Christianity: Doctrine and Ethics

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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Teaching the Church’s Faith (IV)

The Question of “Content” Vis-à-Vis Faith
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.”[1]
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.”[2] 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.”[3]
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.”[4]
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.”[5] 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.[6] 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.”[7] 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.[8]
One clear example of what Wells means is aptly described in his book God in the Wasteland.[9] 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.”[10]
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.”[11]
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…”[12] 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.[13]
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.”[14] 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.”[15]
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.

[1] John Leith, Crisis in the Church, The Plight of Theological Education, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 44.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 45.
[5] Ibid., 46.
[6] David Wells, Above All Earthy P’wers, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 264.
[7] Ibid., 265.
[8] 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.”
[9] David Wells, God in the Wasteland, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 72-87.
[10] Ibid., 73.
[11] 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.
[12] Leith, CC, 46.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., 47.
[15] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Teaching the Church’s Faith (III)

The Seminary as Secular University
We have examined the two previous objections that John Leith has put forward regarding teaching the church’s faith. He was convinced that the modern Church had lost her focus for three primary reasons. The first had to do with the prevalent conviction that the faith the Church confessed in the past is not adequate for a post-Enlightenment culture.[1] Interestingly, after I made this suggestion on my blog, a friendly writer in the blog-o-sphere wrote and tried to inform me that faith has indeed changed over time. This comment is a sad commentary on just how unenlightened today’s enlightened think that they are. I could understand it if the point were being made that the culture into which biblical faith must come has changed, but to make the point that faith, its content, and object has changed is chilling. Leith’s warning is well taken: “Theology becomes self-destructive when its primary goal is accommodation to the culture.”[2] What often passes as contextualization is, as often as not, little more than accommodation.
Second, Leith directed our attention to the truth that a number of modern seminaries have become “cause-oriented.” This can take various forms. In the more liberal seminaries—and they are legion—it frequently takes the form of a variety of faddish theologies. This approach requires theologians to denude themselves—otherwise they would perform the dreaded sacrificium intellectus—of the very knowledge that qualifies them as theologians. David Wells comments, “In the academy, theology is required to denude itself of the knowledge of God, the knowledge that is founded in the death of Christ, structured by the Word of God, and mediated by the Spirit of God; in reality, theology cannot properly be done without this knowledge. The theologian must first and foremost be a man or woman of God and know what it is to be in Christ; he or she must be determined to learn to think God’s thoughts after him and, as a creature unworthy of redemption, to bring to God, even in the work of theology, the love and worship that are his due.”[3] Wells goes on to point out that up until the nineteenth century it was a “given” that theology was “seen as a churchly activity, done by those in the church for those in the church.”[4] This is no more the case. Modern seminaries have become caught in a web of cause-oriented, issues-driven theologies that have taken it far a field. They have failed to remember a key axiom: “The purpose of thinking theologically, we must remember, arises from the nature of the enterprise itself and is not prescribed or proscribed by cultural considerations.”[5]
Leith’s third concern or reason is what will occupy us in this issue: “A third reason for the confusion in the focus of the seminary on teaching the church’s faith is the increasingly tendency to turn the seminary into a graduate school or to assume the functions of a secular university.”[6] He is convinced that in our time seminaries are striving less and less to be “a catechetical institution” and more and more to be “a graduate institution for critical study of religion.”[7]
And this is precisely the “shift” that has occurred over the last several decades. Professors, sequestered from the vitality or the local congregation and out of touch with pastors, pose a huge problem as far as solid theological education is concerned. Rather than desiring to work closely with biblically qualified pastors, far too many seminary professors remain aloof. If there is to be a roundtable discussion on a given subject, the professors will bring in the other “experts” as the expense of the pastors, thus creating a kind of hierarchy. Even among seminary students there is an unwritten law that the sharper knives in the drawer will eventually become professors while the seminarians of a lesser god will become pastors. Those who can become professors; those who can’t become pastors.
But take the time to talk to almost any seminarian who has been out of “sem” for a couple of years and became a pastor and ask him how what he learned in seminary has actually helped him as a pastor and he will give you a knowing grin. There is a clear “disconnect” between the course material and the application of that material in a local congregation. Is there anything that can be done? I, for one, am thoroughly convinced that there is, but the obstacle will be to get the seminaries to think outside the box and to get pastors to shed stereotypes. Allow me to suggest some steps in the direction of rectifying this situation.
First, pastors must make every effort to keep abreast of current theological movements and shifts, their biblical languages current, and their preaching/teaching skills sharply honed. It is true that scholarship’s best place is in the pulpit. It is quite possible to be both a scholar and a preacher. Seminarians ought to take this first point into serious consideration.
Second, seminaries ought to be recruiting professors from among the ranks of pastors. When I studied, lived, and was the pastor of a Dutch-speaking church in Holland I became aware that even at the liberal schools, no one would be considered to fill the position of professor unless he had had a minimum of five years in the pastorate. Of course, there can be exceptions to this rule. For example, I’m not totally certain that I would require a Greek, Hebrew, or Church History professor to have had the requisite five years in a local congregation before they could be considered as a professor. Perhaps other exceptions could be made, but it seems prudent to say that an 80%/20% rule should be in effect where 80% of the profs have had their theology forged in the crucible of congregational life, especially those teaching courses such a Systematic Theology, Biblical Studies, and preaching/Pastoral Theology, just to mention the most obvious ones.
Third, in areas that allow it, pastors should be invited as guest-lecturers and seminaries should establish effective “mentoring” programs where the students are under the care and guidance of a competent shepherd of the sheep. This would create an atmosphere where there is greater cooperation and communication between the local congregations and the seminary, which would be beneficial to all involved.
As it stands, however, there is room for vast improvement as far as these three points are concerned. Leith describes the current situation in this manner: “The contemporary model of the seminary as an institution for advanced study presupposes that seminary students have finished catechetical training.”[8] I’m willing to wager that this sounds strange, odd to many readers, but shouldn’t each seminary candidate be thoroughly conversant with, in the case of PCA and OPC students, the Westminster Shorter Catechism and English Bible content? There is an enormous task for local churches to prepare its candidates for seminary via a comprehensive catechetical program prior to seminary.
In addition, as I mentioned in a previous issue, I’m convinced that it would be helpful for theological candidates to have some military training under their belt prior to seminary. I cannot and will not attempt to make this required, but it would certainly have the added benefit of teaching some real leadership as well as allowing these prospective students to see a side of life that seminary insulates them from—to their detriment. This is part of the “knowing grin” syndrome when the seminary graduate is shocked to discover that the members in his congregation are not as enthralled as he is with the latest article in the Bulletin of Arrogant Theologians by some professorial perfume prince teaching in seminary.
Serving in the military would also provide the opportunity to memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism (or Heidelberg Catechism), get English Bible content down, and perhaps get a course or two in Greek under your belt. Given the wide variety of education majors among today’s seminarians Leith concludes, ‘It can no longer be assumed that the seminary student is a graduate in the humanities with major study in such fields as English, history, and philosophy. Seminaries for the most part have given up any effort to have remedial courses for these deficiencies in college training. The simple fact is that the students who come to the theological seminary today have not finished catechetical training. They cannot go beyond catechetical training until they do.”[9]
In our next issue, we want to begin to probe into the much-maligned concept in the modern Church of doctrine and its place within the faith. We shall see how the notion of the unimportance of doctrine in the Church, almost more than anything else, has negatively affected pastors and their congregations.

