Volume 28 - Issue 3
Theology and the Church: Divorce or Remarriage? The John Wenham Lecture 2002By Carl Trueman
This article was one of a series of lectures, given at the Tyndale Fellowship Associates Conference at Tyndale House, Cambridge in June 2002.
The subject of this lecture, the nature of the relationship between theology and the life of the church, is of crucial importance at the current time and is highly appropriate for a lectureship established in honour of John Wenham who, in his day and generation, was one of the key figures in attempting both to make the academy more church oriented and the church more theologically informed. Such a task is a perennial one, for the simple reason that the breakdown of the theology-church relationship, like the breakdown of a marriage, is never straight forward nor is it simply a matter of technique. At heart, the fact that the issue impinges directly upon the relationship between God and his creatures means that it is a problem with a profound moral dimension. Thus, today we need to apply ourselves to healing the breach with as much vigour as those who undertook the task in previous years; and we must also be aware that the solution is not simply a question of bringing the right technical skills to bear on the problem but also of examining our hearts and minds in the light of what God has told us in his Word, and done in the person of Jesus Christ.
My lecture will be divided into three basic parts. In part one, I will offer a brief analysis of how the breach between theology and church manifests itself; in part two, I will offer five theses for the academy, not as an exhaustive programme of reform, but as a suggested starting point or basic framework for pursuing reform; finally, in part three, I will offer five theses for the church which will aim to do a similar thing for our ecclesiastical bodies.
Grounds for Divorce
While the grounds for divorce between academy and church are no doubt complex, I will restrict myself today to a brief outline of the three issues which I suspect are the most fundamental. These are the opposition of knowledge and experience; the differing presuppositions of church and academy; and the differing agendas of the two.
Regarding the opposition of knowledge and experience, this perhaps manifests itself most commonly in comments such as ‘Well, so-and-so may know about God, but does he know God?’, and ‘Professors at universities and seminaries may have lots of fancy words, but I just have plain and simple faith in Jesus Christ’. This is not just the kind of thought we find among Christians in the pews: Martyn Lloyd-Jones gave eloquent expression to precisely this kind of thinking in his disparagement of theologians such as Charles Hodge whom he dismissed as having no interest in revival.1 It is, of course, a small step from dividing knowledge and experience in this way to setting them in fundamental opposition to each other. Evidence that this is the case can be found in the myriad of doctrinally vacuous hymns and choruses which form the heart of much evangelical worship today, where the message often seems to be, ‘Never mind the doctrine, give me the experience!’ This in turn has the potential for the creation of what is basically a form of gnosticism, where the claims of the Christian are rendered invulnerable to criticism from outside by the fact that the one holding the beliefs has had a certain experience. Evangelicalism, with its stress on the necessity of the new birth and upon the cognitive effects of the Fall, is fertile soil for such gnosticism if the balance of biblical teaching on the relationship of knowledge and experience is lost.
On the other side, academic theology has often pursued a path which reduces the importance of experience to a minimum and makes everything a matter of technique—whether it be philosophical, grammatical, exegetical or whatever. This feeds straight through to the second point: the role of presuppositions. The academy, particularly as that academy has its agenda set by the secular university, can make no space for faith claims.2 Thus, the epistemological importance of faith has been eliminated with the result that the church can ask with some justification exactly what it is about, say. Christian biblical scholarship which makes it Christian. Is it simply that, all things being equal after the application of standard academic techniques, the Christian will opt for the conclusion which most comports with orthodoxy? Or does the Christian biblical scholars’ stance as a Christian affect the way that he or she approaches the biblical text at the outset? If the church has a problem in overstating the importance of Christian experience, the academy arguably has a problem in the way that it tends to operate on a level playing field, where the connection between Christian commitments and attitude to the biblical text are not always apparent to those outside the scholarly community.
