Lessons from a Man Who Has Been There and Done That (II)
Change in Seminary and Church Life
In our last installment we began listening to the late Dr. John Leith, who made a rather remarkable transition from being a liberal to being a kind of conservative in the Presbyterian Church USA. His book, Crisis in the Church, is, without a doubt, one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a while.
Last time we listened as Leith spoke about the need to revamp our seminaries to bring them into line with denominational churches. He was also a strong proponent of the principle that, with notable exception, seminary professors should have spent some requisite time in the pastoral ministry. This allows one’s theology to be formed in the crucible of life in the covenant community; congregation.
Succinctly, Leith believed that “…seminaries ought to be communities, not of people struggling to find faith, or in therapy, but communities in which faculty have committed themselves in faith in Jesus Christ as God Incarnate, the Word made flesh (John 1:14).” Novel idea, but not one that you will find in vogue at a number of our “prestigious” seminaries in the United States and Canada today.
Leith’s Analysis of Why the Crisis Occurred
Chapter 1 of Leith’s provocative work is called “The Crisis.” It consists of sections dealing with analysis of the crisis itself, the rise and collapse of evangelical liberalism, while the remainder of the chapter consists of a description of the consequences of the crisis.
His analysis delineates three areas of deep concern for how things “went south” in the Presbyterian Church USA. They were: “(1) a crisis of belief, (2) confusion as to the mission of the church, (3) a new professional class of church bureaucrats who where not closely related to the church on the congregational level.”
The first aspect has clearly to do with the reality that the Presbyterian Church USA lost its doctrinal compass—and, I might add, never has recovered from that loss. In fact, their abysmal confusion yet today is clear evidence of this fact. Peter Berger is correct when he warns, “When churches abandon or de-emphasize theology, they give up the intellectual tools by which the Christian message can be articulated and defended. In the resulting chaos of religious ideas, the principal criterion left to the community as it seeks to find its way is quite naturally, that of expediency.”
The second point is simply a logical result of the first. Once the first crisis point has taken root a kind of “domino effect” is discernible even amidst the cries that all is well. With little or nothing left that is verifiable, the modus operandi is expediency or its step-child: preference. Confusion with a view to doctrine has a profound impact on every other facet of church life.
The third item points us to the indispensable necessity of a close spiritual relationship between the denomination and the local churches. Whenever and wherever you find church bureaucrats operating in a (quasi-) autonomous fashion, that denomination is in jeopardy.
Again, Leith cites seminaries as both culprits and catalysts in the crisis. Correctly he states, “Many basic Christian doctrines are at risk on seminary campuses today.” As odd as that sounds, it’s true. Thankfully, there are a number of stalwarts and bastions of biblical truth, but they are getting fewer and farther between. Simultaneously, part of the dilemma is due to the fact that “There is little evidence that seminary faculties have a similar passion for proclaiming the foundational doctrines of Christian faith in a secular age.” Some, such as Rick Lints, have seen this trend as destructive for evangelicalism generally. Ironically, the call “to engage the (secular) culture” is not the clarion calls it must be if the 21st century Church is to be biblically effective. Few even point to the reality that “engaging the culture” entails some degree of reciprocity; that is, some degree that the secular culture will engage the Church as well. For those who have eyes to see, the secular impact on the modern Church is clearly discernible. The unspoken, undeclared, and unvarnished truth is that, as often as not, the culture carries the day. Lints is right when he observes “Evangelical theology must not only engage a culture that is largely resistant to its claims of absolute truth but must also recognize the influence which that culture has exercised upon it.”
One example will suffice here, but it applies across the board both to the mega-church as well as the Emergent Church movements. Both have their CEO-types and “Christian celebs.” Therefore what Martin Marty wrote rings true where he stated the following:
Where local congregations are hugely successful, they are so as clienteles or constituencies, not as confessional expressions…. It is hard to picture a member of the Crystal Cathedral having chosen membership because its pastor and its official status are part of the Reformed Church in America. If a member leaves in disaffection, it will not be because of that reformed tie but because some other minister or some other channel appeals more.
