Thursday, February 14, 2008

Pastor As Theologian Part II of III

Again this is the second part of a two-part presentation of Carl Trueman's essay on the Pastor as Theologian.


How does this play out in practice? Well, first, we must rid ourselves of any notion that we are, so to speak, God’s gift to the Christian church. We may know more theology than the person sitting next to us on the pew at a Sunday morning service; we may well be able to beat them hands down in any debate which may erupt concerning some theological point in the context of a church meeting or even an informal discussion over coffee; but that does not mean we are in any sense a more effective, God-glorifying Christian than they are. If Christianity involves the intimate union of belief and practice, of knowledge of God which finds its being through piety, as Calvin would say, that is the godliness of the true Christian, then technical mastery of the niceties of scholarship does not in any sense count by itself as genuine Christianity. As a result, mere technical accomplishment does not qualify you to take a leadership role within your local congregation, or provide an occasion for you to lord it over others. Many of us are quite capable of reading and mastering the ins and outs of a car maintenance manual; but I would hesitate to recommend myself as capable of changing the brake blocks on my own car, let alone that of someone else. Thus, knowing what prayer means is not the same as knowing what it means to pray; knowing what, say, the Chalcedonian definition says is not the same thing as knowing the Chalcedonian definition’s personal significance.

Luther captured this truth nicely when he distinguished between his own theology and that of his opponents by contrasting the existential impact and personal demands of Christian doctrine as he understood it with the position of others. His enemies, he said, knew that Christ had died and been raised from the dead; but he knew that Christ had died and been raised from the dead for him. The difference is between, a scholar sitting in a library and reading a note from the archives saying that the cavalry are on their way to save the beleaguered troops, and actually being one of the beleaguered troops who receives the note.

The outcome of the Enlightening of the universities was devastating for theology precisely because the Enlightenment demanded that theology give an account of itself not in terms of itself, its own inner dynamics and ultimate purposes, but in terms of the universal criteria which had been established for judging what was and was not plausible within the university framework. Basic to this, of course, was the loss of the idea that the Bible was a supernaturally inspired book and that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. As Stephen Williams has persuasively argued in his book Revelation and Reconciliation,1 the former offended Enlightenment epistemology, the latter outraged Enlightenment morality. At the time, this was not considered to be too serious to the Christian faith: the self-confidence of the Enlightened Christians, bolstered by the fact that Christianity was, after all, utterly dominant in the cultural realm, led them to continue to believe that Christianity was self-evidently superior to other religions and belief-systems, even without a supernatural Bible and saviour understood in terms of Chalcedon.

That the theological toothpaste was well and truly out of the tube at this point only became evident later. Nobody at the time ever thought that Christianity would have to justify its special place in life and thought, so obviously superior did it seem to all the other alternatives. Indeed, the fact that the Bible was not inspired in the traditional sense of the word, and that Christ was not saviour in the traditional sense of the word, did not mean that both were not still that much better than the rest. Nevertheless, in conceding these two points, Enlightenment theologians conceded the two points which actually supported the pursuit of theology as one discipline possessing its own integrity. Now, without any epistemological or soteriological centre to hold it together, the stage was set for the discipline to fragment hopelessly, not just as a result of the external pressures created by the rising tide of information and of sub-disciplinary specialisation in academic culture in general, but also by its own lack of any internal basis for providing coherence and unity. The result is that today, it is rather misleading to speak of theology or divinity as a university discipline. More often than not, it is a disparate collection of various subjects, methodologies, and philosophies that just happen to be in the same department for reasons which have more to do with institutional history and administration than any inner-coherence or mutual relationship.

Theology is not just a question of content it is also a question of context; and if we simply replace liberalism with evangelicalism with regard to content whilst remaining happy with the overall context, we will have failed.

Let me elaborate this as follows using a silly, but I hope pointed, analogy. Let’s imagine that at some point in the future it is decided that the discipline of medicine needs to be reformed. This is done first of all by denying that certain medicines had curative properties which others lacked. Initially it is assumed that while antibiotics are obviously superior to baking soda in curing infections, the difference in curative power is one of degree, not kind; but gradually, over time, all compounds come to be regarded as having equal power to cure. In addition to this first claim regarding curative powers, the reformers also deny that there are any diseases out there that need to be cured. Again it is initially assumed that the very ill person is actually not very ill but simply in possession of less health than others; gradually, however, the logic of the position works itself out and it becomes an act of cultural imperialism to claim that any one person is more or less ill than any other. Indeed, such a claim will certainly lose you your job within the medical faculty. The results, of course, are predictable - the discipline of medicine, whose very purpose was reflection upon and the curing of human diseases, fragments because there is nothing to keep it together, no central concern or conviction which can provide a positive base for disciplinary integrity. In addition, the hospitals run by the students of these great men of medicine gradually empty as their patients are either killed off by the treatments offered, and other people simply go elsewhere for treatment, knowing instinctively that what is on offer is not adequate for their needs.

Then along come a group of students who, for whatever reason, gradually become disillusioned with what they are being taught. For some it does not match up to their own experience; for others it is singularly useless when they themselves are ill; for yet others it is because they have been reading of some other books on medicine which, while not featuring on any reading list they are ever given in medical school, yet seem to make a good deal of sense. Over time they formalise themselves into a Pharmaceutical and Medical Students Fellowship, where they meet once a week to discuss medical questions and to attack the received academic orthodoxy. Indeed, once a year they even arrange a conference where the speakers are a bunch of crazed fundamentalists who have somehow managed to get jobs on medical faculties despite being committed to the outlandish ideas that medicine is good for you, poison is bad, and people actually suffer from diseases (though, interestingly enough, many of these speakers hold faculty positions in the history of medicine, or the interpretation of medical texts, not in medicine proper).

There is a problem with this group, however: yes, they are intellectually committed to the old reactionary notions of disease and cure; yes, they want to think through the medicinal issues for


themselves; but at the end of the day, all they do is talk. They consider their task done when they demonstrate to Professor Smith and Dr Jones that it is plausible even within the setting of the medical school to believe in disease and cure; and at base, all they really want is for Smith and Jones and their ilk to accept them and their viewpoint as having a legitimate place at the discussion table. They don’t actually want to go out and apply what they have learned to themselves or to the sick lying in hospital; they are fearful even in their fellowship groups of ever using the old offensive terminology ol illness, cure, poison, and remedy; and they certainly don’t want to imply that Smith and Jones don’t make interesting and legitimate contributions to debate. Indeed they often laugh loudest when Smith cracks a joke about ignorant medical fundamentalists of the past such as Louis Pasteur and Alexander Fleming; these students just want to be known as clever men of medicine who, despite their intellectual commitment to curing people, are nevertheless on the whole perfectly decent and user-friendly and not going to rock the boat by actually trying to cure people. They have rejected the shibboleths of contemporary medical theory, but they have done so within the same context and culture as their opponents: not that of curing people, but that of juggling with clever and interesting ideas.

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