Jackrabbits, Ping Pong, and the Inescapable Role of Theology in Spirituality

*Posted by Owen Strachan. For more posts from Owen, visit his blog at owenstrachan.com.

Billy Sunday is a heroic figure in evangelical history. By the end of his life, it was widely believed that no one had preached the gospel to more people than the one-time Chicago White Stocking centerfielder, once the fastest man in baseball. More than almost any other figure of his generation, Sunday had a passion to share the good news of Jesus Christ with people lost in their sin and far from God. There will be many we meet in heaven who, in Gods grace, found the narrow way to it through the efforts of Billy Sunday.

Billy, of course, was a colorful figure, as Lyle Dorsetts engaging biography shows. Like Martin Luther many years before him, Billy seemed in his preaching to enter into physical combat with the devil. He boxed the air and stomped the ground and bellowed at the top of his lungs. He championed his causes tirelessly and was, perhaps more than any other figure of his day, responsible for widespread cultural adoption of Prohibition, a relatively forgotten cause in our day that resulted in nothing less than an amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Billy did not pull his punches.

One of the evangelists most famous utterances was that he knew no more about theology than a jack-rabbit did about ping-pong, a witticism that could wring a laugh out of the staunchest supralapsarian. The remark was intended to downplay the role of theology in Christian practice, which Sunday believed bore far more importance than did exegetical minutiae and doctrinal hair-splitting. Such useless activities constituted the study of theology, in the evangelists mind. Better to get out and share the gospel than to lose oneself in the study of books.

We should not miss the appropriate sense of urgency that Sunday felt in his ministry of evangelism. The world really does need us to be zealous for the gospel. Sinners stand on the threshold of judgment each moment of their lives. Nothing could be more important than the promotion of Jesus Christ. The urgent missiology of Billy Sunday instructs us today to, in our own lives, live with such purpose and passion.

Yet I wonder if in pursuing the lost we might also rework Sundays famous maxim. Billy, we see, understood theology and evangelism to be separate and non-intersecting pursuits. Evangelists evangelize; theologians theologize. Is such a distinction possible, though? Can such a tension of polarities sustain itself?

Some might disagree with me, but Im skeptical on this point. Why? Because I tend to think that, contrary to common wisdom, all Christian activity is theological. We may consciously operate from such a conviction. With Sunday, we might disavow the role of theology in our lives, pointing out that were a doer, not a thinker.

But lets pause there for a moment. What is more theological than being an evangelist? Or a missionary? Lets play this out. You may not have an appetite for countless hours spent arguing over Gods will of decree and His will of desire. FineI get that. If being theological means ferocious defense of ones personal belief statement (often equated with biblical truth), count me out. But what if being theological is more basic than this? What is more theological than believing that Jesus is the Son of God and then telling people that truth? What is more doctrinal, more philosophically potent, than venturing out into Islamic territory to announce to people that the one true God includes three holy persons, each God, together one?

What could be more theological than moving to a foreign culture with strange food and an entirely different societal structure because of your belief that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ? You may not know a lot of fancy words (or you might and not choose to speak them!) but I would contend that venturing out into ones corner of the world to speak the humble gospel of Christ is a profoundly theological act. That is, youre acting upon a convictioneven a basic onethat alters you, changes you, moves you. Evangelical practice, even at its most basic levels, is inescapably and robustly theological.

This is true of most any doctrine you can think of. Even a childlike grasp of Gods lordship over the worldagain, a deeply doctrinal conceptchanges the way a pastor counsels a couple who has suffered a miscarriage. Over against the unbelief of this world, the sinful spirit of the age, the pastor gently leads the grieving couple to see that God is at work to accomplish His purposes in our lives (Romans 8:31-39). Because of the curse, we must often grow through hardship, by walking through fire. Knowing that the trials we face owe not to blind forces but are in fact stewarded by God offers comfort of a kind that words cannot capture. Even if we understand this truth in an elementary way, we are being affected by theological ideas. We cannot avoid this.

All of which shows us, I think, that Billy Sunday lived better than he talked, as so many of us do. Billy knew that God was real and that Jesus, the Son of God, was the only sufficient Savior. On these unsurpassedly theological convictions he staked his whole life. It would be good for us to do the sameand to remember throughout the twists and turns of our lives that the question before us is not whether will be theological or not, but whether we will stand on truth or be swept away by falsehood (Matthew 7:24).

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