Education has always played a large role in my thinking on the hope of future reunion of the Protestant churches, because I am convinced that a major reason (though not the only reason) for our disunity is lack of education about our theological heritage. Christians generally have no idea what the real issues that divide them from other Christians are or how those differences came about; much less do they have the first clue about how these divisions might be healed. This lack of historical and theological perspective serves only to increase defensive and militant postures towards opinions foreign to us and those who hold such opinions. And this is by no means a problem which simply exists among the laity. It is in fact just as much a problem within the theologically “educated” clerical ranks.
Playing a part in rectifying this problem has thus always been in the forefront of my mind as I have pondered where to exercise the gifts I have been given. I was at one time convinced that the best place for me was in the academy, working to educate the future leaders of the church and hopefully playing a part in instilling in them a desire to be united with their brothers and sisters with whom they may differ, or at least helping them to understand why they differ. A laudable goal, I’m sure you’ll agree. However, I have since decided to seek ordination to pastoral ministry, and what follows lays out, in all too brief a manner, my basic line of thinking which initially convinced me that I should forsake the idea of pursuing a career in the wonderful world of academia.
I remain convinced that God does indeed call people to work in the academy in order to serve the church in that capacity, so I don’t want any of my comments here to be taken as a deprecation of the academy per se or those who work therein by any means. However, I am concerned about a rather troubling trend which I have noticed for some time now. Most of the best Christian scholars are going to the academy while those who are not “academic” are going into the pastorate. Thus, our seminaries are full of a sort of intellectual hierarchy amongst the students (I say this as one who has observed closely the student life of two very prominent Protestant seminaries): the majority of highly intellectual students go for PhDs and a career in professional theologizing, while those who are not quite so intellectual enter the pastorate. Thankfully there are exceptions here, but this, it seems to me, is the general rule.
This is a dangerous trend, and one I hope to play a part in breaking. Theology exists for the church, not the church for theology. This is the natural order of things, and I am convinced that it has been reversed in recent years.
One thing we desparately need in order to reverse this situation is pastors who know the entire breadth of Christian thought and its history; who can speak intelligently to the church and the world in our day and effectively combat the fragmentation of church and society.
But also, it is imperative that the locus for theologizing move back to the church. The primary place where theologizing is done has been the abstract world of the academy for far too long. In this situation, the theologizing of the church has come in one of two forms: either a trickle down of ideas originating in the academy, or a reaction against the academy. But in both cases, the academy has dictated the direction in which the theology of the church has moved. But history furnishes us with numerous examples for the rule that most of the best theologians (and by “best” I mean those who have had the most wide-ranging impact) are generally also pastors, so this situation is needless, not to mention very unhealthy.
Thus, I don’t think it is too much of an overstatement to say that the professionalization of theology is a plague on the modern day American churches, and I am convinced that it has played perhaps the biggest role of all in the continual fracturing of the church in this country.
I am not the only one who has seen this. In fact, professional theologians themselves are pointing it out. E. Brooks Holifield, in his magisterial work Theology in America (New Haven: Yale, 2003) provides a very revealing assessment of the beginning of this phenomenon in the nineteenth century:
Presbyterians, both Old school and New, assumed leadership in the professionalizing of theology. As a full-time theologian who never held a position outside the academy, [Charles] Hodge joined the ranks of a new kind of American religious leadership. And as theology moved from the parishes to the seminaries, rivalries among the schools intensified theological disagreements. Princeton saw Andover, for instance, as dedicated to making ‘Old-School doctrines appear ridiculous and odious,’ and it viewed Yale as an enemy of orthodoxy. Old School seminaries competed also among themselves; the southerners at Union, Danville, and Columbia tried to ‘break the charm’ of Princeton’s ‘ascendancy,’ and northern ultraconservative kept Princeton on the defensive by threatening to create new schools whenever the Princeton faculty strayed. Other seminaries, including Auburn in New York, Lane in Ohio, and Union in New York City, became centers of New School thought arrayed against Old School institutions. (371-372)
And, as many of us well know, this was only the beginning.
This is a shame, and I believe it is the calling of our generation to begin an effort to reverse this situation. There is a place for the academy and for academics working therein, of course. But there also needs to be a place in the church for pastors who undertake rigorous academic work and also for career academics who are deeply immersed in the life of the church. And a healthy relationship will never exist between the two institutions unless the church begins to reassert its role as that place for which theology exists and in which the task of theology is to be undertaken.
Also, it is necessary that theologians be pastoral in both perspective and ethos if their ideas are ever really going to have any impact on people. To steal an immortal phrase from The Fearsome Pirate: “If you don’t give a crap about people and their crap, it all goes to crap.” I am convinced that a major problem with the church’s theologizing in our day is that it exists only for the most part in the form of abstraction. Our theology is “out there” somewhere. It exists in an ideal world. But the problem is that the church (for the good of which theology exists) does not exist in an ideal world. The church is a real life, messy place, full of sinful men and women. Jesus Christ took on flesh so that we would no longer have to theologize about a God “out there” with endless theorem. Theology—if it does not exist in the real world and for the real flesh and blood people who constitute the church—“all goes to crap.”
And indeed, it has very much gone to crap in a variety of ways. We find ourselves in a lamentable situation. But it is not a hopeless one.