Seminary V Pt.II – An Aside on Education and a Divided Church

Tony Sig

A recent internet acquaintance of mine has some opinions of his own as to how “theologically open” a seminary or Christian university ought to be.  Everything sounds good on the surface of his post but I must admit that I disagree with almost all of it.

There seems to be undergirding the entire post a vision of the Church or “Christianity” as a unified body.  Now on a dogmatic, especially a pneumatological level, this is true in some sense (this would of course be contested by the Eastern and Roman Catholic Churches) but in our lived lives it is quite simply false:  We are divided by a myriad of issues from confessions to political bodies – (I am here endorsing wholeheartedly Ephraim Radner’s understanding of Christian division).

Thus it is difficult to conceive in any meaningful sense what a “merely” “Christian” seminary or university would look like.  The Nicene Creed can function as a solid enough base to flesh out a basic confessional unity in most Christian contexts but when considering seminary especially, it becomes far more complicated as to whether or not such a base is truly sufficient to serve the needs of our unique churches.  What hath Geneva to do with Canterbury?

The complex Christian cocktail that has resulted from the “Ecumenical Movement” as well as the utter failure of western protestantism to sustain anything like a distinct Christian confessional unity becomes clear in conversations like this.  This confusion has several strains currently expressing themselves in our churches, I’ll mention four:  1) Most evangelical don’t have much in the way of any theological identity.  They don’t know or recite the creeds, they don’t catechize and they don’t like homosexuals.  So long as they sing modern worship choruses and preach 45 minute sermons they feel that they get along fine. 2) Many older churches such as the Mainline still maintain a sense of their historic identity but there is a significant toleration of theological diversity such that there is a widely acknowledged reality of the dissolution of a coherent evangel. 3) Also within the Mainline but also in many Emergent and certain evangelical churches there is a repudiation of confessional unity and a glorification of diversity. 4)  There are the hold-the-line or buckle-down-and-fight groups.

I admit this is reductive but on a generic level I think it holds.  Within churches we are bound to find any of several of these so I don’t pretend that they are watertight between groups.

I am of the opinion that theological identity is essential to evangelism, discipleship and unity.  It follows, as I’ve mentioned before, that I think you should teach what you believe.  This of course sounds ridiculous coming from an Episcopalian 🙂

Now…  All this and yet I agree that closing off creative and inquisitive theology can be utterly destructive.  Honestly, at this point, I’m absolutely clueless as to how to hold these two things together in a balance, historic theological identity and faithful theological response.  Or rather I have an idea of how it can work in churches structured according to historic catholic order but no idea how it can work between churches.  Whatever the case, Methodists should pump out Methodist pastors and Lutherans Lutherans, anything else just creates a muddle.

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11 Comments

  1. I’m honored to be an “internet acquaintance”!! Also, dirty trick by starting the post off with a picture of a buffet line!

    Seeing as how it’s 3am my time, I wanted to make a brief comment or two, as I hope to attempt a sustained response when things are less blurry.

    You said: “There seems to be undergirding the entire post a vision of the Church or “Christianity” as a unified body. Now on a dogmatic, especially a pneumatological level, this is true in some sense”

    I am inclined to the belief that this “some sense” is in fact an important one, one that ought to be reflected in praxis. I cannot and do not contest the fact that Christendom is divided by a “myriad” of issues, what I contest is the lack of practical weight we put in our eschatological unity.

    I concede (and never meant to suggest otherwise) that there is deep value in theological identity. Additionally, I do believe there is a role that denominations play; it’s all about context here. This leads to my current agreement with you when you said: “closing off creative and inquisitive theology can be utterly destructive. Honestly, at this point, I’m absolutely clueless as to how to hold these two things together in a balance, historic theological identity and faithful theological response.”

    Enough for now, I am pretty sure I wrote the last paragraph while asleep. Thanks for the post, it has challenged some assumptions I hold in an important way.

    Reply

  2. Well I thought about putting “internet friend” but I didn’t know if we had moved to that stage of our relationship yet 😉 In the future, all references to you Steven will be as “internet friend!”

    And I know the buffet line was a bit below the belt, but it was pretty freakin hilarious.

    I too look forward to your response and I hope it connects to the “realities on the ground” as they say. I have serious doubts about “theological openness” as being anything but grounds for confusion. If one has concientious convictions against a tradition in which one is placed I think that one should either 1) Keep such convictions to oneself generally, or 2) Find a home in a denomination or congregation that will be supportive of one’s convictions.

    But I digress.

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  3. The picture does fit the reality.

    Obviously the lack of fish was intended to exclude the Catholics and the lack of Greek food(besides being study on a gastronomical level) was to exclude the Orthodox. So much for being ecumenical;>)

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  4. It sounds like you and your now official “Internet friend” basically agree. I think I agree as well, although it sounds as if we’re agreeing on what the questions are, rather than the answers.

