Theology for the Long Haul

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Response to “I'm Calling For A Reformation!”

Phil’s post has captured the essence of the dilemma that many students face in pursuing theological education: which institution will best prepare them for service as pastors, professors, or ministry professionals? The suggestions put forward at the end of his post addressing this concern are helpful. Each student must prayerfully consider the theological commitments, ethos, worldview, heritage, and goals of an institution before enrolling there. I agree with Phil that commitment to the ministry and mission of the Church is something necessary for Christian institutions and Christian faculty. These concerns could be grouped under the broader category of calling, i.e., what Christians are called to do and be at work and in their relationships with others. Calling is important for each individual in pursuing life in Christ and for broader institutions whose goals are shaped by the same concerns. Phil’s call for a reformation in thinking in this area is something that can be practically sought after on an individual level right now by the university and seminary student.

The more difficult question in my estimation is bringing the discussion of calling to bear on the academy at large. It is more difficult because the academy (perhaps academies is a more accurate term) serves many different publics. Phil’s focus seemed to rest on seminaries and Christian institutions, but it is important to remember that biblical studies, theology, and church history often find their way into the curricula of secular institutions like state colleges and universities. These institutions have very different commitments than Christian institutions and often serve more diverse publics. In these environments it would likely be more difficult to arrive at a sense of calling and commitment to the ministry of the Church. Any plan for a reformation of the academy would have to specify a particular audience and grouping of institutions. One way to think about this is by comparing some of the different scholarly societies in North America. Some serve very broad publics like the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. In these societies the diversity of worldviews and commitments make it virtually impossible to affirm a common sense of calling (other than perhaps some general commitments to intellectual integrity in scholarship and to searching for truth). Other societies serve more specific publics where common commitments and a corporate sense of calling are more easily agreed upon, e.g., Institute for Biblical Research, Catholic Theological Society of American, Evangelical Theological Society.

Any call for reformation of the academy must wrestle with this question of multiple institutions (Christian and secular) serving multiple publics (Christian and secular). It seems to me that a reformation in thinking could be pursed in Christian institutions. In secular institutions it would likely need to be at an individual level (Christian students and faculty renewing their commitment to the ministry of the Church in whatever capacity they are able to in their context). The diversity of religious life and thought in North America coupled with the common tension between church and state make any attempt at reforming the academy as a whole complex and contextual, but these are not reasons to avoid the importance of seeking the renewal of Christian institutions, theological education, and ministry. Perhaps one way to move forward is focusing attention on the cooperation between churches and seminaries/higher education institutions identifying themselves as Christian. Perhaps a joint dialogue between several representative bodies like the National Council of Churches, the Association of Theological Schools, and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities could produce some fruitful results. Perhaps a grassroots campaign on the part of several churches and parachurch organizations could help draw attention to the importance of calling and ministry for their clergy and Christian employees pursing theological education. Phil’s encouragement for individuals to seek a reformation in their own thinking in this area is another way to contribute to a broader renewal of Christian education. Prayer for renewal at all of these levels is another valuable practice that churches and individuals can embrace as they seek transformation of Christian education.

Posted by Jacob, who regularly blogs at Inter Christianos.


  1. Very helpful insights Jacob...I would be your friend even if you weren't so intelligent. There are a couple of things that I would like to add to the discussion. As you know, in seminary there is often the encouragement for students to attend (what you have identified as) secular institutions. The thought is that if you attend one of these institutions you will be more objective, and have the appearance of someone who is more intelligent. I would like to challenge this idea. I believe that Christians can be called to these institutions according to their specific calling, but by in large I think Christian students should avoid them. I would like to propose two reasons for consideration. First, there is a difference between "worldly wisdom" and "Godly wisdom." They are not the same. We have all read scholars who assert some very unbiblical ideas under the covering of "intellectual honesty." Since human wisdom naturally and necessarily falls short of God's wisdom, than our "wisdom" will always fall short of the truth, without God's help. Second, earning a PhD means becoming an expert, and if you attend a secular institution you will likely become and expert of ideas that are untrue in relation to Biblical and Theological studies. Just some thoughts

  2. Thanks for your kind words Phil! I feel the same way about you! I hear you loud and clear on the point about a difference between "worldly wisdom" and "Godly wisdom." This is the lesson that well-known theologian Henri Nouwen learned when he left his academic position at Harvard University to live with mentally handicapped people at the L'Arche community of Daybreak in Toronto, Canada. The residents there did not care about his degrees, titles, and acclaim, but rather his openness to love them, see them, and hold them. Through the weakness and vulnerability of one of the disabled residents, Adam Arnett, Nouwen learned the way of Jesus, His life, passion, death, and resurrection. What the world sees as foolishness, God uses as a great source of grace and blessing.

  3. Phil,

    Good thoughts, to be sure. I feel like you are trying very hard to get an angle on some thoughts that I have wrestled with as well in my limited pursuit of "higher education". Through processing this I have arrived at a couple thoughts I would like to toss into the ring.

    First of all, one HUGE challenge that would have to be addressed: for a Christian college or university to contend in the sphere if academics, they have to conform to state ordained prerequisites to be recognized as an accredited institution. To put it another way - they have to be conformed to this world.

    This creates a gigantic moral wrestling match that I think most Christians, and thereby the institutions they create, if honest to the heart, know remain unsettled. It is truly a narrow road to walk - the line between honesty with natural facts and science, and the supernatural life lead by the Spirit of Christ.

    The pitfalls in this, I believe to be - we are left with the disquieting chasms of either disconnecting our faith, ministry and institutions from rigorous intellectual exercise, or subjugating them to the oversight of the worldly and potentially evil, who have limited or no connection to that Confusing and Bright Light.

    Neither of these conclusions is desirable - I spent the better part of my childhood and adolescence surrounded by believers who had isolated themselves from intellectual scrutiny and insulated themselves with circular reasoning and strawmen to qualify great evils committed in the name of God.

    At the same time, the lump of this world is frequently robbed of the leven it desperately needs to rise above its sordid state by the very people who have been commissioned to spread it! If we need to separate our faith from the scrutiny of the world - how weak our faith must be!

    All the same: to try to compare the pursuits of the Spirit and the fruit that must come with it, to the pursuit of worldly knowledge is pure foolishness. The desire for higher learning urged by the Spirit of Christ will continue to lead to the fruit of the Spirit, in whatever sphere of influence. The pursuit of higher learning for any other purpose will lead to the fruits of that purpose... self-glorification, power without moral constraint, darkness.

    It is my great desire that the people of God in their pursuit of understanding would first an foremost seek out our Great Sister Wisdom, cultivate a heart that is sensitive to that still, small Voice and integrate the fruits born out of the Spirit that is residing in us into all of our pursuits - intellectual or otherwise. Peace and Grace to you! -Nate Butler

  4. A good word Nate! I too have been around some Christians who pretend like there are no challenges to our faith... I also find that to be unhelpful.

    Jacob, thansk for the encouragement.