Bridging Two Worlds: the Church and the Academy

As I have written before, my favorite theology blog is Jason Goroncy’s Per Crucem ad Lucem. On his blog today, On the relation between the pulpit and the academy, he has a terrific quote from Charles Partee:

‘[I]f God speaks, and if God speaks in the church, then on some subjects sermons are not popularized products of more basic scholarly reflection. Rather scholarly reflection is an academized product of the more basic proclamation of the gospel … Thus, for the Christian community, sermons are a first-order, not a second-order, activity … As worship is more fundamental in the church than theology, so kerygmatic proclamation is more basic and often more pertinent than scholarly reflection’. – Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 46.

I couldn’t agree with this more. I have always had one foot in the local church and one foot in the academy. I served two congregations adjacent to seminaries, and we always had a number of faculty members in the pews. In my church in Bangor I was also the chaplain and sat with the faculty.

I did three term-long research fellowships during sabbaticals at Oxford, Cambridge and St Andrews Universities. I tried to stay current with the leading theology and biblical journals and wrote articles and reviews for several of them. I participated in the Pastor-Theologian Program at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton.

I am comfortable in both worlds, at a lecture hall at Christ Church College, Oxford or at a planning meeting for Vacation Bible School. But my comfort is more that I am, by analogy, bilingual than that they speak the same language. They don’t.

The Partee quote gets at one of the problems that plagues theological education. Once upon a time, seminarians were trained by ministers who were also scholars, but had spent some time serving congregations. Their commitment was to the church and its ministries and they believed in a learned ministry as the means. They were bilingual in being able to speak both church and academic.

There are still wonderful teachers who share these commitments, but sadly, the secular academy is now the model that must be considered, with its emphasis on tenure and publishing. And, at least in America, members of the Academy who represent the theological disciplines are often viewed as quant relics of a bygone day. They don’t get big research grants like their more robust colleagues in the sciences.

This inferiority complex makes them strive harder to be like the cool kids, and the art of theology is then betrayed by a series of niche disciplines dominated by identity politics and other “happy little hyphens” to use Karl Barth’s term of derision.

What is worse is that there seeps into theological education the conceit that what happens in the academy is more important that what happens in the church, and students then become ministers who are ashamed of what should be their life’s joyful vocation.

I can tell you from experience there is a lot of apologizing going on in our pulpits. Instead of hearing the bracing Good News about Jesus Christ and his holy love one often gets an attack on the tradition or an exhortation to do and be better. Sin and death are not the enemy, Christianity itself is, at least the kind practiced by our benighted forbearers who didn’t get straightened out by three years at a divinity school.

And if a commitment to a learned ministry went along with this critical posture there might be something to be said for it. But often, it is the worst of both worlds, a distain for the local church and a laxity about keeping up with the genuine insights of the academy. So no wonder the laity often think of the academy as obscurantist, while at the same time the academy views the faithful as naive. The result is many a pastor who feels, not at home in two worlds, but like a stranger and exile in both.

I have suggested in the past that theological education be removed from the secular academy, but there are drawbacks to this, and it just isn’t going to happen. And there would be much lost if students were deprived of having interlocutors from other disciplines.

I wish I knew how to bridge the gap. I have known many great teachers who did it, such a Gabriel Fackre, Gerald Cragg, Colin Gunton, Alan P.F. Sell, N.T. Wright, George Hunsinger, and Brown Barr, to name but a few.

My New Testament Professor, Krister Stendahl, at Harvard, was a first-rate scholar and a Lutheran bishop. There is a story told about him in one of his preaching classes. One of his students climbed into the pulpit, and before delivering her sermon said, “The text for today comes from the Deutero-Pauline corpus.” Stendahl looked over the top of his glasses, as he was wont to do, and gently said, “The people have come to be fed. Do not give them the recipe!”

He knew that preaching was a first-order activity!

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Bridging Two Worlds: the Church and the Academy

  1. >I love this rant … and you sing it so well! Thanks Rick.And it's weird, it was just last week that I was reading Stendahl's essay 'The New Testament and the Preaching of the Church'.

  2. >I loved this rant too, especially because I am struggling about my calling right now. Is it to ordained ministry in a congregation? Or to theological and academic work? I really want to do both, and I am envious about and inspired by your dual vocation(s) and all that you have done. Keep ranting and keep sharing!Jane Ellingwood

  3. >Jason and Jane, Ah yes, it is a rant, isn't it? (And they said form criticism is dead!) But it is a rant that comes from my soul. Jane, don't be envious of my dual vocation, since the cost was that I was considered a bit of an odd duck in the church for my foot in the academy, and never really taken very seriously in the academy because I was a working pastor. My model is not the answer. What is needed are academics who are churchmen, and pastors who are scholars committed to a learned ministry, and then let the respect flow both ways to the glory of God and the upbuilding of the church.Rick

  4. >Rick,Your statements that your model is not the answer, and that what is needed are academics who are churchmen, and pastors who are scholars committed to a learned ministry, are very helpful to me. I am going to have to take a stand on this very soon, and I believe I am leaning toward following my calling to be an academic who is a "churchwoman." I appreciate your sharing your dual vocations and your perspectives on this, and would welcome anything else you wish to share. Jane

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s