Stephen Seamands, From “What” to “So What?”
Stephen Seamands is professor of Christian doctrine at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He received his PhD from Drew University in 1983.
Dr. Seamands discusses the practical implications of doctrines: They inform us and give us a framework.
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Michael Morrison: Steve, you’ve been a pastor, and you describe yourself as “a practical theologian.” To some people, that seems like a contradiction of terms. Theology doesn’t seem very practical. How do you see theology as practical for the church?
Stephen Seamands: Well, Mike, I don’t think I would be teaching this stuff if I didn’t think it was practical. Sometimes I say to my students the reason I love theology is because it is so practical.
That’s why theology arose in the church in the first place, not so that academicians and theoreticians could sit around discussing and fine-tuning ideas. It was out of the life of the church, protecting true doctrine from false doctrine. It was so that you could disciple people when they came to faith in Christ. You had to tell them about what they believed and what you believed as Christians. How do you evangelize without being able to talk to someone about the faith? Those are the kinds of things. It’s about nurturing. It’s about bringing people to faith. Those are the things that theology is about. So it’s really practical, and it’s supposed to undergird everything that we do in ministry.
MM: I noticed in your book, Give Them Christ, that you talk about how it’s not just a “what” but a “so what.” You’re trying to bring out some practical implications of doctrines instead of just trying to prove that Jesus became flesh. Yeah, he did—then you try to answer so what: What difference does that make for us?
SS: Right. In this particular book, Mike, I was really concerned that pastors help people understand. We teach them a lot about the what while they’re in school, and most of them get that. They understand it, but when they become pastors and preachers of churches, what people really want to know is, well, so what? Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us. So what? What difference does that make? So in this book I was trying to help them move from the what to the so what, and that’s where I think doctrine really gets exciting and inspiring when we begin to think about what difference does this really make?
MM: Maybe comment on the incarnation. It’s nice that Jesus became a human, but then there’s the so what. What difference does it make me in my job or in my marriage and day-to-day life?
SS: One of the great and foundational human questions that people have asked for centuries is: Does God really care, or is God just far removed somewhere? Did he create this and just pull away from it? But the incarnation means that he came and actually became one of us so that he could get next to us and so that he could understand what it feels like to be human, not in just a theoretical kind of sense but he walked in our shoes.
There’s a poet, William Blake, who says “now think not thou canst sigh a sigh and thy Maker is not by. Think not thou canst shed a tear and thy Maker is not near.” Jesus has become a human. Eyeball to eyeball, heart to heart. He knows what it’s like to be human, to be lonely. He knows what it’s like to get angry sometimes about things, to feel sorrow. He wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus, and he saw what it was doing to the people.
So that fundamental human question, does God care, has been answered for us in that he became flesh and dwelt among us. As Eugene Peterson puts it in his translation of that verse, John 1:14, “he moved into our neighborhood.” He got next to us. Now I know that, and I can never be the same because of that. I know that he knows.
MM: Right. I was thinking of his struggle in Gethsemane. He’s not just faking this, going through motions, but it was something internal.
SS: He felt, at times we’ve felt, God-forsaken. We’ve felt all alone, and he cried out, “my God, why have you forsaken me?” He’s felt that as well.
MM: Right. Philip Yancey wrote a book on Where Is God When It Hurts? Where is he?
SS: He’s in the middle of it. He understands. Alfred North Whitehead says he is “the fellow-sufferer who understands.” He can understand, so that when I come to him, I’m not coming to somebody that’s aloof, far removed, or has no clue. That’s good news, it seems to me.
MM: So we can see his life and learn something about our own life at the same time.
SS: Yes. That’s another thing about the significance of the incarnation. First, it’s a compliment to humanity, in the sense that God says, “I want to become one of you. I choose to take on flesh and dwell among you.” What higher compliment could you give to humanity than to say, “That’s how much you mean to me. I join myself to you.”
Also, Jesus comes to reveal to us what it means to be fully human. In him we see, and we don’t just hear someone talking about, what it’s supposed to look like. Others might come and give you a discourse on the dignity of labor, but here is someone who comes and works in a carpenter shop with his hands. He embodies that for us. We see it. We get a person-to-person vision of that, which speaks to us more than any other. We need that as human beings. That’s how communication is best done. We see in him the embodiment of what it means to be human, what it means to love, what it means to be free.
We also see the revelation of God. What’s God like? That’s another great human question, isn’t it? For us Christians, it’s really not “what is God like?”— it’s more, “Is God Christ-like?” and in the face of Christ we see him.
MM: So Jesus is showing us both humanity and God. So do we expect God to look like humanity?
SS: Well, not exactly [laughing]. He actually embodies both, but he does suggest, I think, that God’s plan is that you and I might share in the life of God. That you and I might become joined to God and raised, you might say.
