The theolog's survival pack
The Importance of Being Earnest: Beginning Theology
- Carl Trueman is Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. View all resources by Carl Trueman
There can be no more pressing question to be addressed by the theological student than that of how academic theological study proper is to be related to the everyday life of that same student as a Christian believer. Now this is a vast subject, and scarcely one that can be covered adequately in this paper. It is, after all, an issue with which some of the church’s greatest minds have wrestled with for a lifetime and yet never come up with a fully satisfactory answer. It is important at the start, therefore, that I clarify precisely what specific issues I intend to address in this paper in order, as the advertisers would say, to prevent disappointment later on. My aims will be modest. I shall not deal with specifics, merely with the general framework within which your studies should be approached.
I should make it clear from the start that although I recognise the head-heart dilemma as one that is peculiarly relevant to those engaged in full-time theological study, it is something that affects all thoughtful Christian everywhere. It is, of course, a cliché that all Christians are theologians - but it is nonetheless true for being a cliché. Anyone who reflects on God, who thinks about who God is and what he has done; anyone who has ever been puzzled or challenged by an apparent problem in the biblical text, or confused by the church’s teaching that says God is one yet three, has been confronted with an issue of theological importance, has entered the world of theology proper, and has faced, perhaps albeit unconsciously, the perennial head-heart dilemma. It is thus not something peculiar to university bedsit discussions late at night; it is the inevitable result of the fact that the Christian faith, while challenging human beings as human beings, yet has an intellectual content which needs to be faced up to in some form and at some level by all Christian believers.
Having said all that, the head-heart dilemma is peculiarly relevant to full-time theologians because the issue lies so close to their existence on a relentless daily basis, and because it confronts them left, right, and centre. Challenges to their view of Scripture, God, Christ, and salvation occur on a daily basis, requiring much hardheaded intellectual effort in response. This embattled environment then creates an overwhelming temptation to abstract doctrine from the practical context of life, and to make it an end in itself. Thus, the Bible becomes a book we argue over, not something we build our lives upon; the trinity becomes an exercise in logic and metaphysics; not the cornerstone of creation and salvation; and so on and so forth. Belief and practice, doctrine and life, are thus rent asunder and the Christian faith is, to put it bluntly, emasculated.
Now, many questions crowd into our minds when we approach the subject of how to relate theological studies to our everyday lives. A lot of these, however, deal with specifics: how does text criticism fit in with my evangelicalism? What is the relevance of hermeneutics to my daily Bible reading? What can history tell me about church life today? These are important questions but they represent specific manifestations of a deeper problem: for theologians the issue is ultimately one of how to integrate the task of treating the Bible both as an object of analysis in their studies and as the source of devotion in their Christian life. Problems raised by text criticism, systematic theology, philosophy of religion, church history et cetera all ultimately resolve themselves into variations on this one basic theme. What is needed, therefore, is a model of the Christian life which provides a framework that allows for the integration of analysis and devotion.
A Framework for Integration
To construct such a model, we need first of all to define what theology, in an ideal world, would be (and I stress that we are talking ‘ideal world’ here. I will come to the real world in a while). At this point I confess my debt to John Calvin who, at the start of his Institutes, while not using the word ‘theology’, highlighted the fact that knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves are intimately linked to the extent that it is not easy to see which precedes the other. Calvin’s definition is useful here because it highlights the fact that theology has two poles which stand in relation to each other: on one side, there is God who reveals himself; on the other side there are human beings who receive that revelation. As Calvin will go on to say, that revelation of God is accommodated to human capacity - not that it is an imperfect, misleading and inadequate synthesis of the human and the divine, but that it is divine truth expressed in a manner which human beings can grasp. In short, the nature of theology is determined both by the God upon whom it depends and upon the humanity that receives it. This means that whatever model we develop to understand how theological study and Christian devotion are to be integrated must proceed on the basis of who we understand God to be; who we understand ourselves to be; and therefore the relationship that exists between the two.
