Seminaries & the Nature of Truth

by on September 27, 2009

TRUTH photo credit: loreshdwphoto credit: loreshdw

I recently wrote an article about letting seminary change you doctrinally. In it, I laid out some broad ideas of Truth, doctrine, and how the seminarian needs to treat these things in order to get the most out of their seminary education. In the present article, I want to get a bit more specific about how seminaries themselves can best effect these changes, by offering a perspective on how they ought to relate to truth and doctrine. If you remember, we started with the basic conundrum that seminaries are called to facilitate change within people that are typically very resistant to it: seminarians. This is because seminarians are generally quite sure in both their calling and much of their doctrine, and are most likely going to like-minded institutions. We talked then how the seminarian can posture themselves humbly to allow healthy doctrinal changes and growth. Now let’s talk about how the seminary can best promote this change.

To do so, let’s turn to a primary epistemological text for the Christian: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. We’ll focus on verses 21-24:

“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

The truth of an infinite God conceived by finite creatures seems to exist in various spectrums, and we exist somewhere in the tension of those different extremes or ideas. We live and speak in dialectics where for every point of doctrine in one denomination there seems to exist a counterpoint in another. According to Alvin Plantinga, Truth is not the Lockean notion of our relation to an objective body of facts, rather it is the point at which two seemingly opposing or paradoxical ideas exist in tension and harmony (such as Jesus= God + Man).

This means there are two possible errors we can fall into when thinking about these things: the error of “over-objectification” which makes this spectrum too narrow, and the error of “over-subjectification” which makes this spectrum too broad. That’s what this text is about. The Jews demanded signs – subjective experience. These were the people that related to truth merely as it “resonated” with them, irregardless of the objective facts revealed. Today, these would be the “liberal” seminaries of the world – those that are more concerned with cultural accommodation and “experiencing” truth than proclaiming it. But, the Greeks demanded wisdom – nice, neat objective systems of knowledge and dogma with all the loose ends tied. These are typically the “fundamentalist” schools – those that leave little to no room for theological “development” because their basic presupposition is that they have established precisely where they are on all secondary issues.

But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the liberals and folly to fundamentalists. The Cross frustrates over-subjectification because of it’s very real, objective, historical nature. The Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Christ are very real events in history; and objective events happen in objective time and space to accomplish objective goals in that time and space. God really did come and really did die, and this really does place objective demands and requirements on people in both conduct and belief. It is not that he accomplishes these things objectively just so we can relate to it in whatever fashion we please.

But, the Cross also frustrates over-objectification, though, as well. This is because though it was an event that took place objectively, it is ultimately received, related to, and responded to subjectively. The objective goals of the Cross are worked out in a subjective manner. This means that many of the truths and implications of the Gospel come to us as individuals and as a catholic Church as we relate to this God with our subjective selves. This is how Calvin can write in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that we cannot learn theology apart from holiness and obedience. There is a false distinction between Orthopraxy and Orthodoxy. J.I. Packer once said that the first requirement of the Gospel is repentance, so those that are comfortable in their sins are (and should be treated as) doctrinal heretics – no matter what they intellectually believe. This is how the Church, the Bride of Christ, is able to grow and develop (and yes even change!) in it’s theology (and articulations) over time as it is progressively and corporately sanctified and washed with the water of the Word by her Bridegroom Jesus (Ephesians 5:25-27). As she learns to live and relate to Him by faith.

Faith. Ah, the theological f-word. The intended endpoint of all theology. That “O the depths” moment (Romans 11:33-36) that should be the final word in all discussions concerning Him. As I have said in nearly every post I’ve written for this site: God has so designed everything such that it must be lived by faith. It’s too easy to over-subjectify and use yourself as the litmus test for truth. It’s also too easy to over-objectify and over-define your dogma and ideas on things such as inerrancy and hermeneutics, and then nuance them so narrowly that you no longer need to trust Him. I had a pastor that once said “if it can’t be abused, it’s probably not grace.” I believe the same goes for truth: “if it can’t be abused, it’s probably not Truth.” “Slippery slopes” or “people taking it too far” are no reason to think something is incorrect (have you really thought about the Christian doctrine of “grace” recently?).

