The Problem of Systematic Theology, Part One

Serious theology is generally done by academicians. This is good and bad. I thank God for humble, well-trained, competent academics who use their gifts in service of Christ's kingdom and the church. But there are immense problems with this approach. And make no mistake about it this is not how it always was done. In fact, this is not how it is still done in many places and parts of the world today.

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Academic institutions train pastors and leaders to be junior academics, or at least something like an academic. Academics love debate and theological warfare. They can savage those who disagree with them. The smallest details become "hobby horses." But people who are not trained in formal academic ways do the same, following the spirit of the academic but without the training. (They adopt this by reading books and by listening to academics and by becoming "wanna be" academics.) As a rule academics guard turf and ideas. They write and teach about their ideas and this perpetuates this problem since some read their books.

The academy is also radically separated from the church. This is an even bigger problem. And now, in the 21st century, they are also separated from the "real" world in so many cases. This leads them toward gnosticism. Such places then become centers for ideas, not where you actually learn how to live life in faithfulness to Christ. Even subjects such as preaching and pastoral ministry are taught as theory, at least to a large degree. The very title: "Practical Theology" is often invoked in hopes of making the student "practical," which rarely happens.

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One student of this subject has suggested that Calvinistic churches are worse than most since they exist as "virtual extensions of the academy." I agree. I am often asked what is wrong with this recovery movement of conservative Calvinism in our time? I answer, as a confessional Calvinist, "It has been a recovery of some of the ideas of Calvinism, and in this recovery, the Calvinism that we now have is only a part of the whole picture and in this it is a part that has a wrong emphasis to boot." Real Calvinism aims first at the glory of God, not at abstract ideas about systematic theological dispute.
Have you ever seen the symbol of Calvin and the Reformed side of the Reformation? It is a human hand offering one's heart up to God! That symbol makes my point.

Academic Calvinism, or academic Lutheranism, or academic (fill in the blank), all follow a very Greek discipline and approach. When this approach is studiously followed the intent is to show what is wrong with other systems. Thus Calvinism is almost always set off against Arminianism, etc. Calvinists show what is wrong with the other systems and thus come to believe that they alone have done the really good theology. Lutherans and dispensationalists do the same, as do many other academic approaches.

This is not to decry academic study, not in the least. In fact, I think the church tends to be way anti-intellectual today and needs better trained leaders, not poorly trained ones who have not submitted their minds to rigorous thought. But the modern system has created serious problems and most people do not see them.

1. We are not loyal to the Canon but rather to men and their ideas.
2. We are not loyal to the church and the Holy Spirit, but to creeds and standards.
3. We are not loyal to renewal and fresh insight into the truth of God revealed but rather to preservation of the ways we know and feel sure about.

All of this calls for a better grasp of historical theology and exegesis, don't get me wrong, but these practices need the church if they are to be conducted properly. They need the give and take of faithful listening and loving, which can only be found in the spirit of true fellowship.

Because of these problems our churches often look no different than lecture halls. (Many even feel like lecture halls based on my travels around the country speaking in various churches.) The heart and soul of the Sunday meeting has become a long lecture-sermon, often written out and delivered as a written paper that strives for precision and explanation. Candles? Frequent celebration of the Lord's death at the Communion table? Vestments and collars? Rituals of any sort? Of course not these hinder the preaching. We must reject all of this so we can preserve the sermon in its right place, the place given to it by the academic training and influence our pastors have received in our seminaries.

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Music then must be changed if we are to have any life at all and in order to be alive to the times. This is a serious problem too. We need the new music and we need to sing well but we often seek the "trends" in music and worship more than the glory of Christ-centered worship. If the sermon is a long lecture then the music is even more important since the people will express very little of their actual involvement in the worship unless they sing. But so much of the music is performed by bands and singers while people stand for twenty minutes and listen, still not really sharing in the actions of worship.

So, our churches have become academies, or praise gatherings, but not worship centers where the Word and the Spirit are both truly welcome.

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