The fundamentals of this relationship from an evangelical perspective can be sketched briefly as follows: the triune God created the world with humanity as the crown of creation; humanity fell into sin, sin which darkened the whole of its existence, including those areas traditionally referred to as intellect, will and emotions; through the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, God redeemed a people for himself; that people now enjoy fellowship with God the Father through Christ the Son via the personal ministry of the Holy Spirit; while Christians have a foretaste of their eschatological perfection in this life, however, they remain as those who look forward to the full consummation of their salvation at the end time, not those who enjoy it here and now other than by way of anticipation.
Given the reality of this basic framework for understanding our existence, it becomes obvious that the conditions for a healthy life as a theological student are, as one would expect, determined to a large extent by the conditions for a healthy spiritual life in general. What are these conditions? Well, to use a phrase beloved of the Puritans, these conditions consist primarily in careful and faithful attendance to the means of grace. That is where healthy spiritual life begins, and that is something which must take priority if we are ever to achieve a proper integration of our working lives with our broader Christian existence. We must all look to these bread and butter issues first before turning our minds to the more refined details.
What are these means of grace? Very simply they are, on a corporate level, involvement in the worshipping life of the church, with its preaching of the Word and its celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and, on an individual level, prayer and Bible reading. Get these right, and you are well on the way to putting into place a life policy which will help you resolve difficulties you may have with relating your Christian life to your studies.
Of course, at this point some may be tempted to sneer. You wanted to read a university academic tell you some clever and brilliant ways of tying together the different parts of your life; you don’t want to be told to go to church, to pray, and to read your Bible. Like Naaman wanting to be cured of his leprosy, you want something sophisticated and elaborate that will solve the problem. Well, if that is how you react to my argument so far, I would like to make a number of observations:
In my experience as a university academic, I have known a number of evangelical students come unstuck during their studies. They have found the critical assaults on the Bible or the radical attacks from philosophy and theology, or the relativising effects of historical and phenomenological studies, to be too much to bear and have ultimately found it easier to abandon their evangelicalism than to stand against the deluge of alternative arguments being hurled at them from all sides. This is without doubt a tragedy and has, on more than one occasion, called me to question my own position as a member of departments where such things take place; and yet, in every single case of which I have personal experience, the problem has never been purely, or even primarily, an intellectual one. In conversations with such students, the problem has always started in another sphere: church attendance has slipped; Bible reading has slipped; the life of principled obedience has slipped; and it is this practical decline in daily Christian walk which has provided the framework for the impending intellectual crisis. Indeed, on one or two occasions, it would appear that the intellectual crisis was itself primarily the result of the individual concerned trying to justify to themselves a prior course of moral or practical action which they had adopted. Of course, I would hesitate to generalise from my experience to every individual case of student spiritual crisis, but the general pattern is at least suggestive; and when we take seriously our existence as whole, spiritual, sinful beings, with all of the irrationality that inevitably entails, we must be wary of overestimating the amount of intellectual honesty and integrity which really motivates our intellectual convictions.
We must always remember that human beings are not simply intellectual automata. Our beliefs are not simply the result of value-neutral logical processes working from self-evident truths. This is something which the collapse of Enlightenment rationalism in the wake of postmodern critiques has made very clear indeed; and yet this is something which Luther and Calvin could have told us five hundred years ago, which Paul had spotted way back in the first century, and which the serpent so brilliantly exploits in Genesis 3. Christian belief is therefore a moral as well as an intellectual stance. The reason that individuals do not believe in Christ is because they are in a state of moral and intellectual rebellion against God. This is not to say that non-Christians are as bad as they could be; but it is to point to the fact that objections to Christian belief all contain a fundamental moral element which refuses God’s claims. After all, Christ points us to our sinfulness, our moral turpitude; he stands in judgement on our self-righteousness; he calls us to repent, die to self, and live for him, though every instinct in our minds and bodies militates against this; and surprise, surprise, we do not like this at all. Furthermore, while we remain on this mortal plain, we will continue to struggle against our basic human desire to be free of God. Loss of faith, like lack of faith, is thus never simply a problem of epistemology; it is also a problem of morality. In the same way the failure to integrate any particular aspect of our lives into the larger reality of our union with Christ, from our studies in the university library to our behaviour within the marriage bond, is not simply a problem of technique but also a problem also of morality.