MM: You’re saying he’s showing us true humanity, and he as a true human shared in the life of God, and that we can also, through him.
SS: Right. Through him—he’s the pioneer. The writer of the book of Hebrews says he’s the forerunner of what that new humanity is supposed to look like, that lives in God and dwells in God and walks with God. That didn’t work out so well with Adam. We turned from that original plan that God had for us, and he’s kind of reinstituting that.
MM: Romans describes him as another Adam. Humanity is started again—in this model [Jesus], rather than the old one.
SS: Right. The second Adam.
MM: Jesus can show us what it means to live a human life in dependence on God, in a way that we couldn’t see in the Old Testament from God speaking on Mount Sinai, for example. (Maybe that’s where people got the idea of the aloof God, and he’s just far off, and we couldn’t relate.)
SS: I think God had to establish those boundaries and to show us, first of all, that “I’m not one of you.” We have such a propensity to make God in our own image, and that propensity to bring God down to our level. God was teaching his people all along that no, you can’t do that. There’s this appropriate distance. But then in the New Testament, when Jesus comes, he comes near.
MM: On one side he says “I’m not one of you,” and the next time he says, “I can become one of you.” He blesses us with his presence. But with him as a human we see his struggles with pain, sorrow, sin, and suffering. He didn’t sin himself, but he could deal with it, and he did deal with it. He stopped suffering for some people. Why didn’t he just stop it for everybody?
SS: I think our basic human inclination is to think, well God ought to get rid of suffering. Truly, suffering is suffering. It’s awful. God’s way of dealing with suffering is a little different—at least the Christian vision of that. Simone Weil said that the extreme greatness of Christianity is not that it looks for a remedy for suffering, but a divine use for suffering. In Christ God enters into suffering himself. He chooses to become one with us in our suffering—takes it into himself, you might say. On the cross in his human nature he suffers, and he cries out, “My God, why?” Then, as a result of that, he is able to redeem suffering and now uses it for the redemption of the world.
It’s a different vision of suffering. It doesn’t solve all the problems related to the problem of suffering. There’s still a lot of why’s that we ask, about why certain things happen to us, why things happen in our world, why there’s so much suffering. The end of the story says there’s going to be a time when there’s no more tears and no more pain, but God seems to be in the business of being more interested in redeeming it and using it for his purposes than just simply seeking to eliminate it and protect us from it.
MM: There will always be these why questions. We don’t always know why, but now we’re having a different perspective on it, of how this can be used for some good.
SS: Right, and also just knowing that he enters into suffering.
MM: He’s been there.
SS: That doesn’t make the problem necessarily go away, but sometimes when you can’t trace God’s hand, you can trust his heart. I think it helps us to trust God’s heart to know that he’s one with us in our suffering. I think of Joni Eareckson Tada who (as probably many know) has been a quadriplegic since she was 17 as a result of a diving accident. She talks about how when your husband has just left you, when your son has committed suicide, when you’ve just become a quadriplegic, trying to figure out reasons and answers is pointless. At a point like that, she says, the only answer that satisfies is the man of sorrows. Someday we’ll get a full answer, but until then, she says the man of sorrows is enough—to know that God enters into that and doesn’t keep himself from suffering. That speaks to our heart even though it may not answer all of our questions about the enigma of suffering.
MM: Even the symbol of Christianity is a cross—a reminder of not just simple suffering but excruciating suffering. So there is a practical significance of what we see there. It could be a doctrine, could become sterilized, but yet there’s a practical result as we understand what was going on there in the crucifixion. That that can help us be encouraged. It doesn’t take our suffering away. But as Paul described, we’re sharing in the sufferings of Christ.
SS: I have sometimes shared with people about Christ and his suffering and helped them to reframe their suffering in the light of his greater suffering, their afflictions in the light of his greater affliction. It seems that “reframing” helps them put their suffering in a perspective that they couldn’t before. It’s profoundly comforting, even though it doesn’t solve the mystery.
MM: The suffering is still there—and it’s not just that Jesus suffered more than we did. But he suffered with purpose, and somehow we can participate in that purpose.
SS: Yeah. I like to think that his scars, his nail-scarred hands, have become radiant now—radiant scars. It’s interesting that he has a glorified body, but he still has the scars. Those marks of his suffering are there, and it seems like they’re always going to be there. Even when John looks to see the lion, he doesn’t see a lion—he seems a lamb as though it had been slain [Revelation 5:5-6]. So even in John’s vision of heaven, Jesus still has those scars. But now they’re radiant scars, and it seems that in our lives, God can take the suffering, our scars. If we’ll give them to him, he can work to transform and redeem. Then our scars become radiant, too, and useful for the redemption of others.