Finally, the agendas of church and academy are often poles apart. The church sees the conversion to Christ of those outside as its primary reason for existence. This in turn leads to certain impatience with complexities of doctrinal formulation which can be perceived as obstructing or obscuring the basic simplicity of the message and the task. The academy, meanwhile, has its own agendas in a world which just keeps on getting more complex as, under the spiralling weight of information, disciplines become more and more fragmented and less and less connected to each other. The old medieval and Reformation idea that theology pursued at the highest academic level was to terminate in a unified academic discipline focused upon the needs of the church is simply untenable in the current climate: the highly technical diversity of the academy is simply unsuited to giving students a unified theological and ecclesiastical vision.
This, then, is the briefest of summaries of the basic grounds for the current divorce. I wish now to move to more positive proposals for overcoming this situation.
Five Theses for the Academy
The academy must reform its vision of God
The first thing that the Christian academy must do is reform its vision of God. Only when academics realise that the God with whom they deal is the awesome creator, holy and righteous, yet also infinitely tender and merciful, that they will start to approach their calling with the necessary fear and trembling which it requires. God is not the object of theological study, in the way that a laboratory rat is the object of biological study—something to control, to dissert, to observe and analyse in a disinterested way. On the contrary, he is the subject of theological study, the one whose revelation of himself and whose gracious act of salvation in Christ make theology possible. In him we all live, move and have our being. Thus, all theological study must be conducted in conscious acknowledgement of and dependence upon God. Theologians are personally involved in, and dependent upon, him whom they study. That must shape our work at every level.
The academy must acknowledge the authority of Scripture
Acknowledgement of the authority of Scripture is surely basic to any theological work which claims the name of Christian and offers itself as in any way useful to the Christian church. To say this is not to circumvent the complex problems that surround issues of canon, interpretation and hermeneutics. It is to say, however, that the Bible, as the word of God, is unique in its relationship to God and in its function in the church, and that this must shape the methodological and material status it is given by Christian academics. To treat the Bible as any other piece of literature is a profoundly theological move because to do so involves an implicit denial of the Bible’s own claims to theological significance. This is not to suggest that there is not much to be learned from textual, cultural and linguistic studies, but it is to say that the application of these approaches to the biblical text need to take into account the fact that the uniqueness of the Bible requires that such applications are not used to relativise the Bible’s message. There is something presuppositional at work here: as Christians, the assumption that one God speaks through the one Bible is taken as basic, and this provides a basic hermeneutical framework for biblical interpretation. Thus, for example, the Bible’s theological diversity can never be emphasised to the point where its basic theological unity, grounded in its divine origin and its central subject matter, is undermined. The Christian presupposes a basic theological unity which provides the framework for interpreting each verse within the context of the whole. Without the basic assumption of theological unity rooted in the relationship between God and Scripture, one is left with no basis for theological coherence other than the particular preferences of the reader.
The collapse in biblical authority is quite clearly evidenced in the academic world where systematic theology, as classically understood as a study of the doctrines of God, creation, redemption etc. has all but disappeared, to be replaced on the university curriculum with courses such as ‘Theology and hermeneutics’, ‘Theology and Gender’, and ‘Theology and Polities’. Each of these courses is no doubt worthy in its own way. However, the real theological significance of any of these individual concerns can only emerge when they are set within the context of classic systematic theology as a whole. Here the big picture sets the agenda and brings the specific issues under the searching eye of a larger theological narrative. After all, can one understand gender issues without first coming to grips with God, creation, the Fall and the work of Christ? Or take hermeneutics as an example: can one engage in understanding language and Scripture without first coming to grips with issues of the speaking God, revelation, sin, Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit? This could be a vicious circle, of course: one cannot interpret the Bible without a grasp of who God is; one cannot know who God is until we have interpreted the Bible. I dare to suggest however, that understanding the basic message of the Bible is not as complicated as many scholars seek to make it. I shall have more to say about the abuse of the doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity in the church later, but would like to make the point here that, while there are many things that are difficult to understand (and we have Peter’s own words as our authority for that), the central gospel message of the speaking God is pretty straightforward. Scholars can tend to overcomplicate things—partly because they of all people know that many things need to be nuanced—but this should not allow us to lose the basic simplicity of the gospel. Christ himself points out that if even wicked earthly fathers, when asked by their children for bread will not give them a stone, then how much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask. Surely he is pointing here, not just to the great goodness of God, but also to the basic perspicuity of language which exists in certain relational contexts such as that between father and child—even when allowing for the existence of moral depravity. From this he clearly points towards the close relationship between that perspicuity of language and the meaningfulness of God.