[1] John Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 40.
[2] Ibid., 41.
[3] David Wells, “The Theologians Craft,” in John Woodbridge & Thomas McComiskey (eds.), Doing Theology in Today’s World, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), p. 188.
[4] Ibid., 189.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Leith, CC, 43.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 43-44. Italics mine.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Teaching the Church’s Faith (II)

Church in a Post-Enlightenment Culture
The question of culture and how to engage it remains intriguing if not elusive. But even with the degree of difficulty that surrounds pinning down an adequate and practical definition of how the Church ought to engage the culture there are some clear warning signs along the path. The late John Leith noted three problems in particular dealing with the Church and culture. Last week we discussed the first of three problems, which is “…the prevalent conviction that the faith the church has confessed in the past is not adequate for a post-Enlightenment culture, the idea that faith must be accommodated to culture has undermined the teaching of the church’s faith.”[1] Leith went on to say that “The peculiarities of our age ought not to be an excuse for our failures to proclaim the gospel as Christians have believed and confessed it through the centuries.”[2] If we were to do that today, there would be no more controversy surrounding the mega-church, Federal Vision, New Perspective on Paul, or the Emergent Church, just to mention a few.
Leith also mentions a second reason why seminaries (and churches) lose their God-given focus: embracing a “multitude of causes.”[3] Take a few minutes some time and go on line and peruse the course descriptions of a number of our “cutting edge” seminaries. It will become readily apparent very quickly that Leith’s accusation is to the point. A large number of our seminaries are “cause-driven.” The cause can be anything ranging from feminist oriented courses to Black Theology to the Theology of Liberation (theology with a Marxist sauce thrown over it), homosexual theology, the social gospel, or any number of current fads. As “contemporary” as many of these courses portend to be, they tend to fade rapidly into the background as soon as the next “latest and greatest, recent and decent, newer is better” fad comes along. Rather than giving the students a solid background in what Christians have believed and confessed throughout the centuries.
How exactly does a “cause-oriented” seminary operate? Leith states, “the cause orientation of seminary campuses not only takes time from the study of basic texts, but it also changes the focus of the seminary from its primary tasks of educating ministers to preach the gospel of what God has done and is doing for human beings to the advocacy of ‘causes’ that are flawed and that will die.”[4]