    To elaborate, we agree that the Church is unified in a spiritual sense, but that this unity is not practically expressed. Simply abandoning our various identities for a lowest-common-denominator Christianity would be impracticable and dishonest (as well as unappealing for a variety of reasons.)

    When I consider this situation two things always come to my mind: the Nicene Creed and mission. Is the Creed enough to get the churches to get along, if not unify? And I would think that, whatever our differences, we can at least agree on what we should be doing in the world.

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  5. I have long believed that denominationalism has been largely an attempt for certain kinds of people to “scratch certain kinds of itches.” I am in agreement to a great extent with Reformed theological inquiry and conclusions. However, the “wrappings” of the Reformed tradition just irritate me. Does that mean that all of the Dutch Presbyterians should quit educating their ministers in their tradition to satisfy those of my ilk? Hell no! There are many, many more that have a resonance with that tradition – it shouldn’t be violated, and neither should any of those other traditions whose orthodoxy is demonstrable. The thing that saved my personal faith walk is that I was able to join a tradition whose worship style resonated with the way my “heart” worships.

    In short, I agree too. Ecumenicism should not (and I think does not) entail homogeneity. Denominations should remain, and they should proliferate their kind, but we should definitely continue to work toward appreciating and living out the vast areas of agreement within Christian sectarianism.

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    1. Shawn,

      You’re almost a Reformed man? I’m not sure what I’m going to do with you! Could you possibly elaborate more fully your first three sentences?

      There’s a lot to be said of denominationalism and ecumenism, I long for unity of the churches (most especially with the catholic churches) but that seems to be a concern we have to hold in prayerful and eschatological tension. We’re not united and the normal “operations” of a church – worship, evangelism, catechism – are confused when there is nothing that you can trust other Christians in your fellowship to do with essential recognition and continuity. So until then, and given the factual need to supplement traditional seminary structures, I think that we should “police the borders” of doctrine so to speak.

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  6. Tony,

    I knew I was going to get busted for being sloppy. I was thinking soteriologically, and within the confines of the “free will” vs. “sovereignty” debate, especially as they demonstrate denominational tension.

    I have spent quite a bit of discourse with Reformed Christians and writings, and find that their articulation of soteriology is preferable. However, I just don’t jive with all the perfunctory ways that said theological disposition works itself out in practical Christian living and worship. The disconnect happens in anthropological terms. Their notion of God’s sovereignty and their high Christology, I think, are preferable. However, I deplore the way their low anthropology gets executed. So, while I am sympathetic to much of their theology, I am not “Reformed” because I cannot relate to the way they allow some doctrinal elements to inform others.

    What I think is interesting is most folks I have run into think the fight is over Christology or a doctrine of God’s attributes. In fact, the fight is over anthropologies, and those have a large deal to do with how people see themselves relating to God.

    Not sure, but I feel like I may be rambling at this point. So….

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  7. Shawn,

    But some Reformed soteriology is heretical! Ever heard of “double pre-destination?” I would agree though that the high-caliber Reformed stuff runs really close to Eastern Orthodox soteriology, only the Orthodox have got a proper anthropology, and so also a proper spirituality. I’m not sure that the Reformed have anything resembling an understanding of sanctification, spirituality or the life of the Trinity in the Church. I’m of course speaking broadly and accept all the consequences of speaking in such a way.

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  8. Tony,

    I have, and detest it (supralapsarianism), but I am not sure how representative lapsarian decrees are of Reformed theology as a whole. Though, I might just be mistaken.

    However, you have definitely caught on to that which I am referring when you said, “I would agree though that the high-caliber Reformed stuff runs really close to Eastern Orthodox soteriology, only the Orthodox have got a proper anthropology, and so also a proper spirituality.”

    My point about denominations, then, is to say that I have very dear friends that are Reformed and would probably agree with much of the sanctification, spirituality of the Trinity in the Church, et al that we find in other (Eastern) traditions – BUT not presented in the theological jargon in which they originate. They identify these “wrappings” as foreign to their own, and as a consequence summarily deem them false.

    So, denominationalism (and the doctrine guarding that comes with it) amounts to defending how you like your steak cooked to me. When you get to the true essence of what these theological distinctions mean, I’m not sure it isn’t just preference.

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  9. that is not to say, though – that there are not differences that exist between denominations that demonstrate one group’s rejection (as in one group will not maintain a notion of) of doctrinal elements. For instance, my displeasure with the A/G’s complete abandonment of sacramental theology does not necessarily fit into my previous example. I should qualify that I also believe that there are other (perhaps deeper) differences between denominations.

    But for the most part…

    Reply

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