When scholars once again start to take these things on board—acknowledging its authority, and in accepting the basic clarity of its central message they will be doing in the realm of epistemology precisely what I have said they must do in the realm of ontology: acknowledging God as sovereign and humanity as dependent upon him. God is, in a sense, the word he speaks, and we cannot take either side of this equation seriously without doing the same to the other half.
The academy must acknowledge the effect of sin upon scholars
If taking God seriously will inevitably involve taking Scripture seriously and vice versa, it will also involve scholars once again re-examining human nature—the human nature in which they themselves participate—with a view to seeing how this impacts upon their work. One tendency in the academy which perhaps does more harm than we generally care to acknowledge is the effect of sin upon scholars themselves. This problem has been nicely put by Mark Thompson:
All too frequently in modern theology fallibility is attributed to the biblical text as a matter of empirical certainty while at the same time the theological constructs of the writer are presented without the slightest hesitation or acknowledgment of provisionality. The impression is given that only in the current generation have the practitioners of theology been able to escape the impact of the fall upon the human mind.3
If much modern philosophy from Marx, Nietzsche and Freud onwards has exposed the ways in which hidden agendas serve to manipulate the way we think and act, surely as Christians, committed to an understanding of humanity, even redeemed humanity, as flawed and sinful, we too should take seriously the need for self-criticism in our approach to all of life. This includes scholarly work, where we should subject ourselves to constant self-criticism and be acutely aware of the fact that it is not just, or even primarily, the authors of the texts before us who are in the game of manipulation and deception.
The academy needs to return to traditional trajectories of theology
One of the grounds for divorce which I mentioned earlier was the differing agendas between church and academy. It would be easy at this point to say that the answer is simply that the academy needs to adopt the church’s agenda but I would suggest that that would not necessarily be a good thing, involving as it does the assumption that the church’s agenda is itself in no need of correction. One of the obvious problems with this is that the church itself often seems to have great difficulty in defining its current agenda, for reasons which I will touch upon later. I would suggest at this point that a way to draw church and academy agendas back together is to return to the kind of theological trajectories along which theology in pulpit and academy was developed in the pre-modern era. These trajectories are to be found reflected in the great creeds and confessions of the faith. The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Belgic Confession, the Thirty Nine Articles, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Lutheran Book of Concord—all of these documents represent the fusion of pastoral and theological reflection upon the faith. Moreover, the questions they address, the identity of Christ, the nature of salvation, the definition of the church etc, are all vital and perennial questions: and the creeds and confessions pursue these questions in a manner which is both ecclesiastical and intellectually rigorous.
Ironically, evangelicalism, for all its pride in its orthodoxy, has seldom spent a great deal of time reflecting upon the creedal and confessional heritage of the church, and its scholarly representatives have proved no exception to this general rule. They have preferred the modern penchant for novelty over any notion that the church may indeed have got certain things basically right over the last two millennia. A little theological humility might serve us well here.
If these are four theses for the academy, how about the church? What should she be doing to help overcome the rupture with the academy?
The Church must rethink her emphasis upon experience
This is a tricky one, for the simple reason that evangelical Christianity, at least in its best form, is committed to the idea of the centrality both of doctrine (something which can be given expression using a public vocabulary) and of the experience of God’s grace in the life of the individual. The two things are formally separable and this means that the public distinctives of evangelicalism can be learned by those who lack the second, while the second can be claimed with no real grasp of the first. This has led, in some quarters, not simply to a fear that the truth might be preached through the mouths of those who are unbelievers but also that there can be a fundamental opposition between the two, the head and the heart, and that the latter, the heart, should therefore be given precedence. I want to be careful here, in that I do not want to be misinterpreted as saying that conversion is not a prerequisite for ministry. It most certainly is. What I do want to say is that the content and the efficacy of the gospel does not depend in any way upon the moral qualities or salvific status of the individual who brings the message. The early church debated precisely this issue in relation to the efficacy of the ministry of those who had fallen away during times of persecution and then returned for their old jobs when the persecution died down. It was decided then—and rightly so—that the Word of God was the Word of God, and not dependent upon the person bringing it to the church. To take any other position is surely disastrous as none of us can know for certain what is the state of anyone else’s heart; it is only because the gospel concerns the promise of God revealed in Christ that we can have confidence in the efficacy of the message preached. To put it more bluntly: it is better to have the gospel competently preached by one who proves to be an unrepentant adulterer than to have it preached incompetently by one who has been born again, precisely because it is the word which is efficacious not the heart of the preacher.