My first basic point, then, is this: don’t imagine that you can successfully integrate your theological studies with your daily Christian walk unless you have first established the latter on a sound footing. Are you praying daily for spiritual help, not just for your work, but for your life in general? Are you reading God’s word every day not simply to pass your examinations but to familiarise yourself with salvation history, with God’s revelation of himself, so that you yourself can understand more fully the God who has redeemed you and your own identity as one of the redeemed? Are you attending a local church regularly (and I must stress at this point that CU is no substitute for church) where the word is faithfully preached and the Lord’s Supper is duly administered? If not, then you might as well stop now, for I have nothing more of use to say to you here; if you have not laid such basic foundations for integrating your studies with your faith, then you are simply not ready to address the more specific issues which academic theology raises for the Christian.
If, however, you are one who attends carefully to those things which are the basic staple of the Christian life, both at an individual and corporate level, then we can move on the next level of getting the integration right. If the first point refers to your general life as a Christian, then my second point refers specifically to how you should understand your studies to function. What is the model with which you should operate when attempting to set your studies in the context of your Christian life as a whole? Here, I would like to make two points and, again, neither of them is unique to the calling of the theological student. The first (in order of priority) is that theological study, like everything else we do in this life, is something to be done first and foremost to the glory of God; and that is to inform and shape the attitude with which it is pursued. Such a point is, I hope, self-evident. Second, theological studies are to be seen as an opportunity for, and an avenue of, service to the church in general.
It is worth taking this latter point to heart: the fundamental model of all Christian activity is that of servanthood. Christians are not those who live for self, who strive to gain personal glory, but those who give of themselves to others. ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’ - a slogan of Marxist origin, I know, but not a bad watchword for the Christian in general and the theological student in particular. The Christian is, by definition, someone to whom great privileges have been given; and with great privileges come great responsibilities for serving others. And the theological student, by dint of what he or she studies, is somebody with particularly marvellous privileges and thus especially daunting responsibilities.
How does this play out in practice? Well, first, we must rid ourselves of any notion that we are, so to speak, God’s gift to the Christian church. We may know more theology than the person sitting next to us on the pew at a Sunday morning service; we may well be able to beat them hands down in any debate which may erupt concerning some theological point in the context of a church meeting or even an informal discussion over coffee; but that does not mean we are in any sense a more effective, God-glorifying Christian than they are. If Christianity involves the intimate union of belief and practice, of knowledge of God which finds its being through piety, as Calvin would say, that is the godliness of the true Christian, then technical mastery of the niceties of scholarship does not in any sense count by itself as genuine Christianity. As a result, mere technical accomplishment does not qualify you to take a leadership role within your local congregation, or provide an occasion for you to lord it over others. Many of us are quite capable of reading and mastering the ins and outs of a car maintenance manual; but I would hesitate to recommend myself as capable of changing the brake blocks on my own car, let alone that of someone else. Thus, knowing what prayer means is not the same as knowing what it means to pray; knowing what the Chalcedonian definition says, for example, is not the same thing as knowing the Chalcedonian definition’s personal significance.
Luther captured this truth nicely when he distinguished between his own theology and that of his opponents by contrasting the existential impact and personal demands of Christian doctrine as he understood it with the position of others. His enemies, he said, knew that Christ had died and been raised from the dead; but he knew that Christ had died and been raised from the dead for him. The difference is between, a scholar sitting in a library and reading a note from the archives saying that the cavalry are on their way to save the beleaguered troops, and actually being one of the beleaguered troops who receives the note.
