The University and the Church

In the first chapter of Theology As Discipleship, Keith L. Johnson notes that theology is not always welcome in the church. He shows that this is at least partially because of the changing orientation of theology, from being rooted in and focused on the church and discipleship to being housed in and based on the presuppositions of the university. The church, he suggests, is wary of theologians whose first loyalty seems to be to the secular and critical assumptions of the academy. He holds that the problem is not that theology brings together the church and the university, but that it does so in the wrong order, starting with the presuppositions of the university (e.g., objective critical reasoning) rather than those of the church (the self-revelation of God), and I expect he’ll spend the rest of the book fleshing out what that might look like.

If I understand him correctly (and I hope that I’m not), I have to disagree quite sharply. Not in his assessment that the church doesn’t welcome theology (on that point I think he understates the problem), or even in his aim of bringing the church and the university together in the discipline of theology as an act of discipleship (an excellent goal!). Rather, I think that he has made a categorical error about the nature of academic discipline and the presuppositions of the university by contrasting them with Christian discipleship and the content of God’s self-revelation.

The presuppositions of the university are not necessarily a particular method or set of practices that can be contrasted with the practices of Christian discipleship. There are certainly methods involved, such as the scientific method, but that method has been formulated as a way of getting results that are critical and can be reproduced in order to establish the truth of any conclusions a scientist might make; statistical methodology rests on the same principles, though it is quite different in practice from the scientific method. In all cases with critical methodology the goal is the removal of assumptions that might alter our perception of reality. This contrasts with Christian discipleship only if we understand discipleship to rely on assumptions. This seems to be what Johnson is saying here, and suggesting that this is a good thing.

Traditionally, Christian discipleship has involved indoctrination. While the term wasn’t always pejorative, the reason it has become so is because we no longer value assumption-laden teaching. The purpose of indoctrination was to ensure that disciples of Christ have orthodox or correct theology, and it was not considered important that they arrive at that theology through critical study. It was highly important that disciples have the right beliefs, and critical study cannot guarantee that people will come to certain beliefs, particularly if those beliefs themselves preclude critical study. Certain core doctrines, such as doctrines about the divine inspiration of Scripture, were interpreted to mean that critical study of Scripture was the opposite of faith – rather than receiving the Bible on faith as God’s good word to us, critical study involves questioning the authority of the Bible itself, something that even today fundamentalist believers refuse to do (please note that I’m not using the term “fundamentalist” pejoratively here: Christian Fundamentalists called themselves that because they believe that the divine inspiration of Scripture is a fundamental doctrine that cannot be critically questioned). Questioning the authority of Scripture has not harmed my discipleship – it has enhanced it. The Bible can stand up to criticism, but much more than that, God can stand up to criticism. We have learned to engage academic study as an act of discipleship, reading the Bible for the purpose of serving the church but doing so with critical methodology designed to reduce our own assumptions so that we can see God with less distortion.

Johnson suggests that we should begin our academic study with the presuppositions of the church rather than those of the academy. In so doing, he effectively throws out the chief presupposition of the academy, which is that we should not have other presuppositions. Instead, I suggest that we should practice the presuppositions of the academy in the church, and see the doubts and difficulties that come with critical study as an essential part of discipleship – because indoctrination makes for a weak discipleship that grows up quickly but withers because it has no roots, while rigorous and nuanced study forges our beliefs in the same way that the community and practices of Christian discipleship forge our behaviour and ethics. Perhaps when indoctrination was a primary form of teaching we were able to rely on the strength and centrality of the church community to reinforce such shallow understanding, but that is no longer the case; rather than the community defining and reinforcing knowledge, shared ideas and knowledge must now define and reinforce the church community.

But what does that look like? How can we even get theology into a church that seems to avoid it, and integrate it as a central part of Christian discipleship? These questions have been on my mind, in one way or another, since my first year of Bible college.

I grew up in the church, but I took some time away to let off steam in my youth before finding a self-focused life to be lonely, unfulfilling, and depressing. When I came back to church and found Jesus, as they say, I figured that if I was going to be a Christian for real I should probably know what I was talking about a bit better, so I went off to Bible college. I started with a one-year discipleship program, which integrates some basic academic study with worship and practical service to complete the “Head/Heart/Hands” motto of holistic discipleship. It was an incredibly powerful year for me, and I found myself repeating the thought all year, “why didn’t they teach me this in church?” It was not only the first time in my life that I had been challenged theologically, but it was also the first time that I had been taught that service to others was integral to the gospel and Christian discipleship. (My young adults group did some service stuff, but it certainly wasn’t integrated into the church as a whole.)

