In his ground breaking book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”, church historian Mark Noll famously wrote that the problem with the Evangelical mind is that there is none. His book was a detailed lament on the lack of intellectualism and scholarship in the evangelical wing of the Christian church, touching a nerve amongst many leading evangelicals who agreed with his observations.
Today, some would argue that the state of the evangelical mind is much better than it was 20 years ago. Some point to increased enrolment of evangelicals in many academic disciplines and schools and greater interaction with secular scholars on a variety of topics. But what is the state of the Christian mind in churches today? More importantly, what is the state of the Christian mind when it comes to the discipline of theology?
The Anti-Intellectual Bias
Centuries ago, the North African theologian Tertullian famously said, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians?” At the time, many Christian theologians where attempting to use Greek philosophy to communicate the gospel to pagan audiences and to show that such philosophy had many corresponding parallels with Christianity. Many others, such as Tertullian, were concerned that such use of philosophy placed the gospel in a subservient role in order to fit the Hellenistic world view.
A form of Tertullian’s view predominated much of the thinking of fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity for much of the 20th century. Christians in these communities had little time for intellectual concerns and had adopted a strong anti-intellectual bias against the academy and its pursuits. To them the simplicity of the gospel, the plain reading of scripture and a non-engagement with the world were seen as spiritual virtues to be embraced. These disciplines, including theology, were considered ethereal, irrelevant and even dangerous to the faith and Christian living.
The Church’s Problem with Theology
Theology is generally perceived as overly academic, difficult to understand, potentially divisive and generally irrelevant to Christian living. Therefore, theology has a low profile within most churches. This is paradoxical as theology, by definition, is about the study of God and the things of God. Shouldn’t churches then be embracing theology?
Most pastors in evangelical churches today are university educated and have received seminary training. However, when it comes to preaching and teaching, my limited observation has been that few pastors teach or explain theological concepts with any degree of rigour or depth. When faced with handling a theological idea, I find many preachers apologize to the congregation that they have to talk theology and then proceed to “dumb down” the concepts and quickly go through them in order to get back to their regular sermon style. There seems to be a failure by many preachers to consider theology important and to apply their seminary training to make theology understandable, important and relevant.
Every Christian engages in theology. All Christians have a theological framework that they have acquired or developed that they use to understand their faith and their spiritual reality. Their theology could be simple. It could be partially or completely contrary to what the church teaches and what the Bible says. Many Christians would claim they don’t think about theology at all. The reality is that their faith is shaped by the theological worldview they do possess, whether they are conscious of it or not.
The denigration or ignorance of theology creates a major problem for the church. It makes her vulnerable to the development of theological concepts that are contrary to biblical theology or what the bible teaches. Given the contemporary spiritual flavours of the day, relativism has crept into many people’s theological frameworks where spiritual truths are simply what people want them to be. Such views strip away the concept of a theology governed by an authoritative bible and a hermeneutic guided by the Holy Spirit.
The problem is that churches ignore the study and discipline of theology at their peril. The potential for wrong teaching, wrong belief and wrong application is very great. Christians become immature in their faith and vulnerable to all kinds of unbiblical ideas and views.
The Steps Back to Theology
What can churches do to recover theology as a part of their teaching, culture and community? Here are some key steps that can help:
The Leadership Must Embrace Theology
If a church is to embrace and welcome theology, there has to be a commitment by the elders and the pastoral staff to the idea that theology is important and needs to become a critical part of their church’s faith culture. The leadership has to take the lead in bringing theology back into their church in a concrete manner otherwise it will not happen. The leadership has to understand and believe in the need for theology, the consequences of ignoring it and then teach and lead the church to embrace it.
Teach Theology: Young and Old
Theology is not only for adults but children as well. Scripture is clear that even children are to come under the hearing of the Word of God and to love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength. The bible must not become a set of disconnected stories containing moral lessons for children. Its great theological truths about the nature and wonder of God must be revealed to them. Too often, churches and homes teach the bible to their children as it was a book of interesting stories on how God can meet their needs. The theology of the bible is far more than a batch of morality tales. The bible contains deep spiritual riches that the discipline of theology can help unpack to adults and children alike.
Show it as Relevant, Important and Exciting
Preachers and teachers need to introduce robust theology into their sermons and in their classrooms and finally end the myth that theology is boring and irrelevant. Since when is God boring? Since when is God irrelevant? Many don’t realize that God is the centre of the theological enterprise and proper biblical theology points the church to Him. Preachers and teachers of the bible must look at the scriptures more theologically and reveal to the church how it can illuminate the glory and majesty of the triune God and the spiritual riches He brings. There is nothing boring or irrelevant in any of this.
Many churches are theologically anaemic, causing them to become spiritually weak, ignorant of the deep truths of the faith and biblically illiterate. Such churches run the strong risk of collapsing into something other than biblical Christianity. It is time for the church to re-embrace that ancient yet critical intellectual discipline of theology in order for her to thrive and grow for the glory of her exalted Head until He comes again.
2013 © Ed LeBlanc