Interview: Dr. Nate Shannon on Theology & Missions

Dr. Nate Shannon is a professor of Systematic Theology at Torch Trinity Graduate University in Seoul. He graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary and earned his PhD in theology at the Free University of Amsterdam (Netherlands). Dr. Shannon currently resides in South Korea with his wife and two children.


1. How did you come to teach theology in Korea?

I had some experience with Korean ministry in the United States—I served as a youth group jundosanim (youth pastor) at a Korean American church outside of Philadelphia—and so I had some inkling that this would be an opportunity that might possibly fit my gifts and training. So I looked into it, and after some months, here we are. Long term, on a personal level, theology in some sense is every Christian’s interest. In my own personal walk with Christ, I needed rigorous answers. And I think in my teaching, though I try not to show it, much of my teaching is a search for deeper answers. So teaching is sort of an aspect of my own learning.


2. How would you define theology, and what role does it play in day-to-day Christian life?

There’s no distinction between day-to-day Christian life and theology. The definition I use in my classes of theology is that theology is the organization of the data of Scripture. So really the exercise of doing theology is taking all of Scripture and asking questions. What does Scripture teach about who Jesus is? What does Scripture teach about the nature of God? What does Scripture teach about our holiness, the Law, grace, repentance, the last things? Those are theological questions, and that is the substance of Christian belief. I hope no one who finishes a theology course with me will be left with the question of how it relates to daily Christian life.

When we do theology in the seminary, we do it biblically and for the sake of the church. Christ’s work until He returns is the collecting, gathering, and perfecting of His people—and we call that the church, the visible church. So I am nothing but a kind of servant of Christ’s work in the church to study and convey and clarify good theology for good preaching and teaching and ministry in Christ’s church.

"Scripture rewards careful, rigorous reading and thought."


3. What would you say to a Christian who views theology as “too intellectual” to grasp?

When you hear a sermon or tell someone what the gospel is or when you read your Bible and then you look up from your Bible and you tell someone what it means, you’re doing theology. You’re explaining the meaning of Scripture. The Biblical mandate for this is clear: explain, interpret, teach your children; argue from the Scripture that Jesus is the Christ, which is what Paul does. So the Biblical mandate for looking up from your Bible and conveying its meaning is pervasive in Scripture. It’s much of what the Church is tasked with. You hear your pastors every Sunday explain—they’re doing theology. So I would try to recover the word “theology” from those who try to soil it with this air of cold academia.

At the same time, we don’t want to democratize our theology all the time and measure the quality of our theology by the lowest common denominator. I think that would be very dangerous because we have to at least keep up with the most sophisticated skeptic. I think the Lord uses skeptics to enrich our self-understanding and our understanding of Scripture. Scripture rewards careful, rigorous reading and thought.


4. What is the number one thing missionaries should be equipped with concerning theology?

A good doctrine of Scripture as the Word of God. If you hold onto the uniqueness, authority, and trustworthiness of Scripture, you have some confidence that you are well-grounded and that your witness is tethered to the objective facts of redemption.

Paul in Romans 10 says, How can they be saved if they don’t believe? How can they believe in the One of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? That, I believe, deserves as much attention as the Great Commission. Paul is saying people are not saved unless you go and bear witness, unless we send people. The power of Paul’s statement is that the objectivity of the accomplishment of redemption in Christ Jesus the Son of God—that specific One who is attested to in this Scripture—that’s the work of God to which witness must bear. Only a gospel of that accomplishment saves. This is so essential that Paul is here crying out, we must go tell people or they will not be saved. It’s these theological foundations that really make clear to us the urgency of bearing witness to Christ.

The call to missions, to evangelism and to witness, is a richly theological concept. We must explain who the Christ is. Which one? The One attested to in Scripture. That’s your doctrine of Scripture, of soteriology, of history. In that sense, even what you refer to as the missional task is the product of sound theology. If you lose those things, you can call it mission, but it’s an exercise without much Christian substance.


"The call to missions, to evangelism and to witness, is a richly theological concept."


5. What is an example of an issue in society in which the culture is shaping the theology of the church, instead of the other way around?

As church is practiced, it’s difficult for us to sift through our thoughts and ambitions and select those that are biblical and those that are just carried in from the world. It’s too often that purity of witness and faithfulness to the Scripture is left aside. And I think even in the purest of motives, there seems to be sometimes a shallow appreciation for the principle task of the Church—the gathering and perfecting of saints according to the gospel of Scripture.

We should remember the unique truth of Christianity is that God comes to man. Even when we are dead in our trespasses and sins, while we are still sinners, He died for us. And it is entirely the Spirit’s work to convict us of wickedness and sin and convert us. We are dry bones littered in a valley. We’re not waiting in line, we didn’t send a letter—we are too rotten to even know of our need. And so God comes to man. He comes down to an earth, to creation that has been so crippled and infiltrated by a principle of opposition to His glory, and He saves. And what is the church but the house that has received His salvation, and that has received His Word?


6. How would you encourage fellow believers as we continue to seek to know God more?

Personal maturity as Christians, which includes intellectual and emotional maturity, our ability to rejoice in all things, to suffer with hope, our Christian fortitude in times of difficulty in struggle, our steadfastness in theology, even the strength of our assurance of our salvation, and all the things that come with that (the faithfulness of your witness, effectiveness of your counseling, your sisterhood and brotherhood to fellow Christians)—all of that bears an organic relationship to your acquaintance with Scripture. There is the objective witness to the objective work of God, reconciling the world to Himself in Christ. So it's not optional. And I think the reward that is offered cannot be overstated.