Engaging the Culture
But there is more: “A cause-oriented seminary not only exploits the gospel of what God has done for our salvation but also the theological enterprise itself for ideological purposes.”[5] Leith’s points are more thoroughly delineated in Nancy Pearcey’s book Total Truth.[6] There are two chapters in Pearcey’s book that are particularly applicable to what Leith is saying: chapters 10 and 12. The 10th chapter is entitled “When America Met Christianity—Guess Who Won?” and the 12th is “How Women Started the Culture War.” I would like to take some of her most important points and bring them to your attention. Quite understandably, both of these chapters deal with the Second Great Awakening. Pearcey, Wells, and others have made strong cases that the Second Great Awakening was a watershed—in a negative sense. In fact, the effects caused by the close proximity of the Second Great Awakening and the Industrial Revolution are still being felt today.
Given figures such as Charles Finney, Lorenzo Dow, and John Leland the biblical doctrine of the Church and preaching took a beating. The culmination of this phenomenon was this: “The troubling thing about all this is that Christianity was not shaping the culture so much as the culture was shaping Christianity.”[7] This remains a perennial problem today as well as a good warning when Christians launch forays into “engaging the culture.” Once undertaken, many of the tenets of the SGA had no brakes. For example, Elias Smith, a Baptist minister, resigned from his church as a manifesto of his liberty, “and began denouncing formal religion of every kind.”[8]
If you take a quick glance at the Emergent Church movement you will see the irony and paradoxical nature of the ECM. The literature expresses that they are weary of organized religion and really don’t want “leaders” in their meetings. Nevertheless, they set meeting times and, like it or not, certain men and women have emerged as “non-leader leaders.” This approach by the ECM crowd is analogous to the man or woman on the street who tells you that they are spiritual (I call them metro-spirituals) but are opposed to organized religion. It’s important to keep in mind that this secular and supposedly Christian disdain for organized religion finds its roots in the SGA.
But it gets more interesting. Pearcey records that one of the salient results of the SGA was that “Many began to declare the right of each person to reject historic churches, ancient creeds, and theological scholarship in order to decide strictly on his own what the Bible really teaches.”[9] Smith, for example, taught that each Christian possessed an unalienable right to follow Scripture “wherever it leads him” even if that meant embracing heterodox positions.[10] Can you begin to see where this all led? Isn’t it patently clear that much of this is alive and well in modern evangelicalism? Pearcey is convinced that “the religious revivals became a massive defiance of traditional authority.”[11]
Three other outworkings of the SGA were that the preacher became a performer or “storyteller,” that a “celebrity” style arose among “preachers,” and that public relations was a large factor in the celebrity of the preacher.[12] One of the ironies of the SGA was that “the magnetic leaders who encouraged people to break away from traditional theological structures often ended up becoming authoritarian leaders within their own groups, sometimes verging on demagoguery.”[13] Or, as Alan Wolfe puts the matter, “In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture—and American culture has triumphed.”[14] So we have been warned by Leith, Pearcey, Wells, Wolfe, and others that we had better know what we’re doing if we wish to engage our culture—especially 21st century culture—and we had better tread circumspectly when we engage it. In light of the fact that many theologians are coming out of seminary ill-equipped for truly engaging the culture and understanding the concepts of being “counter-cultural” and “antithesis.”