All this is to leap ahead of ourselves, but it does underline the fact that knowledge of an abstract, impersonal kind should never be mistaken for that personal, doctrinal knowledge which lies at the heart of the Christian life, faith, and church. The simple point, therefore is: when you leave the lecture theatre and walk through the door of the church, remember first, who you are - a sinner saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, nothing more, nothing less. Second, remember that while you may have gifts, great gifts, to offer the church - that is for the church to recognise and for you to offer in all humility. Your attitude should be that of the servant who sees his or her skills as an opportunity for the more effective serving of others than as a basis for exalting yourself above the level of those who have not had the privilege of a theological education.
As a result the next step towards getting theological study right, after the foundation of personal and corporate worship, is involvement as a servant at whatever level in the day-to-day running of the church, whether as a Sunday School teacher, a Youth Club leader, or even as a church cleaner. Even Christ stooped to wash feet - and we should be prepared to make ourselves no less humble.
This of course is no less than is demanded of every believer: all should work hard within the local church as a natural part of their Christian existence. What I am arguing all along is that true integration of faith and learning is only possible within a balanced and healthy Christian life in general, and this aspect of practical church service, in whatever form, is simply another part of this. Nevertheless, there are many tangible benefits that can accrue to the theologian in particular from certain kinds of service, in addition to the general spiritual benefits of a life of principled obedience.
Sunday school, for example, is one excellent means of developing a truly theological (as opposed to merely academic or scholarly) mindset. Here the theologian is faced with a class of youngsters who are probably not yet old enough to be either indifferent or hostile, or some lethal combination of the two; and yet they are also theologically unlearned. Children may have the basic Bible stories, they may even have a certain amount of theology proper; but the twin challenges of explaining difficult concepts to them in ways that they can understand, and of making these concepts relevant to how they live their lives and think each day is a profound challenge of which the average ivory-tower theologian has but the vaguest notion. This is where the rubber hits the road; this is where you get your hands dirty; this is where the real challenge of the relevance of theology to real life as lived by real people can start to be felt.
Theology as a university discipline
This, in a roundabout way, now brings us at last to the issue of academic theology. As I wrote at the beginning, I am neither qualified nor keen to address the specific questions that you may have about biblical criticism, religious philosophy et cetera which you may feel impede the integration of your faith and your studies for which you long. I do however wish to highlight one problem with academic theology which lies right at its very core and which provides much of the context for the problem of relating faith and studies under which some readers labour. This is the issue of theology as a university discipline. Now, I need to be careful that I am clear about what I mean here, and thus it is necessary to give a little historical background.
Anyone who has any knowledge of theology as it was pursued in the patristic era, as it developed in the Middle Ages, or as it was elaborated by the Reformers and the Puritans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries will know that it was a practical discipline, intimately connected with the life of the church and that precisely because it arose out of the life of the church. It was part and parcel of the church’s life and testimony, and thus intensely practical. Not that it was reducible to mere praxis or reflection upon religious experience and never engaged in any deep analysis of doctrine - such is self-evidently not the case. But it was generally pursued as part and parcel of making sense of the church’s confession in worship that Jesus is Lord. Debates about the trinity, about the person of Christ, and about grace all arose within the life of the church as the church itself faced up to various challenges, internal and external, to its position and sought to clarify its testimony in the world. I am of course aware that this is something of a simplification; after all, any attempt to reduce 1800 years of theological reflection to a single cause or theme is bound to involve a considerable amount of generalisation. Nevertheless in the pre-critical world there was a unity of purpose involved in the theological enterprise provided both by its practitioners, people involved in the day-to-day life of the church, its target audience, those who made up the church, its foundation, the personal revelation of the personal God, and its overall context, the worship of the church. Pre-critical theology was thus doxological, terminating in the praise and glorification of God by the men and women who made up the worshipping congregations. This is an element that has been lost particularly in the sphere of university theology courses.
