Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Skool, Part 4 (Academic Theology vs. Theology for the Church)

Skool is an (allegedly somewhat) on-going series in which I reflect on my experience in the Pastor's School of Sojourn Community Church here in Louisville, KY. Beyond that experience, I hope to challenge the mode of pastoral training in America, now exported throughout the world. As a former staff member of an undergraduate ministry training college (and an honors graduate of that same college), I want to write with sensitivity yet honesty, that we might be always reforming ourselves back to Scripture. Previous posts can be found herehere, here, and here.

Graduate work, in some ways, is like chaining oneself to a rack voluntarily. It's only a matter of time before you're going to be stretched... and most likely pulled out of joint. I'm not complaining, mind you. I made this choice. It feels that now, as the train hurtles toward the brick wall, that I'm just beginning to get the feel for this whole academic thing again. It's taken a while to shake off a year's worth of complacency, but, it's beginning to come back to me. The nuance between purely academic theology and theology for the church is becoming more apparent to me - stark, even.

Theology means the study of God. It's a broad umbrella category. Under this umbrella (ella) exists a host of sub-disciplines: Christology (study of Christ), anthropology (study of man), harmatology (study of sin), eschatology (study of last things), etc, etc, etc. It is not uncommon to hear evangelical Christians deride the very concept of theology. This is often done with spiritual sounding words about wanting to be "all about Jesus" but if you're reading this post, chances are you already see the (blatantly obvious) error of this logic. If we think of theology as the study of God, then we realize that everybody on the planet is already a theologian, like it or not. Christians especially are people who claim to take their theology from the Bible. So, how can we possible avoid thinking about God? Why would we want to? If we must think about God, should we not think about him in the way he wants to be thought? In light of this, the Apostle Paul writes to the church at Corinth. This community had fallen into some deep sin, but was showing signs of community repentance. As Paul reasons with them regarding the Christian life, he says: "We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). This "spiritual warfare" is portrayed as being normative. Thinking theologically is part of our spiritual warfare in this life.

In Pastor's School, we spent the first semester on what is known as Biblical Theology. Biblical Theology seeks to see how the "big picture," or meta-narrative of Scripture. Having understood the big picture, we can then investigate each stop along the way and see how it relates to the whole. We have spent this second semester considering what is traditionally known as Systematic Theology. As the name implies, it considers individual topics systematically. One can ask what the Bible teaches about any topic, compile relevant passages, and compare and contrast. It is clear that theology is the task of the church. In the several hundred years following Jesus ascension, as the church grew and spread, the need to summarize essential theology led to such things as the ecumenical church councils. The church took seriously its command to hold to truth, and it did.

Fast forward to today, and we find the landscape significantly altered. The questions of theology often find themselves in an overly academic, laboratory-esque setting. Taking thoughts captive is changed from something done in the Christian life to something done in a classroom. "Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words" (Lewis, Till We Have Faces) become the mode. This tendency has mushroomed exponentially since the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment collectively shook off the long held convictions of authority (specifically the Church, but also Scripture), but for some strange reason, wanted to keep Christianity as a sort of community beneficial spirituality. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant blasted the earth to ash with with their critiques and rejection of a "knowable" God. The religious establishment chose to blaze their trail through the scorched earth, birthing the great liberal quest for a "historical Jesus," attempting to find a kernal of truth in the mythical husk of Scripture. The Classic Liberal Era came to an end as World War I erased most every pretension regarding the "goodness" of humanity, but theological movements in its wake have often failed to find a path to long lost green pastures.

Where does that leave us today? The Academy as a whole (meaning all of scholastic academia, by no means limited to theology) has long left her Mother Church. How the church reacts to the academy must be done carefully. My seminary's tagline is "For the Truth, For the Church, For the World, For the Glory of God." The order is significant. By speaking of the truth first, Southern makes a clear statement that Scripture is to be held supreme in our discourse and life. The danger setting it apart like this, though, is that out of a desire to make truth concrete, we may yet throw it into the world of ambiguous truth claims that is academia. I just saw an apt quote on Mark Driscoll's Facebook regarding this, so excuse the lack of a citation. Alister McGrath, himself a brilliant and noted theologian, writes: "For the Christian, ‘truth’ is not primarily about logical propositions or statements, but about an encounter with the living God himself, and the consequent struggle to try and put into words that greater reality” This is exactly it. It's not that the Bible doesn't make logical propositions and truth claims. It's that they are spoken a living, personal, eternal God. That is the task of our theology.

The church needs men like Alister McGrath to contend at the highest levels of academia, and yes, people who are interested in such things should feel free to pursue them. One of my seminary classes this semester benefitted greatly from his research in the given field. However, my fear is that perhaps we're putting too much attention on a smaller piece of the pie. The ideas of philosophy/academic theology most certainly influence people who influence people, but while knowing the philosophy/academic theology may help us in reaching out the influencers, does it really help us reach the influenced? Doesn't most of this world fall into the latter category?
Diagnosing this problem is easy; curing it, not as much.  What prescription will lead to the cure?  How can we form a vibrant, practical, theology for the church.  The first and most obvious clear step is to preach the Bible in all its rich, complex, life-changing reality.  But what steps come after that?  I'd love your thoughts.

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At 12:42 PM , Blogger Laura said...

I need a button that says, "This is so comprehensively excellent that I have nothing to add."

Onya, brother.

At 6:22 PM , Blogger Paul said...

Thanks Laura! Any thoughts on how we move on from this impasse, though?

At 9:48 PM , Blogger Laura said...

I know one sure-fire solution to the problem. But it involves Jesus' return. Maybe not what you were looking for as far as feedback?


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