MM: It reminds me of the Gospel of John. John refers to Jesus’ crucifixion as his glorification. It was part of his glory that he was willing to sacrifice, to suffer.
SS: Suffering and glory are bound up together in the Christian vision, and this is counter-intuitive and mind boggling, and not the way our culture tends to view suffering. Suffering is something to be eliminated. You’ve got a headache. You take a couple of Tylenol or whatever. You get rid of it. That’s what we would think, so we assume that that’s what a loving God would do: eliminate suffering. But God’s thoughts and ways are different. He wants to work and use suffering. The cross becomes the means of redeeming the world.
MM: Right. Whereas our suffering can’t redeem the world.
SS: No, it can’t, but it can be used redemptively in our lives and in the lives of others. I mean in the sense that God can take a person, for example, who has been through the wrenching pain of a divorce and bring them out, and then they become someone that God uses to minister to other people who are going through a divorce. So that doesn’t get wasted, as it were.
I had a woman several years ago in Canada share about how God had taken the garbage in her life, the suffering, the pain, the things that she wished had never happened. The garbage had become like a compost pile. You throw garbage in a compost pile—rotten eggs, banana peels and leaves and coffee grinds, whatever. She and her husband had just made a compost pile. She said, a year from now, when we go about fertilizing in our garden, around the shrubs and all, she said there won’t be any fertilizer you can buy anywhere that’ll be as near as good as that compost. She said it will be like pure gold.
I thought, that’s what God seems to want to do with our garbage. He can take it, if we’ll give it to him, and use it and turn it somehow into gold.
MM: We want to get rid of it, but he wants us to keep it, and he’ll transform it.
SS: With his thorn in the flesh, Paul said take it away, and he prayed. He said it’s a messenger of Satan. It was not a good thing, whatever it was, but God says, no I want to use that, because in your weakness my strength is made perfect. Paul says, I glory in that now. [2 Corinthians 12:7-10] That’s a pretty counter-intuitive vision for the average American today, isn’t it?
MM: In your book you mention that the apostles “preached the gospel backwards.” It was an intriguing phrase. Maybe you could comment a little more. What’s backwards about this, the way the apostles preached?
SS: We used to think of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and what I meant by that was, particularly if you look at the preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts, there’s a strong emphasis on Christ’s resurrection as being at the heart of everything, and fundamental. So what I meant was they, after his resurrection and after their proclamation of that, they then looked at the cross and his life, and interpreted all that he had done in the light of the resurrection.
For example, his death. I don’t think they would have understood it to be redemptive and salvific if he was still in the grave. He had died, and that was the end of it. His word from the cross, it is finished, for example, takes on a different meaning. If he is still dead, we’d say, that’s the end.
MM: He is finished.
SS: Done and he is finished, whereas now “it is finished” is the shout of a victor. It’s accomplished, finished—but that makes sense only in the light of the resurrection. So that’s what I meant by “they preached backwards,” in the sense that they looked at his whole life ministry in the light of his resurrection, and it only then makes sense.
MM: The resurrection is good news for him, but how is that good news for us as well? That’s the so what question.
SS: It establishes that he is Lord—the resurrection and the lordship and the divinity of Christ. It’s good news because it helps us to really understand who Jesus is in that regard, and so I encourage pastors to call people on Easter Sunday, when they preach, to answer the question who is Jesus, and to submit to him as Lord, because the resurrection establishes that.
But the really good news about the resurrection is that it means that new creation has begun. In the Jewish mind, resurrection from the dead was something they associated with the very end of the age. That was when God was going to make all things new. They were a little bit confused and discombobulated not because Jesus had been raised from the dead so much, but when it happened: It had happened in the middle of history, not at the end. So they had to readjust.
What that means is that new creation has already begun now, and so it’s the guarantee that God is going to make all things new. It means that it has begun now. It can begin in us. We are new creatures in Christ, but it’s also about the whole of creation. It tells me that God is on a mission to redeem everything that he created. I need to join him in that mission now.
MM: Salvation is bigger than just me.
SS: Absolutely. It’s about all of creation. Paul writes in Romans, chapter 8, that all of creation groans and travails. It’s on tip-toe, waiting. When he returns, new creation is really going to kick into full gear, as it were, but that process has begun now. So the guarantee, that that’s where we’re going to go, is already now. That’s good news.
MM: That can also affect how we look at the creation around us now.
SS: Right. We ought to be preparing this world, ourselves, for its eventual destiny. That applies even to things like the environment. It leads to a Christian focus on creation care, because that’s what God wants for all of creation. We need to kind of get on the road to that now.
MM: After Jesus was resurrected, he ascended to heaven. He sat at the right hand of the Father. What’s he doing for us now?
