Sunday, June 12, 2005

More on the Disconnect Between the Academy and the Local Church

The eighteenth-century was perhaps the richest and most vibrant era of American evangelicalism. If 1980 was the year of the evangelical, then the eighteenth-century was the century of the evangelical. At no other time in history have evangelicals enjoyed such widespread affirmation, broad theological depth (among even the laity), and influence over the affairs of the continent. Jonathan Edwards, the Augustine of North America, rose to prominence during this time, not only in the colonies, but across the Atlantic as well. His theology played a significant role in two nationwide spiritual awakenings and the emergence of the modern mission movement.

Though I will not naively suggest that all of the evangelical success of the eighteenth-century can be sourced in one factor, it is of special interest to note that pastors such as Jonathan Edwards, rather than the professors of the academy, served as the theological “keeper of the keys” during this period. Unlike the present day, the nation’s most important theologians were located in the local church and it was often the young men who had not yet earned their stripes that served as tutors in the colleges. In fact, the step from professor to pastor was, in most cases, a step up in terms of theological influence and significance. Consequently, the professor was not seen as the primary formulator of evangelical theology, but rather the teacher of evangelical theology. In the main, theological formulation was done by the pastoral community and then given back to the seminaries, which trained the future pastors. (In fact, it was the pastoral community that established the schools and colleges in the first place.) Since the overall source of evangelical theology was the pastoral community, the theology taught by the professors in the academy was theology that had its context in parish ministry. But such interplay between the academic community and the pastoral community did not endure.

Initially American evangelical divinity schools (such as Yale and Princeton) served almost exclusively as institutions whose sole purpose was to train clergy for parish ministry. Driven primarily by the agenda of the local churches, it was pastors such as Jonathan Edwards who provided the primary content of the theology taught in the classroom. But as the culture became more urban and cosmopolitan, the pastoral community began to lose influence both socially and politically. This in turn led to a decrease in theological significance. At the same time, seminaries began to liberalize and theological education became increasingly secular. Professors became prominent theologians in their own rights, no longer operating under the informal influence of the clergy. Those seminaries that remained evangelical were forced to develop a specific theology in light of this emerging paradigm. In order to remain respectable in the eyes of an increasingly secularizing academic community, it became paramount for the survival of the evangelical seminary to address the liberal attack on the authority of Scripture. Consequently much of theological formulation became apologetically focused towards institutional concerns, rather than directly concerned with the needs of the local church.

It appears that somewhere between the nineteenth-century and today, evangelical theological reflection began allowing the questions that concerned the seminaries (in defense against the secular divinity schools) to frame theological reflection in a manner that eclipsed theological reflection primarily concerned with the local church. It was only natural that this would occur, given the new social location of evangelical theologians, yet this shift has not been without effect on our contemporary ability to do theology in way that is helpful to the local church. Dan Migliore writes, “Theology in the academic context naturally tends to be apologetically oriented: theology in the church is interested primarily in the clarification and interpretation of the church’s message…” (Faith Seeking Understanding, 14). When the agenda of evangelical theological reflection is being driven by professors in the academy (who have their own distinct social location and apologetic agenda) deep theology directly pertaining to the local church is often overlooked.

The widening gulf between the theology of the academy and the local church was clearly illustrated to me through the experience of my former pastor. Holding a PhD in theology, he came to our church from a highly acclaimed seminary where he had both served as dean and taught theology. After having served at our church for over seven years, he resigned to once again to pursue a teaching career. Upon submitting his resume to a local Bible school, he was initially given only a one year contract. The reason given by the institute for the tentative commitment was his long hiatus out of academics. There was concern that due to his time in pastoral ministry he would no longer be abreast of important current theological issues. The gulf between the academy and the local church has widened to such an extent that ministry in a local church is now often seen as a detriment to one’s ability to adequately formulate theology for institutions whose primary purpose is to train pastors for the local church. Am the only one who finds this troubling?

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