The reasons for the loss are manifold. The privatisation of religion that the Enlightenment witnessed served to push existential questions concerning the personal nature of religious truth to the background. In addition, central aspects of Christianity’s historic testimony, notably the whole idea of Scripture, of special revelation, and of reconciliation as embodied in the great creeds and confessions of the church, became something of an embarrassment, given the epistemological and ethical assumptions of the time. Theology had long been described using the language of science, but Enlightenment notions of what was and was not scientific meant that if theology was to retain scientific status within the university, it would have to undergo a fundamental divorce from its roots in the life and worship of the community of faith.
In addition - and here I guess I tread a more controversial path - the very existence and pursuit of theology within universities was not, I would argue, either helpful or appropriate. While many had Christian origins, the university at the Enlightenment became - and remains - a secular phenomenon, where the structures of what does and does not count as knowledge were set (and continue to be set) by the philosophies of Enlightenment Europe (postmodernism being, in my view, fundamentally continuous with modernity in highly significant ways). The founding of the University of Berlin, with the debates that involved about whether, and what kind of, theology had any role to play are a microcosm of what was happening all over Europe.
The outcome of the Enlightening of the universities was devastating for theology precisely because the Enlightenment demanded that theology give an account of itself not in terms of itself, its own inner dynamics and ultimate purposes, but in terms of the universal criteria which had been established for judging what was and was not plausible within the university framework. Basic to this, of course, was the loss of the idea that the Bible was a supernaturally inspired book and that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. As Stephen Williams has persuasively argued in his book Revelation and Reconciliation,1 the former offended Enlightenment epistemology, the latter outraged Enlightenment morality. At the time, this was not considered to be too serious to the Christian faith: the self-confidence of the Enlightened Christians, bolstered by the fact that Christianity was, after all, utterly dominant in the cultural realm, led them to continue to believe that Christianity was self-evidently superior to other religions and belief-systems, even without a supernatural Bible and saviour understood in terms of Chalcedon.
That the theological toothpaste was well and truly out of the tube at this point only became evident later. Nobody at the time ever thought that Christianity would have to justify its special place in life and thought, so obviously superior did it seem to all the other alternatives. Indeed, the fact that the Bible was not inspired in the traditional sense of the word, and that Christ was not saviour in the traditional sense of the word, did not mean that both were not still that much better than the rest. Nevertheless, in conceding these two points, Enlightenment theologians conceded the two points which actually supported the pursuit of theology as one discipline possessing its own integrity. Now, without any epistemological or soteriological centre to hold it together, the stage was set for the discipline to fragment hopelessly, not just as a result of the external pressures created by the rising tide of information and of sub-disciplinary specialisation in academic culture in general, but also by its own lack of any internal basis for providing coherence and unity. The result is that today, it is rather misleading to speak of theology or divinity as a university discipline. More often than not, it is a disparate collection of various subjects, methodologies, and philosophies that just happen to be in the same department for reasons which have more to do with institutional history and administration than any inner-coherence or mutual relationship.
There are a number of lessons to be drawn from this brief historical observation. First, be aware that the discipline or disciplines you study today did not drop straight out of the sky. They possess no ideal existence. Their form and content, the questions asked and the answers given, are not immune from the more general flow of history. Rather, they are profoundly shaped in form, purpose and content by the world from which they have emerged. One factor is, therefore, Enlightenment presuppositions as to what constitutes valid method, what is plausible, and what is unacceptable as an academic argument. For the reader, in the year 2000, more significant factors are, I suspect, how the managerial culture that so dominates universities, combined with the crude vocationalism with which teaching philosophy and political policy is so riddled, is changing not just the way subjects are taught in the classroom, but the whole way in which education is understood within the context of the wider society. For all the talk of the impact of postmodern epistemologies on education, my own belief as one working within the system is that the epistemological discussions within the academy are a side-show to the main event, a case of academics fiddling while Rome burns. State-funded university theology’s main problem at the moment is not actually one of justifying itself on espistemological grounds but of justifying itself on commercial and economic grounds. The real danger to thoughtfulness, intelligent debate, and real learning comes from the fundamentalist mullahs of management control and consumerism who, not content with having reduced society at large worshipping the false gods of modern materialism, wish to do the same with higher learning. When the purpose of education becomes merely serving the commercial marketplace, Arts subjects in general are placed in grave peril, and theology in particular looks decidedly unstable.
