Teaching the Church’s Faith (I)
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.” 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.” 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…”
Second, we can observe “…the seminary’s embrace of a multitude of causes.”
Finally, there exists “…the increasing tendency to turn the seminary into a graduate school or to assume the functions of a secular university.”
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.” 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.” Thomas Oden made the same point more forcefully a year later when he asked if newer actually meant better.
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. 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.”
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?” 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.” Leith couches the same thought in slightly different terms. He writes, “The times, it is believed, call for a new understanding of faith.” 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. 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. 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.” To bolster his thesis, Leith cites James Turner’s book Without God, Without Creed. 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.”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?
 John Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 40.
 Ibid., 42. Emphasis mine.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 40.
 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.
 Thomas Oden, After Modernity…What? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), p. 41.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 92.
 Ibid., 43.
 Leith, CC, 40.
 Ibid., 41.
 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).
 Leith, CC, 41.
 James Turner, Without God, Without Creed, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).
 Leith, CC, 41.