Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Educating Christians

Wheaton College

The way higher education at the PhD level is set up puts a premium on original research as the basis for being acknowledged by one’s peers as having achieved the status of an academic doctor.  As in the sciences, most of the humanities still provide ample regions in which to explore and do work that no one else has done.  My observation about the areas of Biblical Studies and Christian Theology, however, is that they are much more crowded, and that it is much more difficult to carve out a niche where one can satisfy the original research aspect of advanced studies.  There simply are too many people trying to say something original about increasingly small patches of intellectual territory.  A trip to a research library and to their section on Biblical Studies monographs bears this out. There one will find shelves and shelves of books with exceedingly obscure titles on topics that could only be loved by their author (and loved only because it was his/her ticket to a PhD). More often than not, these published PhD theses had a publishing run of maybe 300-400 books, and prices in excess of $100, most of which were sold to libraries such as the one you are standing in to look at them.  And while we academic doctors often look down our noses at ‘popular’ books that sell thousands and tens of thousands of copies to the great unwashed masses, surely there is something to be said about having one’s work actually read, as opposed to sitting in the dark stacks of some library and existing notionally as a line item on some CV.

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

The prolific Evangelical theologian Roger Olsen seems to bear this out in theology as well.  In his most recent blog post ‘What’s left for Theology to Do? Some Musings aboutTheology’s Future’, he explores the perception that there is nothing new in theology.  An obvious example has to do with Christian doctrine.  There is actually no such thing as ‘new’ Christian doctrine.  Nor is there such thing as a new heresy.  After nearly two millennia, what poses as new today is likely merely the latest reincarnation of ideas that have been circulating around Christianity for centuries, having been dealt with by Christian thinkers in one generation only to reappear in some subsequent generation to cause a stir until it is dealt with afresh by a new generation of Christian thinkers.  Two current manifestations of this would be Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism, both of which claim to be new and fresh revelations of God, but which are actually the latest manifestation of 3rd and 4th century heterodox teachings (variations of Arianism and Gnosticism, respectively) posing as ‘real’ Christianity today just as they did with considerable success back then.

Fuller Theological Seminary

It is a measure of just how wedded Western Christianity is to Enlightenment assumptions about knowledge that this discussion is even possible.  Christian doctrine and the Bible is treated as if they are academic subjects which can be parsed and explained as one of any number of other academic subjects.  Advancement to the upper levels is dependent upon mastering vast amounts of other people’s academic productions, and of arguing about everybody else’s ideas about the issue one is dealing with.  A case could be made for pursuing either as a kind of intellectual history.  But such a designation gets one further and further afield from how the Bible and theology are actually used by the people who care about them.

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

None of this has anything to do with actual faith.  I was told by my own supervisor at an early point in my writing to ‘cut out the uplift’.  The intense subjectivity of religious experience evidently has nothing to do with the supposed objectivity of academic research.  The headlong rush by Christian colleges and universities to secure academic credibility has succeeded in academizing areas such as Christian education, pastoral ministry, Christian counseling, as well as theology and Biblical studies.  But at what cost?  Increasingly, these areas of study have been effectively removed from the church and from any sort of relational context and placed instead in an academic context where mastering knowledge through reading and attending lectures, taking exams and writing papers, supply the markers for successful acquisition of  adequate knowledge to advance to the next course.  In other words, it is entirely possible to be a profoundly knowledgeable theologian, an expert in Biblical studies, a whiz at Biblical languages, a marvel at hermeneutics and exegesis, and at the same time to have little if anything to do with being a follower of Jesus Christ, or what the New Testament describes as being a Christian.  Western Christianity’s abdication to the academy for the formation of its leaders guarantees that the suitability of those leaders to actual Christian ministry will be a matter of sheer luck and not intent.  And men and women who themselves are not disciples can hardly be blamed if they are not making disciples.  We’ve trained all these people to do really well in classes, not so much when it comes to being a Christian.

Reformed Theological Seminary

The Eastern Churches have a different emphasis.  Human pride being what it is, I am sure Eastern Christians would have more than matched Western Christian’s achievements when it comes to academic advancement.  It’s just that a millennium of life under the Crescent in many Orthodox lands, as well as a century of brutality under the Hammer and Sickle in many others have meant that almost all Orthodox energy has gone into merely surviving.  But even so, there remains a different perspective on the place of theology in the life of a Christian for the Orthodox.  Theology is not something we take courses to ‘learn’.  Kallistos Ware writes, "Theology, mysticism, spirituality, moral rules, worship, art: these things must not be kept in separate compartments. Doctrine cannot be understood unless it is prayed.’ (On Prayer, 60).  Instead, as Evagrius of Pontus said, ‘A true theologian is one who prays truly, and one who prays truly is a true theologian.’ (P.G. 79, 1180B)

Asbury Theological Seminary

It is a relatively easy thing to master a subject area like theology, to advance in skills necessary for Biblical studies, to acquire the professional credentials needed to climb the ladder of churchly authority.  It is another thing altogether to pray, to seek God, to repent.  This may be one of the reasons that we in the West are more like the world around us than we would perhaps like to think. Which explains a lot, actually.

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