But I digress. The real lesson here is learn the history of your chosen discipline. Why do NT scholars think the way they do when they reject the Virgin Birth? Is it to do with the historical evidence? Is it to do with an epistemology that rules out a priori the possibility of this having happened? Is it to do with the tradition of theology to which they belong which simply discounts the need for the Virgin Birth? All are legitimate questions to ask. This, of course, is a simple but important point. Obviously, the evangelicals who specialise in these different fields are the ones who are competent to guide you in these matters; but in general do not be fooled by outward displays of scholarly objectivity - find out what the agenda is, and how it is shaping the way your lecturers think and teach.
The second point is of somewhat more importance: be aware, as you seek to integrate your faith and your studies that the very context of your studies, the very university tradition within which you stand, is profoundly opposed to precisely the integration you seek. The world of university theology is an unnatural one. It is one where a subject which developed specifically within the context of faith as a means of nurturing the people of God has been taken out of its context and stripped of its most important presuppositions. This is where I think most danger lies and indeed, it is what concerns me most about the evangelical obsession with academic success. Theology is not just a question of content it is also a question of context; and if we simply replace liberalism with evangelicalism with regard to content whilst remaining happy with the overall context, we will have failed.
A medical analogy
Let me elaborate this as follows using a silly, but I hope pointed, analogy. Let’s imagine that at some point in the future it is decided that the discipline of medicine needs to be reformed. This is done first of all by denying that certain medicines had curative properties which others lacked. Initially it is assumed that while antibiotics are obviously superior to baking soda in curing infections, the difference in curative power is one of degree, not kind; but gradually, over time, all compounds come to be regarded as having equal power to cure. In addition to this first claim regarding curative powers, the reformers also deny that there are any diseases out there that need to be cured. Again it is initially assumed that the very ill person is actually not very ill but simply in possession of less health than others; gradually, however, the logic of the position works itself out and it becomes an act of cultural imperialism to claim that any one person is more or less ill than any other. Indeed, such a claim will certainly lose you your job within the medical faculty. The results, of course, are predictable - the discipline of medicine, whose very purpose was reflection upon and the curing of human diseases, fragments because there is nothing to keep it together, no central concern or conviction which can provide a positive base for disciplinary integrity. In addition, the hospitals run by the students of these great men of medicine gradually empty as their patients are either killed off by the treatments offered, and other people simply go elsewhere for treatment, knowing instinctively that what is on offer is not adequate for their needs.
Then along come a group of students who, for whatever reason, gradually become disillusioned with what they are being taught. For some it does not match up to their own experience; for others it is singularly useless when they themselves are ill; for yet others it is because they have been reading of some other books on medicine which, while not featuring on any reading list they are ever given in medical school, yet seem to make a good deal of sense. Over time they formalise themselves into a Pharmaceutical and Medical Students Fellowship, where they meet once a week to discuss medical questions and to attack the received academic orthodoxy. Indeed, once a year they even arrange a conference where the speakers are a bunch of crazed fundamentalists who have somehow managed to get jobs on medical faculties despite being committed to the outlandish ideas that medicine is good for you, poison is bad, and people actually suffer from diseases (though, interestingly enough, many of these speakers hold faculty positions in the history of medicine, or the interpretation of medical texts, not in medicine proper).