Has Feminism Died?
Chapter 12 of Pearcey’s book is “How Women Started the Culture War” also hearkens back to the SGA. I mentioned earlier that the SGA pretty well coincided with the Industrial Revolution, which moved men out of the home and into the “workplace” leaving women to fend for themselves at home. Whereas the “workplace” had previous been the rural setting where the entire family worked shoulder-to-shoulder, now the father was absent and began to neglect his duties in the home and the church. As a result, the church began to turn more and more to women for the moral leadership in the home.
In 1838 a controversial article appeared, written by a woman encouraging women to read the Bible for themselves. It said, “I believe it to be the solemn duty of every individual to search the Scriptures for themselves, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, and not be governed by the views of any man, or set of men.”[15] Clearly, this was substantially more than Luther intended with the “priesthood of all believers.” The end of the quotation is very instructive.
Pearcey points out that “The revivalists also permitted women to pray and speak publicly, and even to become ‘exhorters’ (teaching assistants)…”[16] Moreover, revivalists “…began to speak of women as being more naturally religious than men, and urged wives to be the means of converting their more worldly husbands.”[17] The upshot of all this was the feminization of the Church. Rather than calling men to account about their lives and lifestyles, the Church catered more and more to women. The many Temperance Leagues that sprang up across the country were led, by and large, by women.
This means, among other things, that the “Feminist Movement” of the 1960s and 1970s was little more than an extension of the SGA. Granted that the preponderance of the feminists of the ‘60s and ’70 were secularists, not all of them were. It wasn’t long before we began hearing about “Evangelical Feminists” or “Biblical Feminists.” The carry over has to do with “emotions.” Because the SGA increasingly focused on women, the messages tended to stress the emotional, feeling side of the Christian faith and the sermons “seemed to be pitched especially to women.”[18]
Pearcey is spot on when she writes, “American churches still typically attract more women than men, giving rise to the stereotype that religion is for women and children.” There was even—following culture—a movement for Christian men to get in touch with their feminine side. When my wife was asked what I did to get in touch with my feminine side she laconically replied, “He goes shooting.” Ironically, there was not equal pressure for women to get in touch with their masculine sides, although those who went into the workplace themselves—thereby extricating themselves from the “ghetto” of the home—learned crude jokes and language from their work colleagues. Equally ironically, women in the workplace traded one ruler for another. If their husbands were not acting in a biblical, Christian fashion, did they really expect their employer to? Obviously, some did.
But feminists were not satisfied with getting into the workplace in general, they aimed at getting into the military and our military schools as well. They succeeded—sort of. Actually they didn’t succeed, but that is something for another blog. Of course, the men are not blameless in this all nor were they unaffected by what the Industrial Revolution required of them. Along with the good came a lot of bad as well. “…[A]s men went forth to do battle in the tough, competitive work of commerce and politics, the masculine character itself was redefined as morally hardened, competitive, aggressive, and self-interested.”[19]
The Church stepped in to remind the men that they were crude and brutish and that they needed to learn virtue from their wives. A number of men succumbed to the pressure and acquiesced to the “new ethos.” Whereas in colonial times men were viewed a paragons of virtue and leadership, the Industrial Revolution released them “from the requirement to be virtuous. For the first time, moral and spiritual leadership were no longer viewed as masculine attributes.”[20]
All this did not leave the pastoral ministry unscathed either. Ann Douglas in her book The Feminization of American Culture informs us that the ministry itself lost “a toughness, a sternness, an intellectual rigor which our society then and since has been accustomed to identify with ‘masculinity,’ and instead took on feminine traits of care, nurturing, sentimentalism, and retreat from the hard, competitive ethos of the public arena.”[21] In truth, the sword of the Spirit had been muffled up and decked out with flowers and ribbons. Douglas goes on to say, “New England ministers fervently reiterated their consensus that mothers were more important than fathers in forming ‘the tastes, sentiments, and habits of children and more effective in instructing.”[22] The result is not surprising. All things considered, mothers increasingly “took over the formerly paternal task of conducting family prayers”[23] and the now feminine-oriented churches released men from the responsibility of being strong, effective spiritual Christian leaders in both home and church—not to mention in the world/culture.
This partially explains the title of David Murrow’s book Why Men Hate Going to Church.[24] One of the ironies of Murrow’s book is out of ten “blurbs” that bedeck modern books six are women. All of this is merely a timely reminder of the truth of what Leith laments. Seminaries need to get back to the task of training seminarians to be men. It is only when men has a good grasp of who they are and how God created them that they will stop the nonsense of trying to get in touch with their feminine side. And if the seminaries are not willing to train men this way, then I suggest that future pastors volunteer for the military, go to regular boot camp, learn how the proverbial “other half” lives, get muddy and dirty, spend sleepless nights outside in the heat and cold, learn how to lead, and then go to seminary. Not only will you be better prepared, but perhaps you can point out to your professors where they are acting more like “girly men” than men.Pastor and churches need to return to real male leadership. 80% of public school teachers are women. Almost 100% of home school teachers are moms. There is a crying need for a strong male presence and leadership in home, church, and society. I’m not talking here about macho-men, but I think it’s safe to assume in our culture that that would be the first thing that would come to the mind of many. Oh, Ron just wants the men to become ex-tank commanders, wrestlers, tough guys. No, I just want men to start acting, thinking, praying, and leading like real biblical men, and they’d better start before it’s too late!