SS: For a lot of people, the ascension is a meaningless doctrine. They believe it. It’s in the Apostles’ Creed, you know, and so forth.
First, you have to ask what it meant for him. Then you figure out what it means for us, but what it meant for him is that he’s restored into the fullness of the presence of God once again, something that he laid aside in some measure when he became incarnate. He was present at one place and in one time. He was limited by space and time when he walked here.
Going back to heaven means that now he’s in the fullness of the presence of God, and that means he can be everywhere and in all times at once now. He’s no more limited. The good news is: that means that Jesus is always present now. He’s everywhere. He said in the Great Commission, Don’t forget: I’m with you always. That’s bound up with the ascension, because heaven and earth overlap, as it were. Heaven is all around us, as it were. It’s more of a dimension than a place. Jesus can be everywhere, and that means he’s with us now, even as we’re having this interview. He’s with me moment by moment when I get in my car and drive home. I can begin to recognize his presence and live in his presence every moment of every day. That is good news. That’s just one thing.
MM: I was thinking of his ministry of mediation, as our intercessor.
SS: Yeah. We’re told that one of the main things he’s doing now that he’s at the right hand of God he’s not just twiddling his thumbs, but Hebrews [7:25] says he ever lives to make intercession for us. He is interceding at the right hand of God. This is a posture of standing in the gap for others.
So if that’s what Jesus is doing, and we are somehow connected to him and joined with him through union with Christ and through being raised up with him, then we join with him in that work of intercession for others. One thing Jesus does is he takes a little bit of that intercessory burden that he has for everything and puts it on us as particular people for particular persons, situations, countries, cities, churches and so forth. We then become these mediators, as it were. We join with him in that work of intercession.
MM: So the feelings that we have are really from him working in us.
SS: Right. It’s amazing the different kinds of ministries and burdens. Out of those burdens flow all kinds of different concerns and ministries that people have for particular things.
MM: The story of Jesus—we’ve sketched out where it has gone, but we also see something in the future part of the story: his return. That’s going to have a huge practical importance for us then, but does it have a practical importance for us now?
SS: If you read the New Testament, most of the discussion of the second coming and the return of Christ is really not about trying to figure out when it’s going to happen, or even what it’s going to look like when it happens, but most of the instruction and the teaching has to do with our lives now. For example, the call to holiness. He who has this hope, John says, purifies himself as he is pure [1 John 3:3]. This hope of his return prompts us to become like him. We’re going to become like him.
MM: If we like what he’s like. Then it’s going to have some influence on what we like and do now.
SS: Exactly. So the second coming is a call to holiness. It’s also a call to faithful service. The parables that Jesus tells about the guy who goes away on a trip and the people are back home working. They don’t know when he’s coming. The ones that are said to be good and faithful servants are the ones who are just doing their job faithfully waiting for his return. They’re not trying to figure out the day or the moment he’s going to come back, but they’re commended mainly because they were faithful in little. So there’s a faithful service.
There’s also a call to patient endurance. You’re awaiting his return, but a day is like a thousand years [2 Peter 3:8] and you don’t know. So you need to be patient. It’s a spur to be patient.
I would also say joyful confidence, because we know Jesus is coming back. We’re waiting for a person to come back most of all, aren’t we? Sometimes we get so focused on the signs of his coming, but the thing that’s most exciting is that Jesus is coming. That word parousia that they use to talk about the Second Coming was a word that had to do with someone’s personal presence. It’s a reason for joy to know that Jesus, our risen Lord, will come back.
MM: I think some people look forward to Christ’s return because they are interested in what he can do for me. I’ve got these problems in my life, and I want them to be fixed. That’ll be fixed by Christ’s return, so I want him to return. They lose sight of the relationship with him, that he’s the one we’re waiting for. He is the big reason that it’s going to be a joyful time.
SS: Right, and I think it’s an indictment on us when many Christians don’t talk much about the Second Coming. It seems like folks either over-believe in it, in the sense that that’s all they think about, and most of the time they’re trying to figure out dates and seasons and times and all that. Then in many sectors of the church, though, you just don’t hear hardly anything about the Second Coming.
I think that that shows how little we really miss him, because I think we’d talk more about it if we missed Jesus. We’d want to be with him. We’d want him to come back, because we’d want to see him again. Just like we might talk about a loved one who’s away. I wonder if that’s an indictment on our love relationship with him.
MM: That we need to be developing that relationship now.
SS: Yeah, that we’d be eager. It’s the eager expectation of his return, and it’s a blessed hope. It’s a blessed hope that we have.
MM: That is interesting, but we are out of time. So I thank you for being with us.
SS: Yeah, it’s great to be here.