There is a problem with this group, however: yes, they are intellectually committed to the old reactionary notions of disease and cure; yes, they want to think through the medicinal issues for themselves; but at the end of the day, all they do is talk. They consider their task done when they demonstrate to Professor Smith and Dr Jones that it is plausible even within the setting of the medical school to believe in disease and cure; and at base, all they really want is for Smith and Jones and their ilk to accept them and their viewpoint as having a legitimate place at the discussion table. They don’t actually want to go out and apply what they have learned to themselves or to the sick lying in hospital; they are fearful even in their fellowship groups of ever using the old offensive terminology ol illness, cure, poison, and remedy; and they certainly don’t want to imply that Smith and Jones don’t make interesting and legitimate contributions to debate. Indeed they often laugh loudest when Smith cracks a joke about ignorant medical fundamentalists of the past such as Louis Pasteur and Alexander Fleming; these students just want to be known as clever men of medicine who, despite their intellectual commitment to curing people, are nevertheless on the whole perfectly decent and user-friendly and not going to rock the boat by actually trying to cure people. They have rejected the shibboleths of contemporary medical theory, but they have done so within the same context and culture as their opponents: not that of curing people, but that of juggling with clever and interesting ideas.
You get the point, I hope? Of course, the analogy is not perfect and medical science will never, we hope, go down such an absurd path. Yet the modern university’s approach to theology would appear as absurd to a medieval scholar as the scenario I imagined above would appear to a modern medic. The modern university has divorced theology from its proper place in the life of the church and has abandoned the traditional language of doxology, orthodoxy and heresy. You can set up all the Theology Network [sic.] meetings you like, but the problem is not just the liberal theology which you learn at university but the whole university culture and ethos, of which you and I are a part. The university is ultimately not interested in those claims which make Christian theology so important: revelation, sin, Christ, redemption. For the university, at best these are artefacts to be examined and discussed, at worst irrelevant in an education which looks only to economic criteria as constituting real truth; they are certainly never to be applied. Yet these are things the very truth or falsehood of which demand not just an intellectual response with our minds but an existential response with the whole of our beings. We simply cannot talk about them in a disinterested way and remain true to their original import. It is not enough to reject the liberal theology of your lecturers; that is a task worth doing when done thoughtfully and in an informed manner; but it is not a task worth doing as an end in itself; nor is it the most difficult task you will face. Indeed, if that is all you as an evangelical theology student, are interested in, you might as well not bother.
Far more subtle and far more serious than being damaged by the content of what you are taught is being damaged by the context of university discourse, with its tendency to neutralise all the imperatives of Christian theology. Now don’t misinterpret me here - I am not saying that we should not be aware of and interact with the best contemporary scholarship, the most thoughtful liberal theology, and the most sophisticated challenges to orthodoxy. My own historical heroes, Augustine, Aquinas, John Owen, Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield and W.G.T. Shedd, to name but six, did all of these things; none of them felt the need to cut themselves off from the scholarly world; but they did not pursue orthodox theology for its own sake. They did so because they thought that such theology was faithful to the biblical text and was therefore of overwhelming importance both for themselves and for others. Don’t be fooled by those evangelicals who today spend their time praising the insights of liberals and non-evangelicals while trashing or mocking our evangelical forefathers for their intellectual peccadilloes. Make no mistake, God will be the ultimate judge of this contemporary evangelical tendency to turn a blind eye to great blasphemies in liberal theologians who happen to say the odd useful or orthodox thing, while excoriating evangelicals of the past for their mistakes. Too many gnats are strained out, while too many huge elephants are being swallowed whole.
Our forefathers were not idiots; neither were they uncouth louts who responded with knee-jerk abuse and anger to any who disagreed with them; but neither were they prepared to play happy families with those whose theology was fundamentally opposed to the gospel. The issues at stake, issues after all, of eternal consequence, were, are, and always will be just too important to be reduced to intellectual parlour games or restricted by the protocols of academic diplomacy. Yes, interact with liberals in an informed and thoughtful manner - the church needs men and women for such a task; but please do not buy into the contemporary culture of evangelical academic protocol which leads only to a useless blurring of what is good with what is bad. Making unconditional peace with heresy should never be mistaken for a proper integration of faith and learning.
In a way this brings me back to the points with which I started. You want to integrate your faith with your studies? It simply cannot be done in the purely academic environment of the university because the modern university in its very essence is designed to reject the kind of integration for which you seek. It can only be done when theology is given its proper place within the church, within the worshipping community. And that is why it is not just a matter of principled Christian obedience that you are actively involved in a local church fellowship; it is also a matter of sanctified common sense if you wish to pursue your university studies with true Christian zeal.