[1] John Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 40. Italics mine.
[2] Ibid., 42.
[3] Ibid. Italics mine.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth. Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004).
[7] Ibid., 277.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 278.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 286.
[12] Ibid., 286-289.
[13] Ibid., 290.
[14] Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith, (NY: Free Press, 2003), p. 80.
[15] Pearcey, TT, 326.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid. Italics mine.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid. 332.
[20] Ibid., 333.
[21] Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture, (NY: Knopf, 1977), p. 18.
[22] Ibid., 86.
[23] Ibid., 75.
[24] David Murrow, Why Men Hate Going to Church, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005).

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Teaching the Church’s Faith (I)

A Seminary’s First Task
As I peruse a number of seminary catalogues or go on line and check out some of the courses and course descriptions it seems like far too many are dropping “core” classes and substituting any number of modern, “cutting edge” courses that will teach aspiring young seminarians how to build a relevant church, preferably with a large seating capacity. Some course descriptions walk you through how to incorporate slice-of-life drama, liturgical dance, contemplative and labyrinth prayer, which musical drum sets are the best to buy, and how to begin Christian yoga classes at your church.
As we have been following the last book of the late Dr. John Leith, we’ve been getting a different scenario. In the 3rd chapter dealing with the teaching of the church’s faith, he opens with this sentence: “The first task of the seminary is to teach the church’s faith; more particularly, a Presbyterian seminary is to teach the faith of the Presbyterian Church. A generation ago, up until the 1950s, this was taken for granted in Presbyterian seminaries. It can now no longer be taken for granted.”[1] Indeed.
Leith attributes the current situation to the loss of focus of many modern seminaries. Once they have lost their identity as church institutions, they tend to becoming “freestanding institutions for theological thought and reflection.”[2] He believes that there is a threefold reason for this loss of focus:
First, there is “the prevalent conviction that the faith the church has confessed in the past is not adequate for a post-Enlightenment culture…”[3]
Second, we can observe “…the seminary’s embrace of a multitude of causes.”[4]
Finally, there exists “…the increasing tendency to turn the seminary into a graduate school or to assume the functions of a secular university.”[5]
Let’s look at Leith’s objections in turn. It was his firm conviction that “…the idea that faith must be accommodated to culture has undermined the teaching of the church’s faith.”[6] And yet, this is precisely what is happening on a grand scale in modern American churches. This was one of the driving forces behind the entire mega-church, church-growth, seeker-sensitive movement. It is repeated like a mantra among the Emergent tribe’s non-leader leaders. But more than that, it is a rather silent, underlying principle in a number of Presbyterian churches as well. If this is not the case, how do we explain the deluge of speeches, articles, and sermons to the contrary? How often do we read precisely what Leith is touching on; namely that the antiquated teachings of the Church are no longer sufficient, adequate for a post-Enlightenment society? Often.
J.I. Packer criticizes the modern mindset when he writes, “The fruit of this faith (for faith is what it is) is the all-too-familiar mind-set for which the newer is truer, only what is recent is decent, every shift of ground is a step forward, and every latest word must be hailed as the last word on its subject.”[7] Thomas Oden made the same point more forcefully a year later when he asked if newer actually meant better.[8]
Oden described what he called “magic words” that professors and pastors love to use to give the impression that they are up with the times; hip; culturally relevant. For example, “Academics prefer more sophisticated synonyms, such as emergent, innovative, revolutionary, or metamorphosis. But the magic is still there. Eyes light up, bells ring, money changes hands. In fact, the overall effect of the magic words in some circles is very like a pinball fantasy victory.[9] The words that Oden italicized are “good” magic words and the more they are used—at all levels—the more they become firmly ensconced in the accepted and acceptable modern vocabulary.
But not all magic words are “good;” some are “bad.” “By the same logic,” Oden writes, “modernity also has its bad magic words: Anything that looks ‘old hat’ or ‘antiquated’ or ‘rigid’ or ‘traditional’ will be subtly linked implicitly with evils to be avoided, vicious repression that hold us down, powers of darkness. The adjectives abound—all with a stale smell: paleo-anything, medieval, obsolete, senile, elderly, bygone, extinct.”[10]