This is perhaps putting it somewhat crudely, but it makes the point that the gospel is a message with content and not simply a case of one person communicating an experience to a group of others. That is, after all, the essence of old-fashioned liberalism—Christianity is the feeling, not the doctrine, and theology is simply reflection upon religious psychology not upon the revelation of God.
This has ramifications for various aspects of church life, not least in the realm of attitude towards learning. How many times have you heard the comment, ‘Old Mrs Jones has walked with the Lord for fifty years and knows more of God than any professor with a PhD’. On one level, the comment might well be true—walking with the Lord in faith will get you into heaven in a way that mere possession of a PhD certainly will not. Nevertheless, when we grasp that the gospel is first of all a message, a proclamation of what God has done in Jesus Christ, and that experience comes as a response to that message, it is quite clear that a professor with a PhD may well have certain insights into that gospel message which Mrs Jones, for all her practical godliness, does not. Much of the anti-intellectualism which pours from pulpits in churches, from Reformed to charismatic, is the result of precisely this confusion between gospel as message and the believer’s response in experience. It is a confusion which has just enough appearance of truth to be superficially plausible while resting on a fundamentally skewed understanding of what the gospel actually is. Only when the church comes to acknowledge in both belief and practice that the gospel is a message, not a feeling or an experience, will such fuzzy thinking (and much else) finally be put to rest. Indeed, this brings me to my second thesis for the church.
The Church needs to revise her worship practices in the light of the above
Following on from the realisation that the gospel is an announcement, not an experience, the church next needs to revise her response to that announcement. This I see as striking home in three areas.
First, and most obvious, we need to reassert the centrality of the sermon as a part of worship, standing in positive relation to the songs sung and the prayers offered. If the gospel is an announcement of news, then guess what? It needs to be announced and pressed upon the gathered congregation, and that announcement itself needs to be understood as part of the worship of the church. Only as the gospel is declared can believers respond to it in the appropriate manner. Without this objective dimension, the singing of songs becomes little more than the working-up of raw and somewhat contentless emotion. Worship after all is not just the songs that are sung; it is the word that is heard, to which the songs should be an appropriate response. This has numerous implications. If for example, your church is one where you cannot tell what the exact relationship is between what is said on a Sunday and what is sung on a Sunday, then you have serious problems which typical worship-war debates about contemporary versus traditional styles and frameworks will not even begin to address. In addition, if preachers spend more time talking about themselves, or the latest cultural trends, or making more applications than they do in straightforward exposition of the text, then these are signs that the confusion of gospel and experience might well be infiltrating your worship and thus your whole vision of Christianity.
None of this should be read as an attack on Christian experience. It is simply pointing out that such experience is the result of the gospel, not the content of the gospel. To claim otherwise is to open the door to relativism. Once the gospel starts being presented primarily as that which brings such-and-such benefits, be they freedom from alcohol abuse or just emotional highs every once in a while, the distinctive particularity of Christianity is lost. Islam also gives people self-respect, cleans up neighbourhoods, gives a sense of purpose; self-help programmes have brought many back from the brink of self-destruction to decent lives; and while Christianity gives me a sense of meaning and worth, so does ferret-breeding for some people. What then have I to say to the perfectly content ferret-breeder? Not a lot, if Christianity is primarily about feelings, whether of satisfaction, happiness or otherwise. I have Jesus; they breed ferrets. The result in both cases is happiness. So what’s the difference? The difference lies not in the experienced effect but in the cosmic bottom-line: Christ is God acting to save for all eternity; ferrets are good only as temporary distractions from the deeper realities and concerns of life.