The upshot of all this is “that theological seminaries are no longer seen as primarily institutions for the training of pastors, but as institutes for the discussion and study of religion.” And therein lies one of the focal points of the crisis. The problem is actually twofold: whenever seminaries become more involved with training “professional” than they do “pastors,” then a crisis looms large on the horizon. Allow me to qualify and explain what I mean. I heartily endorse seminarians getting solid educations. They should be well equipped to minister in congregations when they graduate.
Their core subjects should have included Hebrew, Greek, Church History, Systematic Theology, extensive Pastoral Theology classes that included large expanses of time spent dealing with the preparation and delivery of sermons, leading meetings, and general administrative work, as well as a host of other subjects that would categorize the graduates as “professionals.” In reality, Christian scholarship’s best place is in the pulpit. Seminaries ought, in my estimation, to be focused on producing men of God who long to proclaim—with clarity and passion—the glories of God’s grace is redeeming sinners.
The second problem has to do with the difference between theology and religion. Religion is primarily a man-centered, from below approach that is, as often as not, closely associated with anthropology and sociology. Theology is God-centered and comes from above by means of God’s revelation to man. When the Theology Department morphs over into the Religion Department you’re headed for a crisis—eventually.
The Rise and Collapse of Evangelical Liberalism
Some would argue today that evangelicalism is on the rise. That is, in some sense perhaps, true. At the same time, there is ample reason for deep concern about what passes today as evangelicalism. In fact, it is arguably true that the word evangelicalism itself has become so elastic that it can include almost every movement that has come down the pike lately, which means concretely and ultimately that is means nothing. We can still hear the vestiges of adherence to the infallibility of Scripture, the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and Jesus’ Second Coming, but a number of the “core” doctrines (e.g., justification by faith and a wide variety of ethical issues) are up for grabs.
Once scriptural doctrine is jettisoned the camel no longer has his nose under the tent, he is in the tent. Professors and pastors who are either hesitant or who categorically refuse to mention sin and its reality are reminiscent of what the neo-orthodox theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, said: sin for a liberal was to be outflanked on the left. In our modern church milieu we can encounter a kind of doublespeak where orthodoxy is affirmed formally, but denied practically. For example, a number of mega-church and Emergent Church leaders have ascribed to formal categories of inerrancy and adherence to the Christian tradition, but have de facto denied what Scripture teaches in their preaching and teaching. Some of the most egregious examples of what I mean are Robert Schuller, Joel Osteen, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell.
In the course of time, this phenomenon eviscerates the capacity of any seminary or pastor to evaluate the current theologies and ethical issues, not to mention cultural trends. Programs are accepted uncritically since the primary critical-thinking tool has been effectively removed when biblical doctrine was abandoned. For Leith a classic case in point occurred in 1993, four years before he published his book. His denomination had traveled a road that left it in no state “to bring any critical judgment out of the classical Christian tradition to bear on the most extreme denials of classical Christian faith as, for example, at the Minneapolis Re-imagining Conference (1993).”
While the journey from classical Christian tradition to the left-of-center had been relatively painless, indeed, barely perceptible, it left the seminaries, pastors, and men and women in the pew with the inability to respond critically to the demands of the fads prevalent in society and in theology. We’ll take up Leith’s assessment of the consequences of the crisis in our next installment. In total, he mentions nine and it will behoove us to listen carefully to what the man has to say, because he has been there and seen the destruction.
 John H. Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 8.
 Ibid., 9. Italics mine.
 Peter Berger, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961), p. 124.
 Leith, CiC, 10.
 Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 22-31.
 Ibid., 26.
 Martin Marty, “The Clergy,” in The Professions in American History, (Nathan Hatch [ed.]), (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), p. 85. Italics mine.
 Leith, CiC, 10.
 Ibid., 12.