Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Exploring the Christian Way of Life: Introduction Part 1

As I’ve briefly mentioned in a couple of previous posts, I am not satisfied with the theology of the late twentieth and early twenty first century. I want to spend two posts outlining the problems and charting the course that we will take on this blog over the next decade or two in developing a new theology. Yes, I said decade or two, and it probably will be two. Writing a full theology is the work of a lifetime, but I see little more worth devoting my one life to. In this post, I will outline what I see as three major framing problems. A subsequent post will deal with other problems as I map out my proposed approach.

Currently theology is split into two major disciplines: biblical theology and systematic theology. The goal of biblical theology is to analyze individual texts using the historical critical method or literary ciriticism and then utilize those close readings to develop a conservative synthesis that spans a book, author, genre, or occasionally a testament or the whole Bible. By conservative I mean cautious. The conclusions reached rarely stray very far from what the scholar believes the texts explicitly say. When they do address implications of the text, their comments often feel shallow or hollow.[1] Systematic theology, on the other hand, is far more philosophical in its approach. It brings the concerns of philosophy and other academic disciplines into discussion with the Christian tradition.[2] That tradition includes Scripture, but Scripture is not the generative source for the questions nor central in providing the answers.[3]

Both of these disciplines are necessary, important, and good; but the church needs more. And the answer isn’t to merge the two, or make systematicians have more background in exegesis – though that would be a good thing. Even if it were desirable to try to merge the two, the current academic climate makes it impossible. It is impossible to be a true expert in both disciplines. No one has enough bandwidth to do that. Universities are never going to support a synthetic discipline, nor a new discipline that requires substantial familiarity with both biblical and systematic theology. What this means is that if all of our best and brightest go off into academia, we’re left with no one who can do the critical work that the church needs.

This brings us to the second problem: accessibility. Pastors are the primary theologians in the world today. While many (unfortunately not enough) have had formal theological training, the needs of their congregations weigh heavily on them and their academic skills are rusty. Much of the best work in both biblical and systematic theology is inaccessible to them because it is too technical. This work is not needlessly technical. I fully support rigor and depth. We need a better mechanism for trickling information down to the pastors, and pastors need to desire that.

My third and final problem is again, accessibility. This time it’s the accessibility of the pastors and professors. Both are removed from an important world that is necessary to inhabit for the type of theology we need today. Professors’ primary world is the world of scholarship. It has very particular demands and audiences. Many pastors acutely recognize the secular setting in which professional theology is written.[4] Even the rare exceptions still feel removed from the needs of real people.

Pastors don’t get off the hook here either. They are the primary theologians, but they too are in a bubble, a Christian bubble. Very few pastors have significant interaction with non-Christians. How can they provide effective theology for people who inhabit a very different world in their professional lives?[5] I also would argue that Christian theologians are in a similar boat, especially if they teach in Christian seminaries. The pressures of publication make it difficult to have significant relationships that are outside of the church or academic institution.

In conclusion, I believe that the problems listed above are very serious, and that the current academic and ecclesial landscape is not capable of correcting them. I don’t believe that the solution lies in reforming the role of pastor or scholar. We need a new category, the part-time theologian who is the academic generalist. The general qualities that they need to have are: the ability to integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines; the capacity for rigorous thought; a commitment to the church; the ability to support themselves and, if married, their families; a diversity of relationships; and a love of academic literature. If you’re young and this description fits, please, for the sake of the church, and honestly your own sake, consider this path. I believe it will be worthwhile.
[1] There are exceptions to this. There’s a high level of sophistication in the work of Douglas Campbell. But he’s the exception that proves the rule. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a work as ambitious as the Deliverance of God, and even for its sophistication, it’s still a pretty close reading of the text and implications of the text aren’t fully explored. And that is not to his fault. Campbell’s impact on my thinking is hard to over-estimate.

[2] This may not be obvious at first glance, but I would argue that this is true even when not explicit. Greek philosophy had a lot to do with the way dogmatics have traditionally been presented. Modern science has been the catalyst for the current ridiculous overemphasis on prolegomena.

[3] I don’t really believe there are many exceptions to this, if any. The “Systematic Theology” of Wayne Grudem, for example, isn’t really systematic theology, it’s just sloppy biblical theology.

[4] Again, one only needs to look at the amount of time devoted to prolegomena to see this.

[5] As an aside, this is one of the reasons I think all churches should have a staff bi-vocational pastor.

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