can help to provide distinction and clarity, they more often seem to wreak havoc by rending asunder that which should be rigorously held together. For example, in missionary circles it is common to give precedence to the “practical” side of missions work: strategizing, goal-setting, fund-raising, evangelizing, discipling, teaching, preaching, leadership training, church planting, and so on. The approach to doing such things is often determined on the basis of pragmatic value and best practices — we do what seems to work. But the important thing is that we do. We are busy. We are active. We are all about getting things accomplished.

On the other hand, the “theoretical” side — in this case the theological — is frequently viewed as something that competes for or robs our time, attention, and energy. Missionaries are not, by and large, called (and funded!) to sit in a university office and break new ground in theological research. They are called instead to invest the resources they have in evangelizing the lost and planting new churches! If so, then it would seem that spending effort in plumbing the depths of seemingly abstract and esoteric (read purely theoretical and thus “impractical”) nuances of the biblical study-for-st-paul-preaching-in-athens-1515and dogmatic theology underlying the gospel only detract from the actual work of preaching the gospel. What then does the Athens of theology have to do with the Jerusalem of mission?

This dichotomizing between theology and mission, between doctrine and evangelism, is only one expression of the theory-practice split which manifests itself in many other ways (such as in the relation between knowledge and ethics). I realize, moreover, that my portrayal of the way this split works out on the mission field may be slightly exaggerated, but I have worked long enough as a full-time missionary to know that it comes close to capturing the reality on the ground. Many a time I have tried to encourage others to begin to think out missionary methodology in a theological way, but many have simply responded that they have little time or interest in mere “theory” that has no bearing on what is done in “practice”.

T.F. Torrance is remembered in particular for his opposition to dualisms of various kinds. As Travis Stevick has pointed out in his essay “The Unitary Relationship Between Ethics and Epistemology in the Thought of T.F. Torrance“, one of these dualisms (and one that, as Travis notes, has received far less attention in Torrance studies) is precisely the one between theory and practice. Travis develops Torrance’s way of redressing this false dichotomy in terms of the relationship between the is and the ought, between what we know and how what we know impinges on our ethical obligations. I would like to do something similar but in a slightly different direction. I am convinced that in Torrance, who understood his own vocation in missionary versus purely academic terms, offers resources with which we can overcome the counterproductive divide between doctrine and mission, between deep theological reflection and passionate gospel proclamation, between biblical meditation and active evangelism. In an address entitled “Preaching Christ Today”, Torrance begins by saying:

Preaching Christ is both an evangelical and a theological activity, for it is the proclamation and teaching of Christ as he is actually presented to us in the Holy Scriptures. In the language of the New Testament, preaching Christ involves kerygma and didache — it is both a kerygmatic and a didactic activity. It is both evangelical and theological. This is a feature in the Gospels to which my former colleague in New College, James S. Stewart, more than any other New Testament scholar known to me, sought to be faithful in his lectures. He interpreted the text of the Gospels and expounded the gospel in the Gospels in such a way that his students
heard the living and dynamic Word of God for themselves. Not surprisingly many of them were converted in his classroom. No wonder that Jim Stewart was such a beloved preacher and teacher of g1978_-_torranceospel truth. It was James Denney who used to say that our theologians should be evangelists and our evangelists theologians. This is something, I believe, we must learn again in our calling to preach Christ today…

The first thing I want to talk about in preaching Christ is the interrelation between kerygma and didache. The church’s calling is to proclaim Christ kerygmatically and didactically — we need didactic preaching and kerygmatic theology. The only Christ there was and is, as John Calvin used to say, is not a naked Christ but “Christ clothed with his gospel.” By that he meant that Jesus Christ and his Word, Jesus Christ and the truth of his message belong inseparably together and may not be torn apart. With us human beings person, word, and act are separate, but this is not the case with Jesus, the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth, for in him person, word, and act are one. That is why when we read and interpret the Gospels and Epistles and let them talk to us out of themselves we find ourselves having to do directly with God in Christ “speaking to us in person,” as Athanasius and Calvin both used to say.[1]

The kerygma and the didache to which Torrance refers here can roughly be correlated with “theory” and “practice”: didache is the theological “theory”, as it were, of the gospel, and kerygma is the missional “practice” of the gospel. Correlated in this way, Torrance helps us to see how these New Testament concepts are deeply interwoven to the point of being inextricable. The apostolic witness combined both didache and kergyma into a seemless whole: the apostles preached Christ theologically (i.e. according to the Scriptures, 1 Cor. 15:3-4) and they theologized in a way that preached Christ (e.g. Paul’s letter to the Romans). It would have been unthinkable to the apostles that didache and kerygma could somehow be divided, as though the person of Christ who confronted the world through the preaching of the gospel could be separated from the biblical and theological basis that prepared the way for and subsequently explained the meaning of the person of Christ. This is what Torrance, citing Calvin, means when he says that Christ is always “clothed with his gospel”. We never meet Christ except in the gospel that is “according to the Scriptures”, and we never study the gospel according to the Scriptures without meeting Christ and then being commissioned by him to proclaim that gospel to the world.

Ultimately, the fundamental unity between theory and practice, between didache and kerygma, is rooted in the person of Christ himself. Jesus Christ is himself the Word of God. He is, as John 1:18 states, the “exegesis” of the Father, the theology of God embodied in his own person. But more than this, Jesus himself, as the Word become flesh, embodies not only the didache — the theological “theory” — as the Word of God to humanity but also the kerygma — the missional “practice” — as the obedient human response of humanity to God. As Torrance often stated, Jesus Christ is both the God who reveals himself to humanity and the human that receives that revelation from God. We might say, therefore, that Jesus is “theologian” and “missionary” in one, he who reconciles as he reveals, and he who reveals as he reconciles. Ultimately, if we are committed to Jesus Christ, then we must be equally committed to a unity between theology and mission, between discipleship and evangelism, between meditation and action, between education and preaching, between “theory” and “practice”.

This is to say that our missionary method should be determined by our missionary message such that the message itself becomes enfleshed, as it were, in our method. We do a disservice to the undivided relation of Christ to his gospel if we assume that our “practice” in the service of Christ is somehow disconnected from our “theory” about the person of Christ. As Torrance says, we need didactic preaching and kergymatic theology. In other words, our evangelism should theologize and our theology should evangelize! A theology that does not produce mission is empty, and a mission not driven by theology is blind. If we desire to be faithful to Christ, we cannot be content with facile dichotomies between “theory” and “practice”. We must conform everything to Christ alone who unites in himself both God’s Word to humanity and humanity’s response to God’s Word such that to know him is to preach him and to preach him is to know him. As a reformissionary par excellence, Torrance himself knew that the task of reformission required a re-theologizing of evangelism and a re-evangelizing of theology to overcome the theory-practice dualism that can severely debilitate our thinking about God and vocation in the world.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pp.1-2.

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This entry was posted in Christology, Gospel, John Calvin, Missiology, Mission & evangelism, Preaching, Reformission, Revelation, T.F. Torrance, Word of God. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Where Theory and Practice Embrace: T.F. Torrance on the Relation between “Kerygma” and “Didache” (Reformission Monday)

  1. Len Joson says:

    “…a plea to return to Christ-centered teaching and preaching, to theological evangelism.” –TFT

    Thanks! I am learning from your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Toward a Kataphysic Missiology: T.F. Torrance on Developing a “Scientific” Approach to the Task of Mission (Reformission Monday) | Reformissio

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