Serious academic theology has a rightful place in the church. Make no mistake about this fact. Ministers need to be trained to be good students of the Word and of theology. This is mandated by a number of statements we find in the Pastoral Epistles. But this biblical requirement has been met, or supposedly met, by a form of training that has become deeply flawed in many ways.
I am not advocating that we destroy our seminaries. Nor am I advocating that we oppose them or close them. Many have an excellent and well-deserved respect. What I am advocating is a serious renewal in the way we equip ministers and how ministers then serve the church.
Systematic theology has become an end in itself for too many schools and ministers. Because Christians believe God is the ultimate author of the Scripture, which is of course true, they then deduce that humans can build a systematic theological framework that is a reflection of God's mind, i.e., God's truth. It is this that I believe cannot be done. There is no perfect system of theology and never will be. But evangelicals, and Calvinists in particular, have often thought that they could at least come very close. Consider this statement from one of the twentieth century's truly great evangelical minds:
The ideal procedure [of Christian theology] would be to arrange all the truths of Christianity logically by summarizing and systematizing the texts and teaching of Scripture and supplying an exposition of the logical content and implications of the Bible on its own premises. . . . The fact that no theologian has succeeded as yet in fully arranging the truth of revelation in the form of axioms and theorems is no reason to abandon this objective. . . . The fact is that whatever violates the law of contradiction cannot be considered revelation. . . . Were the doctrines of the Trinity, of divine election and human responsibility, of the two natures of Christ logically contradictory doctrines, no evangelical Christian could or should accept and believe them (Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority [Waco, Texas: Word, 1976], 1:239-240, 233, 241).
What I question here is Dr. Henry's idea that "axioms and theorems" can, or ever could, produce a "systematizing" of the sort that Henry believes in. His strong confidence in human reason is not warranted. And his conclusion is the very basis upon which much of the problem I write about rests.
When systematic theology becomes normative, in the sense seen in Dr. Henry's quotes above, the result will be that theology becomes polemics. We are always setting theology over against errors. Please do not misunderstand me. The church has always had to correct errors and good theology is vital in doing this. But a constant polemic is not healthy nor does it produce godliness in the church.
This approach to theology will get out of hand in no time. It will perpetually ask: "What does the whole Bible say about this topic (fill in the blank)?" It then turns to philosophical reflections upon all the texts that are assembled and the truths that are stated as God's absolute truth in perfect humanly devised propositions.
The danger is that once we know the truth about everything the Bible teaches about a given subject, say the doctrine of election as one illustration, then we can make war against all those who oppose this truth. We do not kill each other, as we once did, but we will kill the reputations and good name of each other. We are always sowing the seeds of our own destruction by becoming "heresy-hunters" par excellence. If you do not cross your "t" and dot your "i" correctly then you are my enemy since you are God's enemy. This is the same spirit that brought about the bloody wars of religion in the past. Is there any wonder that a growing number of younger Christians want little to do with this approach to theology? (The danger is they want nothing to do with any theology and the results of this are catastrophic and dangerous.)
One of the things I have learned from being around my Catholic brothers on seminary campuses is that they train priests very differently, at least in several important respects. While they do teach theology in this same vein, or at least have done so for centuries, they teach theology with a much more careful eye on the church itself. Every professor is an active priest serving a parish ministry. The idea of a "detached" academic who trains priests is thus foreign, generally speaking. Further more, there is an order and a family-feeling about the whole arrangement, with much more careful attention given to sacramental life and normative practices of the seminary community. (Only a few Protestant schools seem to understand this and thus these are schools I highly recommend to students who seek my counsel on the matter.)
I wish I could give you a word of hope about the conservative Calvinistic resurgence in regard to this problem. I cannot, at least in general. I see little that indicates serious change in the near future. The change is coming from elsewhere and until an older generation (mine) dies off I doubt most such schools will change at all. The lone exception, among conservative Reformed seminaries, is one that I had the joy of serving as a board member a few years ago: Biblical Theological Seminary. Biblical, begun as a typically conservative Reformed seminary, has made an intentional shift toward a new approach that permeates their entire identity. The story is unfolding and is worth praying for and watching very carefully. Check it out.
I also regard Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama (chapel at right), very highly for many of the same reasons. Dr. Timothy George has helped to form a community (the school is not large in number of students, by design) that is academically rigorous while it is also diverse and ecumenical. What it lacks in some of the areas I write about here it makes up for by the kind of faculty that it has gathered around Dr. George's incredible leadership. It stands out as a truly great example of what I think we need much more of in the coming decades.
Finally, Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, also offers a different solution, one that I appreciate for some of the same reasons. What James Houston envisioned years ago has actually worked well and the result is a school that many of my friends believe rises above some of the problems that I have written about. I have a growing appreciation for this school.
There is no perfect place to train for ministry. The problem of systematic theology is a universal one because this is a human problem. But we should continue to seek reformation in education as well as in practical ways in every local church. And we should teach our people that systematic theology is a good thing but never a perfect system for solving all that makes the church vital and healthy. Used in the wrong way it can actually make the church sick. Some of you have experienced this and know what I mean first-hand.