Teaching the Church’s Faith (IV)
If America’s seminaries need to tweak their teaching slightly or adjust their teaching in a major way where should they begin? John Leith gives us a clear, cogent answer to that question: “The renewal of the seminaries must begin with the teaching of the church’s faith. What is the content of this faith? The traditional Presbyterian answer is clear: the Bible and a coherent, comprehensive statement of the faith as found in the official confessions and systematic theologies that through long use have received the approbation of the Presbyterian community.”
Leith makes an important point, but we must also be careful to note well that he is not necessarily saying that there is a deficiency in the number of courses in Bible and/or theology in today’s seminaries. In fact, he argues that most seminaries do have a rather sufficient number of such classes but that “they do not always meet the requirement of teaching the church’s faith.” That is an essential distinction to make. In other words, “Sharply focused technical courses, however competent, do not give the student a comprehensive knowledge of the scriptures as God’s Word.”
He gives us a litany of the theological textbooks that were used in previous generations and seems to understand that simply to hold on to the “old” because it is old is not the ideal. Leith writes, “It is possible to be critical and even caustic in the criticism of this method of teaching from one or a few texts. Yet the old method ought not to be dismissed. These texts were comprehensive statements of Christian faith from a particular church’s perspective…. They covered the whole range of theology and ethics from creation to the consummation.”
In a number of seminaries this is no longer the case. Students may have read smatterings of Calvin, Edwards, Bavinck, Kuyper, Shedd, Dabney, Thornwell, Girardeau, Barth, Brunner, Jüngel, Moltmann, and Pannenberg “but without mastering any comprehensive statement of Christian faith and frequently without covering many specific doctrines in detail.” The danger surrounding a number of the modern theologians is that few recognize today what powerful influences men like Barth, Moltmann, and Pannenberg have had on say Hans Frei and the so-called Yale School. The upshot of this is that many of the tenets of these theologies have filtered down into the Emergent Church Movement—almost undetected.
Ironically, the modern Church has spent a great deal of time and effort in defining how to gather and build a congregation—without the requisite background in their pastors. No, today our approach is far more pragmatic, more “Madison Avenue” slick. We are more concerned about our lighting and sound systems than we are our theology. David Wells believes that the indicators of decline and weakness have long since appeared in modern evangelicalism. The modern Church is enamored of the myriad new ways of “doing church” and “engaging the culture.”
The obvious and inherent danger of a non-theological manner of “doing church” is that “those who once stood aloof from the older liberalism are now unwittingly producing a close cousin to it.” I would add that unfortunately neither the pastors nor their congregations realize that they are embracing the kissing cousin of old liberalism. Such are the depths to which modern evangelicalism has sunk. In fact, some churches today proudly flaunt the fact that they neither know nor desire to know any theology. One can only wonder what differentiates our time substantially from the time prior to the Reformation. In terms of how the church, by and large, is “engaging the culture” Wells is convinced that she is going about it in the wrong way.
One clear example of what Wells means is aptly described in his book God in the Wasteland. Citing a number of studies by church-growth guru, George Barna, Wells writes, “It is time, says Barna, for the church to adopt a whole new paradigm for understanding itself, a model borrowed from the contemporary business world. Like it or not, the church is not only in a market but is itself a business. It has a ‘product’ to sell—relationships to Jesus and others; its ‘core product’ is the message of salvation, and each local church is a ‘franchise.’ The church’s pastors, says Barna, will be judged not by their teaching and counseling but by their ability to run the church ‘smoothly and efficiently’ as if it were a business.”
In such a church environment, lacking serious theological backing, what does the pastor then look like? Again Wells’ comments are to the point: “To be successful, Barna argues, a modern pastor is going to need a portfolio of gifts rather different from those that Paul had in mind. Modern pastors need the ‘gifts’ of delegation, confidence, interaction, decision-making, visibility, practicality, accountability, and discernment much more than they need gifts related to teaching and counseling.”
According to Leith, the net result of what Barna and others have suggested is “The loss of a comprehensive statement of Christian faith that has received the approbation of the church and that has demonstrated the power to gather congregations and build congregations…” This is due not merely to lack of solid courses in Systematic Theology but also because of the neglect of courses dealing with the history of Christian doctrine.
To many modern ears this sounds like the exact antithesis of what is needed today. People are concerned about their needs and feelings, not theology! How could anyone be so calloused or insensitive that they would be more concerned to give the congregation a lesson in the history of doctrine instead of meeting their needs? In fact, most modern evangelicals are audacious enough to demand that their needs be met or they are “outta there.” So it is obvious that rather than curing the problem of people leaving the church, the mega-church movement has actually exacerbated it. That is to say, we currently have as many if not more “church hoppers and shoppers” than we ever did. If the intent of the mega-church movement was to correct church hopping it has failed miserably. Since each mega-church congregation has to “out do” the other, some have gone to ghastly extremes to keep the audience coming back for more.
Leith’s point is that what all Christians need is not more “cutting edge fluff” but substantive teaching from the Word of God. Christians and non-Christians alike need to be confronted with their sins and their need for repentance, instead of receiving a steady flow of “feel good (about yourself)” stories. It is beyond question that “The foundation of the church’s faith is the Scripture.” But there is more that needs to be said and Leith does not hesitate—as some do—to say it. The scriptures are a deposit of truth for faith and life. In addition, “They also provide the language for the faith.”
Part of the watering down process in the modern Church has been to attempt to eliminate ecclesiastical language as somehow an obstacle to reaching people with the gospel. Part and parcel of this movement has to denude key biblical terms such as sin of its real meaning and content. Once you do that, you have essentially and substantially emptied the biblical concept of salvation of its meaning, because salvation is from something to something. If sin is replaced with self-esteem and feel-good pop-psychology, then the modern Church member/adherent will never come to an adequate understanding of the grace of God in saving him.Next time we’ll progress further into Leith’s analysis of what is dreadfully wrong with theology and the Church today.
 John Leith, Crisis in the Church, The Plight of Theological Education, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 44.
 Ibid., 45.
 Ibid., 46.
 David Wells, Above All Earthy P’wers, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 264.
 Ibid., 265.
 Ibid. He writes, “Here I am asking if this is really the way the Church should be engaging the postmodern world. I will be arguing that it clearly is not.”
 David Wells, God in the Wasteland, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 72-87.
 Ibid., 73.
 Ibid., citing George Barna, User Friendly Churches: What Successful Churches Have In Common and Why Their Ideas Work, Ron Durham (ed.), (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1991), pp. 143-146.
 Leith, CC, 46.
 Ibid., 47.
 Ibid. Emphasis mine.