To reinforce this message, we need to think carefully about our church services. The Presbyterian tradition to which I belong looks back to the great documents produced in the 1640s as giving a good summary of what a Christian worship service should contain: the reading and the hearing of the Scriptures; the preaching of the Word; prayer (confession, adoration, intercession); singing (in the case of the Westminster Assembly, specifically of inspired materials—but that debate is for another day); and the administration of the Lord’s Supper and baptism. That is not a bad summary, and one which focuses attention on the church service as held together by the content of God’s Word, read, heard, and preached, to which prayer and singing are a response. Anything else is surely Schleiermacherian—an attempt to make human psychology and human experience the basis of worship. This will ultimately prevent the church speaking across cultures. When worship discussions focus on experience and style, then we are likely to reify the way which we do things and make it into some absolute by which all others must be judged. That is simply wrong, and makes indifferent matters (style and form) into something of the essence of worship. Let us focus on the simple, straightforward message of reconciliation in Christ, not our own experiences of church or whatever, as the core of our church worship and allow the message to find expression within the culture in which we find ourselves. Thus, when the church gathers to worship, let her think about what passages of Scripture are to be read and heard, what is to be said in the sermon, and what is to be sung; and let us make sure that the content of each of these elements stands in an obvious relationship to the content of others.
While none of this directly addresses the repair of the relationship between the church and her friends in the academy, it surely goes some way towards bringing the church back to a correct understanding of the place of experience in Christianity. In itself that will prevent precisely the kind of anti-intellectual crusades which are predicated on the idea that deep, theological knowledge can only impede spiritual progress. It will also reassure the church members who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of the study of theology at the highest level that what they do is not necessarily trumped by the old lady who’s walked with the Lord for fifty years. Both types of person make significant contributions; it is not an either—or, but surely a both—and.
As a final point in this section: this should also point the church away from an obsession with revival and conversion as the main agenda behind our church services, but do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that we do not want conversions; emphatically, we do. What I am saying is that the Sunday service of the church is primarily for the equipping of the saints for the work of being a Christian from Monday to Saturday. The church should be like a mother, nurturing us in our faith, giving us rest from the world and a tiny anticipation of what the fellowship in heaven will be like. On a practical level, given that few unbelievers bother coming to church these days, an evangelistic strategy based primarily upon Sunday services is, humanly speaking, not a strong one. For all its faults with regard to content, the Alpha course has picked up on this problem and made significant contributions regarding the way forward for contemporary outreach. Sunday services should be focused more on equipping the saints. If outsiders attend our services they should be made welcome, and should be able to understand what is going on and being said—one might add, they should be able to see an obvious connection between what is read, said, prayed and sung; but accommodating them should not be the decisive priority in the service. In fact coming into the presence of God’s people worshipping a holy God should be an unsettling experience for unbelievers. If you do not believe me, read and reflect upon the implications of 1 Corinthians 14:24–25.
The Church needs to acknowledge the role of tradition
We have all met them, the no-creed-but-the-Bible guys and gals. What they usually mean is while they have a creed (even if it is ‘no creed’), they cannot be bothered to write it down and want to privilege their view of the Bible (the right one) over your view of the Bible (the wrong one). This is a difficult area, but I want to provoke you to think about this just a little with the following comments.
First, there is a sense in which all evangelicals have no creed but the Bible, in that we acknowledge only one ultimate epistemological source and criterion for judging statements about God: the Bible. Given this, the statement is perhaps not so much incorrect as misleading. It would be better to say, ‘No definitive theological source but the Bible’. Nevertheless, in this sense I am happy to be a ‘no creed but the Bible’ man.
Second, there is a sense in which we all depend upon extra-scriptural creeds for our theology. As soon as we use the word Trinity’, for example, we are using conceptual vocabulary which is not found in the Bible but which has been developed and defined by the church over time. Now, I would immediately want to argue that the language represents what Scripture teaches. But then, as soon as I claim that, I am doing no more than what the church has traditionally regarded the creeds as doing: that they offer a summary of, or a conceptual vocabulary for understanding, simply what the Bible teaches.