A seminary should facilitate such thinking and exposure to these tensions involved. Each of us will be more inclined towards one side of a given spectrum than the other. This is why seminaries should fill their halls with professors with different backgrounds, interests, and yes, even diversity in some theological points. Biblical and Systematic Theology departments should always be in tension with another, because they each tend towards opposing sides of the spectrums. An institution should avoid favoring one of those departments above another. Seminaries should assign readings that challenge thought and give assignments that require a student to come up with, articulate, and defend their own opinion – not just learn the “proper” view that the institution may think they hold. Courses should engage with thinkers across the spectrum of ideas – not giving equal weight to all their beliefs, but mere exposure to what they thought and why. A clearly articulated emphasis on Church History lets people see how faithful people have looked at the Bible in the past and have come to very different conclusions (it may also help us be better believers today).

Seminaries should know and embrace all of this: value it, love it, teach it, and instill it in their students. As philosopher and theologian Peter Rollins (with whom I am suffering a mild obsession) writes in his amazing book “The Fidelity of Betrayal” concerning the various tensions that exist within Scripture and the positions these create:

“[W]hat if we are not bound to choose between these two positions? What if we can affirm these conflicts at one and the same moment that we affirm the idea of this text being deeply branded by the white-hot presence of God? Indeed, what if the conflict we encounter in [these tensions] is precisely what we would expect to find in a text claiming divine status rather than something that witnesses against it?”

Seminaries should boldly and clearly stand in the tension between humanity and divinity, Systematic and Biblical theology, Scripture and confession, history and artistry, scholarship and tradition, theology and worship, academics and ministry, already and not yet, modernity and post-modernity, reformed and reforming, proclaiming and pastoring, grace and works, and security and discomfort. Seminaries lose their way, minimize worship, and remove the need for faith when they decide the tension is too difficult to hold – when they decide to break it in the interest of comfort, money, or even what they consider good principles and pastoral concern. They should stretch their arms out wide and seize both ends of these tensions and hold them as Christ held those nails as he bore the weight and scorn of a world that sought to rest their faith on themselves, their confessions, and everything else but Him.

About

Frequenting the coffee shops of Philadelphia while employed in social work and finishing up a Masters of Divinity from the Newbigin House of Studies at Western Theological Seminary. He serves Liberti Church as a deacon and seminary intern. Paul blogs at the long way home and tweets as @PaulBurkhart_.

Comments

Great article once again man. I definitely agree that repentance is the first step towards of the gospel and whatever a person knows in their heads should transfer over to their hearts and be evident in how they live out their lives daily. But I will have to disagree with your view in terms of all seminaries having professors and teachers of different backgrounds and theologies teaching students to challenge them with different angles, helping them to come up with their own view of God. There are seminaries like that, such as Princeton and Yale, where the instructors come from different backgrounds. However, the different views and angles bombarding a seminary student, especially someone who is relatively new to the faith, will only be leaving them confused, not knowing what exactly is true. While there are certain aspects of theology and doctrine where I see no problem with there being disagreements, such as baptism (paedo vs. credo, sprinkle vs. immersion) and eschatology, there are certain things that should NEVER be compromised, such as the full divinity and humanity of Christ, the virgin birth, that Jesus is not a lesser God, etc. I do believe that there should be some conviction in one’s belief, especially since I am a preacher, and I know how much it would affect the way I view Scripture and the way I preach if I didn’t 100% believe and know with confidence what I was preaching that day. I quoted Chesteron in my response to the first part of this article, so I won’t repeat it, but I do believe there should be some conviction.

Paul,

I am a little confused by this post. In your previous post last July “Realizing Seminary’s Not For You”, one of the struggles you detailed was the difference in theology you had with your seminary of choice. Here you state that seminaries should have this diversity of views. Respectfully, you can’t have it both ways! Maybe I have misunderstood?

During my own seminary journey I have found that my understanding of doctrine has, in several instances, been incomplete and I have had to come to terms with that understanding (or lack of understanding on my part). Perhaps this is the case with many seminarians who think they are well grounded doctrinally but find that their knowledge more limited than they realize.

I agree that seminaries should present differing points of view but should expect a SBC seminary to have a slant in the direction of their accepted theology just as other denominational seminaries do.

As always, I enjoy reading your posts and your point of view.

