Volume 33 - Issue 3

The Way of the Christian Academic

By Carl Trueman


My guess is that many of the people who read Themelios either are, or have aspirations to be, teachers in the world of Christian theological academia. Thus, it seems apposite once in a while to reflect briefly upon what exactly this calling entails. The first thing to note in this regard is that being a Christian academic is no more virtuous a calling than any other. What makes a calling Christian, first and foremost, is not where it sits in the hierarchy of vocations as perceived by the Christian community.

My guess is that many of the people who read Themelios either are, or have aspirations to be, teachers in the world of Christian theological academia. Thus, it seems apposite once in a while to reflect briefly upon what exactly this calling entails.

The first thing to note in this regard is that being a Christian academic is no more virtuous a calling than any other. What makes a calling Christian, first and foremost, is not where it sits in the hierarchy of vocations as perceived by the Christian community. That was a medieval notion, where priests and monks performed functions that were considered inherently holy, while the rest of the rabble made do with inferior callings—you know, tilling the soil, growing food, raising children, and other such mundane and superfluous tasks. Luther rode a coach and horses through this kind of thinking with his understanding of justification, his reconfiguring of the place and power of the sacraments, and the shattering of the wall between the sacred and the secular. We evangelicals are heirs of Luther on this, and it should be central to our thinking about the calling of academia that we do not see it as an opportunity to make ourselves seem greater or better than others. Generally, those who have Ph.D.s and teaching jobs have enjoyed greater opportunities than others; thus they should see their calling as one which enables them to serve better, not to lord it over others.

There are tangible contexts in which this can be expressed. Most basic is the role of the local church. What role does the Ph.D. student or the professor play in the local church? Do they consider their role restricted, for example, to teaching the adult Sunday school or leading a Bible study, such that other duties—less ‘sacred’ callings—like the clean-up team or the tea rota or the nursery are considered off-limits and infra dig? On the contrary, the church is the church, and it is a privilege for anyone to be involved at any level in any of her manifold activities. We Protestants have, in a sense, regressed to the Middle Ages with our view that certain tasks (the ones involving brainpower and intellectual qualifications) are somehow more important than others. Just try teaching Sunday School in a classroom that’s filthy and full of litter. A Ph.D. or a place in a graduate program does not exempt you from getting your hands literally dirty for the Lord.

In addition, such involvement in the everyday tasks of the church also helps to ground theology in real life. For example, teaching Sunday school to young children can be both humbling and challenging: humbling, because sometimes young children ask in all innocence some of the most profound and searching theological questions to which the greatest minds might struggle to respond; and challenging because communicating theological truth to young minds can make exacting demands upon both our theological knowledge and our communication skills which cannot be experienced anywhere else; indeed, I have found my poor theology and poor communication skills to have been more ruthlessly exposed in the junior SS class than in the doctoral seminar. And, of course, teaching kids can help to keep us humble: they do not understand academic qualifications, but they do understand boring, irrelevant, and pretentious—and they punish such unmercifully.

The second thing to note is that the title ‘scholar’ is not one that you should ever apply to yourself, and its current profusion among the chatterati on the blogs is a sign of precisely the kind of arrogance and hubris against which we all need to guard ourselves. Call me old-fashioned, but to me the word ‘scholar’ has an honorific ring. It is something that others give to you when, and only when, you have made a consistent and outstanding contribution to a particular scholarly field (and, no, completion of a Ph.D. does not count). To be blunt, the ability to set up your own blog site and having nothing better to do with your time than warble on incessantly about how clever you are and how idiotic are all those with whom you disagree—well, that does not actually make you eligible to be called a scholar. On the contrary, it rather qualifies you to be a self-important nincompoop, and the self-referential use of the title by so many of that ilk is at best absurd, at worst obnoxious.

Third, in training to be a Christian academic, it is important to realize a couple of facts that are part of the universal experience of all Christians engaged in higher theological study. First, at times you will undoubtedly lose to your supervisor in arguments on matters of central importance. That goes almost without saying. What is crucial is to understand that the fact that you may not be able to beat your supervisor in an argument may not mean that he or she is right and you are wrong. It may mean that; but it could also indicate simply that they know more and are better skilled in argument than you. That is, of course, one of the reasons you are studying under them: to learn the hows and whys of scholarship. So don’t despair the first time you lose such an engagement, and don’t simply throw your faith away at the first sign of difficulty. That brings me to the second point: perseverance. Nobody ever claimed that engaging one’s mind and applying it to the deepest things of the faith was ever going to be easy. In fact, it adds just one more dimension to the numerous temptations to idolatry and infidelity: the worship of the mind, or the supervisor, or the scholarly consensus, or even of a particular idea or set of ideas for their own sake. The biblical student faces critical, textual and theological questions every day; the historian faces questions of relativism and epistemology; the ethics student faces questions of morality and pragmatism. Sufficient to the discipline are the intellectual nightmares contained therein! The only way to resist such temptations is by hard work. Don’t waste time by reading the second-best book on any subject; read the best. Don’t be taken in by rhetorical tricks such as ‘Nobody believes that anymore!’ Try to establish what the arguments are, and then see how they have been addressed in the past and how they are addressed in the present. Prayer is important, but it is no substitute for hard work and deep reading and reflection on knotty problems.

Finally, to return to the local church, make sure you are involved in the local church and, when you are there, you sit under the word in listening submission, not over the word in judgment. Endless mischief has been done in churches by those who have some formal theological training and yet who think they have never been given the recognition or the strokes which they deserve. They sit in church not so much to be under the word as to rate the pastor’s sermon, assess his theology, offer him oh-so-helpful criticism as to how he might improve his performance or how he should (i.e. how they would) have preached the text. Ultimately, such people are merely divisive, and they are so because their concern is not to have themselves checked by the word of God, or to see the congregation built up in its knowledge of God; rather, it is to see themselves puffed above others, and their theological knowledge, whether real or assumed, is simply the means to this end. Real theologians know not only that they have been given their gifts for service of others but also that they themselves are still sinners, saved only by grace, and dependent upon God’s word for their daily spiritual sustenance. An emphasis upon basic daily obedience, prayer, private Bible reading, and weekly attendance at church where the word is read and preached and where fellowship with other saints can take place might seem awfully mundane; but without these things, the Christian is deprived of the very oxygen of the spiritual life. Indeed, one might add to this that the accountability that church membership involves is also critical, for it not only makes the Christian academic connect with other people but also holds the individual to a level of corporate accountability before the saints as a whole.

The calling of a Christian academic is a high one, for anyone charged with the teaching of God’s truth will, as the Bible tells us, be held to a higher level of accountability than others. The path is marked with difficulties and challenges; but none are insurmountable, and the basic disciplines of the Christian life are in fact more, not less, important and useful. You want to be a Christian academic? Work hard, pray, read your Bible, and go to church.

Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman is academic dean, vice president of academic affairs, and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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