So in essence the “tension” between the academy and the pulpit becomes a kind of finger-pointing game. The flummoxed pastor asks the professor, “When are you and other theologians going to develop forms of exegesis and theology that I can translate meaningfully into my daily ministry?” To this question the sagacious professor retorts, “When are you going to show us how theological reasoning can emerge concretely of your own actual experience in ministry?”[11] They stare at each other; it’s Mexican standoff and we can only hope that both are in the country legally. To what extent has the pastor’s theological education equipped him to perform the necessary exegesis from the original languages and to preach expository sermons? This is a huge question. Since a number of “name brand” seminaries have dropped or are planning to drop the biblical languages, this already puts the pastor at a decided disadvantage; but when stop and think about it, what could be more demoralizing and inhumane than requiring a seminary student to do declensions?
Yet, this back-and-forth questioning—either explicit or implicit—pretends to be looking for something “new” and “cutting edge” that the pastor can tell the “seeker” (contra Rom. 3:10-11) as the pastor builds his little empire. In Oden’s words, “The modern habit, historically understood, is an old habit—centuries old. It is xenophobic toward past cultures. It fears past truth. It adores today, worships tomorrow, disavows yesterday, and loathes antiquity.”[12] Leith couches the same thought in slightly different terms. He writes, “The times, it is believed, call for a new understanding of faith.”[13] Leith correctly points out that this is mindset is traceable back to Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834).
Granted that not many read Schleiermacher anymore or could tell you more than the bare minimum about his theology, it is patently true that his thoughts and his theology are evident in much of modern theology and in many 21st century pulpits. That this might occur in a broadly based evangelicalism is partially understandable, but for Leith it is unconscionable that the dogmas of Schleiermacher should be found in a Presbyterian seminary or congregation.[14] Why was Schleiermacher such a seminal figure? In his writings it is abundantly clear that he situated faith within the believing subject. In other words, he reversed the movement of how faith had been historically described. It was the believing subject that would spin out his or her faith from within. This resulted in crass subjectivism.[15] Without a solid anchor for verification, Schleiermacher’s theology devolved into a deep-seated feeling orientation.
It was from this perspective that Schleiermacher and his school attempted to engage the “cultured despisers” of Christianity in their time. In retrospect, Schleiermacher’s endeavor was a failure and the churches that adopted the tenets of his theology were spiritually weakened. It is in this light that Leith states, “Theology becomes self-destructive when its primary goal is accommodation to the culture.”[16] To bolster his thesis, Leith cites James Turner’s book Without God, Without Creed.[17] Turner “has documented how an overzealous effort to accommodate the culture outside the circle of faith actually contributed in America to the rise of unbelief.”[18]This is an interesting and fascinating premise that we shall, Lord willing, pursue in the next issue. For the present, however, suffice it to say that Leith’s and Turner’s words should be seriously considered and pondered. In our attempt to “win” the culture, engage the culture, or to be culturally relevant are we jettisoning matters that strike at the heart of the gospel? Are we merely throwing around terms that few truly understand and grasp simply because they are the “recent decent, newer truer, latest greatest” faddish words? In the history of theology, there is a lot to lose if our approach is closer to Schleiermacher and his school rather than the Bible. Which is yours?

[1] John Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 40.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 42. Emphasis mine.
[5] Ibid., 43.
[6] Ibid., 40.
[7] J.I. Packer, “Is Systematic Theology a Mirage? An Introductory Discussion,” in Thomas McComiskey & John Woodbridge (eds.), Doing Theology in Today’s World, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), p. 21.
[8] Thomas Oden, After Modernity…What? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), p. 41.
[9] Ibid., 42.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 92.
[12] Ibid., 43.
[13] Leith, CC, 40.
[14] Ibid., 41.
[15] See F.D.E. Schleiermacher, Der christliche Glaube, Bde. 1 & 2, (Hermann Peiter [hrsg.]), (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1984); Über die Religion. Reden an die Gebildeten unter Ihren Verächtern, (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam, 1969); Christliche Sittenlehre, Bde. 1 & 2, (L. Jonas [hrsg.]), (Gotha, Germany: Friedrich Andreas Perthes, 1891); Karl Barth, Die Theologie Schleiermachers, (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1978); Emil Brunner, Die Mystik und das Wort, (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1928).
[16] Leith, CC, 41.
[17] James Turner, Without God, Without Creed, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).
[18] Leith, CC, 41.