Chris

Man, I always hope that my writing answers all the anticipated questions, and I was really hoping to clearly communicate my thoughts on this particular issue. Maybe I didn’t. I was hoping to have made clear that among the faculty, an institution should have represent a diversity of opinion WITHIN ITS TRADITION. I don’t think Westminster, for example, is wrong not to hire non-Presbyterians. Denomination and Confession-run institutions are great! And I think they should keep faculty within their tradition. I just hope the schools recognize and embrace the tensions that do (and should!) exist even within their own traditions, and encourage a healthy representation from the tradition. Once again, this is as far as FACULTY goes.

As far as READINGS go, though, like I say above, I think we should be exposed to a very wide-variety of opinions. But also, like I say above, not all opinions should be given extra weight. They are not all valid. Yes, those perspectives that think Jesus is a lesser god should not be looked at with the same validity as Orthodox statements, but I want to know why those people believe that!

For example: one class at WTS, though it bashed Karl Barth relentlessly, required reading from him. This is good. Another class, though, only had readings from Calvin, Bavinck, and Turretin (sorry to pick on that class again). This, as I’ve said before, isn’t helpful to us as students, other than to let us know what the “right” tradition thinks – and no one else.

Lastly, Chris, even in the Reformed Westminster tradition, there is room for these tensions I talk about here to exist. When they are held, it is wonderful. The theological differences I was referring to in the previous article was my opinion that these tensions are being broken in an unhealthy manner. So diversity is good, but I believe the institution is losing the diversity. But this is only my little ol’ opinion.

Are there any more loose ends?

Hmmm…I think I might have to disagree with you a bit here. I’m going to be thinking while I’m typing so I apologize in advance if this is hard to follow.
I don’t think that a seminary is doing anyone justice by simply assigning readings from divergent views and then relentlessly bashing them in class. I think the difference has to be in the attitude of the professor toward divergent views. It seems like that’s what you’re getting at in your article, but you let profs off a little too easy in your comment.
Assigning readings from opposing viewpoints can be done (and is very often done) solely for the sake of saying “Look at how wrong they are” followed by a brief characterization of their theology/philosophy that barely does them justice. That’s certainly how it came across in some of my seminary classes, and I think that that’s how it is in a lot of confessional/denominational seminaries because the purpose of those seminaries seems to be closer to indoctrination than teaching people to think and learn and come to their own conclusions. (I need a better word than “indoctrination” because of all the negative connotations that go along with that, but it’ll have to do for right now; just know that I don’t see “indoctrination” and “learn and come to their own conclusions” as being “bad” vs “good” necessarily.)
If the main concern of a seminary is to make sure that it’s students leave its halls with the correct (read: “confessionally orthodox”) conclusions/beliefs, then why would they spend much effort presenting opposing viewpoints other than to show the students what they’re up against? The seminary would do exactly what you’ve said they did in your class: assign readings from opposing viewpoints and then relentlessly bash them. But that’s a far cry from allowing there to be any kind of tension. That’s just loading up on theological/philosophical apologetic ammunition so you can handle those arguments and ideas when you hear them or counsel people away from those positions when they come to your office at church.
It might seem like I actually do think that confessional=indoctrination=bad, but I believe there’s a place for those kinds of institutions. People who are training to become pastors should have the choice of going to a confessional institution where they can have their confessional framework fleshed out and built up before they enter the pastorate and start helping people who need answers. Institutions like that should be a place where people can get a foundation for future studies and forays into other diverse views.
HOWEVER, my problem with these institutions comes when they bill themselves as places of serious critical thought where you can come to learn not just what to think, but how to think. (Of course, in the process of being taught what to think you will inevitably pick up some ideas on how to think.) When a seminary says, “We help you engage in the tough questions of faith. See, here’s a tough question…And here’s the right answer,” in my opinion, they aren’t helping you to engage. For a professor to help you engage, I think there has to be an actual acceptance of the validity of opposing views. No, not all views. But a wider range of views and opinions than is afforded in most confessions and denominations. In seminaries I think this might just look like people being willing to move past the idea that if people disagree with them or their confession then they’re either too sinful or too stupid to understand the right answer. I think it would look like people saying “Okay, there are acceptable conclusions outside of my own.” But in a confessional seminary whose goal is to train people to pass the pastor test (I can’t remember what it’s called when you stand up in front of people and answer a bunch of questions so they’ll ordain you) for their specific denomination, then views outside of the confession just aren’t an acceptable option.
As I think through this, I can’t tell if it’s just a difference of temperament/opinion or if I’m right and you’re wrong or vice versa. But I’m interested to hear your (or anyone else’s) thoughts on any of that, and whether or not confessional/denominational seminaries really are able to allow the tension that you’re talking about.

