Teaching the Church’s Faith (III)
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. 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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.
 John Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 40.
 Ibid., 41.
 David Wells, “The Theologians Craft,” in John Woodbridge & Thomas McComiskey (eds.), Doing Theology in Today’s World, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), p. 188.
 Ibid., 189.
 Leith, CC, 43.
 Ibid., 43-44. Italics mine.