Why then is there the modern fear of creeds? It is of course part of the wider cultural disposition of modern Western society and is one of the key points of contact between the academic world and the evangelical world. While scholars, liberal and conservative, have developed a highly sophisticated biblicism which routinely discounts the thoughts and insights of the church over the centuries into the meaning of the biblical text, so evangelicalism has developed a crude and unsophisticated biblicism which routinely rejects (or, more often, simply ignores as irrelevant) the history of church and theology.
So what are the advantages that the creeds give us? First, they remind us that the Bible is not its own interpretation. It is not simply what the Bible says that is crucial but also what it means, and the only effective way to give public expression to that meaning is by the use of extra-biblical vocabulary and concepts. There is not a heretic in the history of the church who has not claimed to be simply believing what the Bible says, or who has not quoted biblical texts by the score to justify their position. When meaning is at stake, it is not enough simply to quote Bible verses; the overall theological context of those verses is also necessary, as is the deployment of extra-biblical vocabulary. I firmly believe in the sufficiency and perspicuity of Scripture, so I am not here saying that Bible, on its own, is meaningless; rather, I am saying that it must be interpreted, but interpreted on its own terms. This act of interpretation necessarily involves the employment of language which is not found in the Bible and concepts which do not simply drop off its pages into our laps, but which have to be carefully formulated in the light of the whole of Scripture’s teaching. As soon as we use extra-biblical language, as soon as we draw out the meaning of a passage, as soon as we explore the conditions which must hold true if a certain event is to have saving significance—as soon as we do any of these things, we move ourselves into territory which is, in one sense ‘extra-biblical’. This is where the creeds come in: they are simply summaries of biblical teaching, using language and concepts which have been publicly endorsed by the church as orthodox throughout the centuries, thus providing an orthodox scheme and vocabulary for theological life. And this is where my second point about creeds becomes significant.
Creeds place us and our times in perspective. God’s word contains precious promises about how he will lead his church into all truth. We know from the history of the church and from the current diversity among the Christian body that any notion of an automatic, quasi-mechanical relationship between God, God’s truth and the public theological pronouncements of the institution of the church is simply untenable. All such statements coming from whichever church, need to be scrutinised by Scripture to see if they are biblically coherent. There is a sense, however, in which the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of an automatic hermeneutic of suspicion regarding historic theological creeds and tradition. Nowadays, it is more likely to be assumed that the church has generally got it wrong than that she got anything right. I recently commented to colleagues in reference to the views on justification and Christology being put forward by a leading British NT scholar that I was left wondering if this person, who identifies himself as orthodox, thought the church had managed to get anything right regarding the Bible over the last 1900 years. The attitude of the Reformers was very different: they rejected those traditions which were explicitly rooted in an understanding of the church as having new, revelatory powers after the closing of the canon, but they took very seriously the exegetical, theological and, above all, the creedal tradition of the church and only modified or, as a very last resort, rejected it at those points where Scripture really did make it untenable. The difference is one of attitude and culture: they operated with a basic hermeneutic of trust, albeit biblically critical trust; too often today we operate with a basic hermeneutic of suspicion, perhaps for the most part uncritical suspicion. Yet, if we take the church seriously and if we take God’s promises to the church seriously, such knee-jerk iconoclasm can only be a bad thing.
I might go further and say that the church needs more than a hermeneutic of trust towards the creedal and confessional trajectories of the past. There is also a need for a hermeneutic of humility. As with the immature arrogance of those scholars who feel that their PhD on some few verses here or there in the Bible qualifies them to redefine orthodoxy tout court, so the church of today also needs to learn humility in relation to the past. When some creedal formula or doctrinal position has been held by the church with vigour for some considerable time, the church of today should think very carefully before deciding to change it in any fundamental way. Our perspective is so limited; our moment in time so insignificant in the grand scheme of things; we therefore do well to see the church’s creeds, confessions and traditions as giving us some perspective by which we may relativise ourselves, our contribution, and our moment in history. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard church leaders declare that ‘the church needs to move beyond …’ (add your own central tenet of the faith: the cross, the wrath of God, sin, the Trinity, justification by faith, the authority of Scripture—they have all been cited). Underlying such sentiments are not so much a hopeless naivete but rather a tragic arrogance, an arrogance which implicitly says that the church in the past did not really get the gospel and that only in the present day have we approximated some kind of doctrinal maturity. I would suggest that reflection upon the creeds and confessions of the church might well go someway to overcoming the chronological arrogance (to use C.S. Lewis’s phrase) which afflicts the church as it should also do in the academy.