I think this might be kind of long. Sorry about that.

Paul,

I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts, and likewise appreciate the content of these thoughts. I empathize with you and wholeheartedly believe tension should be embraced.

Good word.

Joel.

I guess I’m curious, are there any doctrines, beliefs, opinions that are true and right? Is the acceptance of varied viewpoints the ultimate good? I would hope that if a professor is not characterizing an opposing view correctly and simply setting it up to bash it, most of us can recognize that. But you seem to be lumping any institution that holds up a doctrine and defends it as correct and others incorrect as not “engaging in critical thought.” What are we to make of Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:5 “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”?
Is Paul not being a critical thinker? Should he be?

Hey Mike. I think your comment was in response to mine (I got an email about it), but since at least in my browser your comment isn’t nested under mine I’m not positive. So if you weren’t replying to me then just ignore all of this.

I definitely think that there are doctrines, beliefs, and opinions that are true and right; I just wouldn’t say that any single tradition has gotten it all right. I also think that acceptance of varied viewpoints is a good thing; I wouldn’t, however, call it the “ultimate good”.

It does seem like institutions whose primary goal is to prepare people to pass their ordination examination tend to elevate the possession of the correct answers over critical thinking with the results being open-ended. I don’t think that holding up doctrine and defending it as correct is necessarily antithetical to critical thinking. But it does seem like to honestly engage in critical thinking, you need to be given the freedom to follow the truth wherever it takes you.

In the specific case of Paul in 2 Cor 10.5, I think he’s speaking more about what we would think of as apologetics, and I would call that “critical thinking” but not in the same sense as I’m thinking of when I use that phrase above. Critical thinking in those verses would mean something like “thinking critically about different doctrines/beliefs in order to find their weaknesses and show your position’s strengths”. On the other hand, “critical thinking” as I’ve been using the term, would be more along the lines of what I said above: “viewing the evidence/text/arguments/whatever critically and following the truth wherever it takes you”. Obviously, at a seminary where professors are expected to toe the confessional/denominational line, they will not be free to do that in their research nor encouraged to engender that type of attitude in their students.

My question is: is seminary even the place to engage in critical thinking like I’m thinking about? Or is seminary’s main goal to produce denominational leaders and pastors? In my experience, seminary was not a place to engage in critical thinking wherever it may lead. I don’t think that’s a bad thing (as I said in my first comment), but it was disappointing to me when I realized that my professors expected me to come to all the same conclusions as they had.

What do you guys think? Paul, I know you don’t work during the day. What do you think?

Thanks for your reply. My comments were adressed to you and I appreciate the way in which you think through things. First, I would have to say Paul’s admonition to “bring every thought captive to Christ” is extremely wide ranging in its proper application in my view. I don’t think limiting this passages “every thought” to just critical thinking does the scope of the Scriptural language and Paul’s argument justice. There is a powerful truth here about what truth is and how a disciple of Christ should think.
Your concerns about what seminary is for and professors not agreeing with you resonate for me more in the realm of our arguments being right. Frankly, I find the arguments for doctrines I believe to be right sometimes weak–even from professors. One of the main reasons I am going to seminary is to formulate better arguments for eternal truths.
There is just a strong wind of pluarlism blowing in our culture today and I sense some of that in your posts. To be open minded today is to not have any objective, exclusive truths, but to listen to all views. I just can’t find that in “I am the way, the truth and light and no one comes to the Father but by me.” Nor does Paul urge us to consider all views and see which makes more sense to our human reason, but to bring every thought captive to Christ.
That type of exclusive language isn’t popular today but note the strong terms of “bringing thoughts captive” to what?– frank, open discussion? To Christ.
Much as my natural mind more easily makes sense of my own free will, my natural mind likes this idea of experimenting with all these different views. The language of Scripture compels me to God’s exhaustive sovereignty and drives to me one place to find wisdom: “The fear of the Lord”