I’m sure that the way that theology could find a more prominent place in the church would depend a lot on the type of church. Most churches have some sort of theological initiation or catechism, but it usually stops shortly after membership – it could be extended. Some churches explain the sacraments/ordinances before performing them – this could be more widespread. Theologically void worship music could be cut: honestly, some songs just sound like a string of vaguely Christian-themed words strung together in random order, and while I’m not a hymns-only curmudgeon, we should at least look to the classics for a sense of why they’re classics and emulate their rich theological content in our new worship music.

Churches should also embrace theologians. I come from a fellowship in which theologians often either inactivate their ministerial credentials/ordination or else join the Anglican church, simply because they don’t feel particularly welcome at conferences and there is no real place for a non-pastor in the structure of the fellowship. The people who are most interested in studying Scripture and theology are leaving because they feel so isolated and excluded. Instead, why not encourage every church to have a theologian in residence? Like a “teaching pastor”, but actually embracing the word “theology” and including research specialists in the pastoral staff and life of the church. This is a critical role, not because a senior pastor or associate pastor is unable to lead Bible studies or anything like that, but because the ministerial functions of pastors often leaves them little time for keeping up with the best in theological scholarship. People are hungry for good theology, but without years of study they often find academic texts to be excessively dense and difficult, not to mention intimidating, so they look to popularizers like Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll. If you follow contemporary church superstars you know that both of those names carry enormous followings and incredible baggage that can actually be disruptive in a church, even if their work can keep people engaged in somewhat contemporary theological discussions. But while a theologian in residence could arguably do a better job of popularizing good theology for their congregation than Rob Bell can, they can also do something that Rob Bell certainly can’t, which is to raise the congregation’s level of theological discussion so that they are no longer so dependent on bestselling and polarizing popularizers. They can teach people enough basic theology and research skills to get them off of “milk” and onto “meat”, as the good book says we ought. Sermons have not proven sufficient to do so in most congregations (and a sermon/lecture is one of the worst forms of andragogy), so it’s time to shift the focus of community learning away from the centralized lecture hall and toward more engaging learning environments and practices.

In regard to learning practices, practical service is a learning practice and a worship practice. I would love, love, love to see a church that includes regular service as a whole-church activity. Many churches have a potluck meal once a month – why not have one every week, and open it up to the homeless? What about taking one week per month in which the church skips the Sunday service and spends that time on a communal project instead, or even multiple projects that the church and work on in smaller groups oriented to the skills and gifts of the people?

More than anything, I’d love to see pastors embracing theology. When I did my internship in college, the only author the senior pastor told me to read was John Maxwell; when my wife was ordained, the pre-ordination classes were all about organizational skills and how to control the church Board. A pastor from my fellowship was attending the Seminary where I was the Registrar, taking a program in Counselling, and complained that he had to take any Bible or Theology courses for an MA in Counselling – after all, he had a diploma in Bible and Theology from 1987, and had been a pastor for thirty years, so why should he have to learn anything about theology? Many pastors in my fellowship don’t even have undergraduate degrees, and many pastors who feel they need more theological education than a BA can provide simply can’t afford to go to Seminary on a church salary. Churches should be paying for their pastors to engage in ongoing theological education, so that pastors can be serving their churches from the overflow of their own learning; and denominations should be requiring ongoing education rather than just baseline educational requirements for ordination, because after all, all of the anti-intellectual pastors had theological education at one point, even if it has seemingly worn off since then.

I look forward to seeing what Keith Johnson has to say about how to integrate theology into Christian discipleship. I hope I’m reading him incorrectly to this point, but so far my initial excitement for this book has become fairly subdued. I’ll do a full review when I’ve finished.

Is it just me, or are these guys whistling?

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2 thoughts on “The University and the Church

  1. Good post, Jeff. I completely agree that denominations need to make space institutionally for the biblical scholars and theologians in their midst (and, I would add, they need to widen the circle for academics from other related fields as well).

    There’s such a crying need for some basic theological intelligence in many evangelical denominations. I spent my entire life in the church, but never heard a sermon from someone with a graduate degree until I began attending Providence at age 20. That’s appalling. I have heard some truly cringe-inducing sermons from pastors with no rigorous training in biblical studies or theology.

    I keep coming back to Randy Holm’s excellent typology of evangelism: sure, there’s turning outsiders to insiders, and forgetters into rememberers; but there’s also turning children into adults (theologically speaking). If the church isn’t helping its members mature theologically, something is wrong.

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