Why is this? Because church is the place where you will be reminded again and again of what it really is that you are studying and how it affects you. You may debate sin in a theology class, but in a sermon you will be told something you will never hear in a university lecture theatre: that you are yourself a sinner, intimately involved in the very thing you talked about so abstractly at the seminar. You might talk about atonement with your supervisor; but only the preacher will tell you that Christ died for you. You might study eschatology for an essay assignment, but only in church will you take the Lord’s Supper, remembering that you do this until he comes again in glory. In other words, you need not only to supplement the liberal stuff your lecturers teach you with sound, orthodox evangelical theology; you also need to place yourself in an environment where the indifference to and distance from real life that academic theological study engenders can be alleviated. And that place is church.
I hope this prospect excites you. When you hear on Sunday that you worship the God who rules over history, who is sovereign, who is powerful to save, and yet who stoops to take flesh himself, to care for the poor and the needy - does it not make your heart burn within you when you come to deal with issues of theology and biblical studies on a Monday morning? Of course, much of your studies will be tedious, frustrating, antithetical to the faith you hold dear; but the bottom line is, don’t let it grind you down; and don’t let the university set your theological life agenda as it sets your theological studies curriculum. Make sure that your head and heart are filled with enough good stuff to enable you to deal with dross as and when it comes your way. See your theological work as you should see all of your work: an act devoted to the glory of the God who bought you with his precious blood and will one day glorify you in heaven.
I close, therefore, with the words of one much better placed than I am to speak of the theological scholarship of his own day, liberal and conservative, Catholic and protestant; one who was accomplished across a whole range of academic disciplines in a way that would now be impossible; a man honoured by one of the great universities of Europe for his contribution to theology; but also a man who knew the love of Christ in his own heart and who sought through his writings, scholarly and devotional, to shed that love abroad. I speak, of course, of the great Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield. Writing on ‘The Idea of Systematic Theology’, he wrote the following:
The systematic theologian is pre-eminently a preacher of the gospel; and the end of his work is obviously not merely the logical arrangement of the truths which come under his hand, but the moving of men, through their power to love God with all their heart and their neighbours as themselves; to choose their portion with the Saviour of their souls; to find and hold him precious; and to recognise and yield to the sweet influences of the Holy Spirit whom he has sent. With such truth as this he will not dare to deal in a cold and merely scientific spirit, but will justly and necessarily permit its preciousness and its practical destination to determine the spirit in which he handles it, and to awaken the reverential love with which alone he should investigate its reciprocal relations. For this he needs to be suffused at all times with a sense of the unspeakable worth of the revelation which lies before him as the source of his material, and with the personal bearings of its separate truths on his own heart and life; he needs to have had and to be having afull, rich, and deep religious experience of the great doctrines with which he deals; he needs to be living close to his God, to be resting always on the bosom of his Redeemer, to be filled at all times with the manifest influences of the Holy Spirit. The student of systematic theology needs a very sensitive religious nature, a most thoroughly consecrated heart, and an outpouring of the Holy Ghost upon him, such as willfill him with that spiritual discernment, without which all native intellect is in vain. He needs to be not merely a student, not merely a thinker not merely a systematizer not merely a teacher - he needs to be like the beloved disciple himself in the highest, truest, and holiest sense, a divine.2
Such was Warfield’s vision. Impossible, you say, impossible to achieve that level of integration between devotion and study. Well, yes, with us these things are impossible - but with God, all things are possible. Let us pray that the great God of grace might grant us some measure of that Christian experience in our studies and teaching which Warfield describes so eloquently!
This article was first printed in Themelios 26.1 and reprinted in "Keeping Your Balance: Approaching Theological and Religious Studies" which you can buy now from IVP - highly recommended for those starting (or continuing!) to study theology, biblical studies, or religious studies.
1. Cambridge: CUP, 1996.
2. Warfield, B.B., Studies in Theology