Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Academic Theology as a Servant to the Church

On the heels of participating in a forum on the emerging church at Westminster Seminary (the audios of which are available from Westminster Bookstore), Scot McKnight recently gave a much-needed reminder about the need for academic theologians to learn how to speak to and write for lay people. Here's an excerpt:
The simple facts are these: lay folks aren’t learning what seminary professors are teaching their students-who-have-become-our-pastors, at least not as effectively as seminary professors sometimes think. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again — hoping I’ve got some new readers or some who skipped previous posts: there was a day when seminary professors and Christian college professors wrote books for layfolks, and layfolks read seminary and college professors. At that time, very few pastors wrote books — they preached and pastored.
Times have changed. Seminary and college professors are intoxicated with their rhetorics and they have learned the game, the fun game, of writing for their peers. So, they now write learned monographs — and I’ve got a little satchel of such books myself. A Light among the Gentiles and Jesus and His Death. All of this proves that we — evangelicals — have fulfilled Carl Henry’s dream or Mark Noll’s warning — that we make a contribution to culture, to theory, to education, and to intellectual history. I believe in such work.
But, not at the expense of the church. And that’s exactly what has happened. (I happened to write the other day to a seminary president about this, a person I’ve never met but whom I’ve read, and he said, “Let’s talk.”)  Here’s the truth: people have asked me if I’ll lose my reputation as an academic if I write for lay people; and I’ve been told not to write on a blog (because that is non-academic). My response has been the same: what I do, I hope, is for the glory of God and for God’s people. I love academic theology, but the academic theology that is truly designed to do what it can do better end up in the Church. Back to the observation: theological rhetoric is intoxicating, but our task is to communicate the gospel to our world in such a way that it “sings and stings.” And the time is now for seminary professors and college professors to re-learn what our task is all about. We might teach seminarians and students at advanced levels, but the fundamental goal of all Bible knowledge is to communicate that truth to ourselves and to others so that we can live it out. Not just so that we can communicate within the guild and to fellow pastors, but so we can talk to Emily Johnson and Fyodor Czechin about their issues so they can learn to live as Christians today.
Scot goes on to give some pointers, drawn from his own experience, on how we can learn to do that.

Scot's exhortation reminded me of that from another of my former professors whose wedding of theological scholarship and love for God's flock has been very influential in shaping my own aspiration to be a bridge between theological academia and the local church - Wayne Grudem.

In his 2000 Presidential Address to the members of the Evangelical Theological Society titled "Do We Act as if We Really Believe that 'The Bible Alone, and the Bible in its Entirety, is the Word of God Written'?", Grudem asked his fellow theological scholars to consider the following suggestions:
  1. Consider the possibility that God may want evangelical scholars to write more books and articles that tell the Church what the whole Bible teaches us about some current problem.
  2. Consider the possibility that God wants the Church to discover more answers and reach consensus on more problems, and wants us to play a significant role in that process.
  3. Consider the possibility that God wants evangelical scholars to speak with a unified voice on certain issues before the whole Church and the whole world.
  4. Consider the possibility that God may want many of us to pay less attention to the writings of non-evangelical scholars.
  5. Consider the possibility that God may want us to quote His word explicitly in private discussions and public debates with non-Christians.
  6. Consider the possibility that the world as we know it may change very quickly.
Thank God for those who contend against the tendency to sever doctrine from life and study from piety.

"Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life; is not apprehended by the intellect and memory merely, like other branches of learning; but is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds its seat and habitation in the inmost recesses of the heart...To doctrine in which our religion is contained we have given the first place, since by it our salvation commences; but it must be transfused into the breast, and pass into the conduct, and so transform us into itself, as not to prove unfruitful." -
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III. VI. 4.


Cami said...

As someone who has just embarked on a journey through seminary and is considering the potential of PhD work in the future, this was an encouraging post. Why? because one of my great fears of doing postgraduate work is that I would risk disenfranchising my efforts from the local church. I'm glad there are some out there who still find this important. Phillip at fillup.org

John D Brand said...

I have just discovered this great site and also this article on a subject very close to my own heart. In fact I have just alluded to the issue on my own weblog - www.thebrands.org.uk. Keep up the great work