Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Spiritual Relevance of Theological Training, Part 2

In my previous post I considered the relevance of theological training to the spiritual life. If the call of Christ is to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves, why study theology? I granted it a certain but limited value--my attempt to commend it to those who think it doesn't matter and to relativize it to those who think it matters too much. These posts also represent my attempt to work through these issues myself. I wanted to find out what I thought and should think about these things, and so I set about writing my thoughts down this way. Writing is my means for organizing and processing my thoughts, and this blog has only ever been a glimpse into my thoughts and thought process, never a display of polished writing. This post is part two of my miniature investigation into the relevance of theological training; here I turn my sights from the spiritual life of the individual to the communal responsibility of the Christian leader (by which I mean anyone officially active in the oversight of or ministry to a Christian community, ordained or otherwise).

From a leadership perspective, theological education in biblical studies, systematics and church history has one primary and invaluable function: protecting and articulating the apostolic faith and understanding how it interacts with unbelieving host cultures. This function does not constitute the core of basic Christian discipleship, but it must serve discipleship’s ends by creating and protecting a safe and stable environment where basic discipleship can occur. Without this telos, academic theology and its by-products are, spiritually, a collective waste of time. Basic discipleship, on the other hand, without intellectual and ecclesiological structure tends towards petty cultism, schism, anti-intellectualism and historical rootlessness. The former will lose Christ in the halls of the ivory tower, the latter will become socially irrelevant as it sinks further and further down the rabbit hole of Christ-culture and mind-body dualism.

Academic theological training will not provide many things to the Christian leader. Integrity, diligence, public-speaking, pastoral skills, administration, and so on—these must all be gained elsewhere (not to mention the "basic discipleship" I have been speaking of--a life built on the foundation of love for God and love for neighbor). However there remain some essential skills which come with academic training and should not be underestimated:

1) Critical thinking! Christians known for pursuing personal relationships with God are not known for their logical consistency and general intelligence. This is a shame. Rather than shunning secular universities and institutions as godless enemies, Christians should be fully engaged with secularism, armed with robust faith, flexible minds and fearless confidence that God can and will redeem human society through the salt and light of the church. This will require creative ways of integrating the mind of faith and the mind of science, and a re-evaluation of old battle-lines drawn through issues such as evolution, post-modernism and politics.

Furthermore, Christians need to read things that challenge their minds, stretch their worldviews, and undermine their presuppositions. A vital, orthodox faith in Christ is no reason not to be well-read.

2) Exegesis! Christian leaders need to know how to read, interpret and apply the Bible consistently and holistically. Evangelicalism has far too many topical, eisegetical and emotionalistic sermons. Sermons should be Christocentric and reflect the import of a Scriptural text, rather than constructed from random Bible verses to make a point apart from text and context. Consistent exposure to exegetical preaching is not only good stewardship of God's word, it also fosters a church body which respects God's word and interprets it carefully.

3) Systematics/Biblical Theology! Christian leaders should have a basic grasp of the bible and know how to synthesize its content in response to practical concerns and questions. Whether someone wants to know how a Christian should manage their finances or why there is suffering in the world, Christian leaders should be able to respond with holistically biblical wisdom. It wouldn’t hurt them to also have some fundamental grasp of the history of theology either (nor philosophy, if they’re so inclined).

And finally—this is not a skill, per se, but still relevant—Christian leaders oughht to grasp at least enough of church history* that they understand their role and denomination as one niche in a globe-spanning and millenia-long redemptive mission orchestrated by the God of the universe. Good church history instructs us in humility, empathy and, not least, the exemplary lives of the saints who have lived for Christ throughout. Woe to those who conceive of it as a mere chronological succession of theological ideas.

Presumably, all these skills would be added to people who live by the Jesus Creed. Because without the core of basic, Jesus-oriented discipleship, all these professional skills are but dried grass blown away by the wind. Also, these considerations have been made in the ideal; the exigencies of Christian mission will always contend for the same time and money that might be spent on theological training. It is up to church and seminary leaders to determine the balance; please God, let them continue to hear you and always find ways to integrate mission and training.

I conclude with a plea for prayer. I assume that those who read my blog have at least some passing interest in my life as a seminarian, so please petition the Lord that I would be able to embrace first the Jesus Creed and also the discipline of training and theological formation. My hope and desire is to be an integrated leader—fully devoted to “basic Christian discipleship,” successfully trained in the intellectual disciplines relevant to mission of Christ and the community of his church.

*For this task I recommend Mark Noll's Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. It is not a long book, especially considering it spans two thousand years of church history, and it is just enough information to begin to hint at the shape of the story of the people of God since Pentecost.

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