As a postscript to this section—for both the church and academy—I put out a challenge I like to issue in class to students who are tempted to disparage the Nicene Creed. Given that this creed has served the church well for over a thousand years, one should be very careful before one abandons it; but if after reflection, one can come up with a formula which will deal with biblical material as effectively, will enjoy such wide acceptance in the church, and which will do the job just as well for the next thousand years, one should not be afraid to propose a new formulation. Strange to tell, I have yet to have any takers for that one.
The Church needs to realise that not all answers to questions about the Bible are that simple
If rejection of the witness of history and tradition is something that the academy and the church have in common, then the thing in which they most dramatically differ has to be the complexity or otherwise of the Bible. As noted above, the tendency in academic circles is to stress the ineradicable complexity of all biblical questions. This is a tendency which has been fuelled by the fragmentation of the discipline as a whole and by the kinds of literary-critical approaches which take a peculiar delight in scepticism about the stability of textual meaning. In the church, however, the idea that there are any complicated questions is often not countenanced at all. Even though Peter himself tells us that Paul wrote many things that are hard to understand, the idea that interpreting the Bible competently takes skill and training is alien to much of the evangelical world. I well remember giving a lecture at a British seminary on how the Puritans of the seventeenth century established high standards for ministerial education. At the end of my talk, I was challenged by one individual who saw that what I said was running counter to what he took to be the basic thrust of Paul’s pastoral letters, of the nature of saving faith, and of scriptural perspicuity. Of course, he read the relevant quotation from a translation of the Bible, implicitly conceding that none of these things made void the need for somebody, somewhere, to have a good grasp of the vocabulary, grammar, syntax and historical context of koine Greek. The certainty of faith and the perspicuity of Scripture were never intended to mean that all answers to everything were simple, any more than the idea of scriptural sufficiency was intended to mean that the Bible gives answers to all questions about life, such as what time the next bus arrives. Rather, they pointed to the fact that the Bible’s basic message was clear and easy to grasp by even the simplest of minds, a point to which the Reformers and Puritans held while at precisely the same time pursuing theological education and study at the highest level. The church needs to understand this once more. She has always faced complicated questions, once, these focused on the doctrine of God; now, perhaps, they focus on the relationship of one culture to another, of how the church in the West, with all of her financial and educational resources, can both learn from and serve the church in the south and east.—A church with massive numbers and signs of great blessing from God, but with economic and intellectual dependence upon the north and west These are tough areas which demand careful and humble reflection and which cannot be resolved by simplistic claims to truth on one side or the other, claims which are, of course, more often claims to power than to truth.
These then are my brief theses for academy and church. I am probably naive in thinking that this lecture will make any difference. If, however, it helps just one person to start thinking about these issues, whether in agreement or disagreement with what I say, I think I will have gone some way to fulfilling the kind of mandate which the John Wenham Lecture carries with it.
1 See D.M. Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans: their Origins and Successors (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 7–8.
2 I am aware of the grand claims being made for postmodernism as opening up the university to faith perspectives. In my opinion, Christianity’s claim to offer a grand narrative of universal significance which, to maintain its own integrity needs to deny the validity of the alternatives, will not win it any friends even in the postmodern academy. In fact nearly a decade of teaching in British secular universities has convinced me that the major issue in university education is not postmodern epistemology but the alliance of free market policies, the interests of big business and an overarching pragmatism, a combination which serves more than anything else to restrict the kinds of research and discussion which takes place.
3 Mark Thompson, ‘The missionary apostle and modern systematic affirmation’, in The Gospel to the Nations: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission, edited by Peter Bolt and Mark Thompson (Leicester: Apollos, 2000), 378.
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.