Theological Education That Transforms, Part One

Theological education has become an exotic and mysterious enterprise, at least to the general public. Most Americans think seldom of theological seminaries, if at all, and most conceive of them as something like graduate schools for religious professionals–teaching religious people to do whatever it is that religious people do.

Even inside the church, some confusion about theological education clouds the picture. Laypersons often assume that the seminary exists as a factory to turn out preachers–freshly minted and ready for immediate call–ready to be wound up and set in motion. The view from the pew is of interest, for it reveals the widespread impression that seminaries can do everything necessary for the preparation of ministers, even if the churches have given little attention to their own responsibility.

The most malignant confusion about theological education exists within the seminaries, and is writ large across the accrediting agencies and coalitions of seminaries. This is not a recent development. Writing in 1954, H. Richard Niebuhr found little clarity as he presented a survey of theological education in America: “Great confusion prevails in some quarters about theological education. What, it is asked, is the meaning of this ministry? For what purpose are we educating? The situation in some circles of theological educators seems to be similar to the one found among certain foreign missionaries and sponsors of foreign missions. They know what they are doing is important, but an understanding of the strategy of their work, a relatively precise and definite understanding of its meaning, is lacking.”

Richard Niebuhr, like his brother Reinhold, was one of the paladins of American Protestantism at mid-century. The confusion he found among theological educators was, he noted, the same as that found among missionaries. They were not at all certain of their mission, their task, or their message.

Liberal Protestantism had lost confidence in the Bible, in the Gospel, and in the unique mission of the church. Progressively, its theological schools grew less and less theological; its missionaries grew less and less evangelistic; its bureaucracies grew larger and more powerful, and theological education became the engine for doctrinal dissipation, moral relativism, cultural revolution, and the death of once-great denominations.

Evangelicals had better pay close attention to this pattern. This kind of alarm is often met with bemusement and dismissed as hyperbole, but the nagging reality of what theological seminaries can become and can destroy is affirmed by history and seen in the ruins of churches once faithful, now empty.

In reality, the very pattern so easily traced within liberal Protestantism is increasingly evident among evangelicals as well. The same compromises are demanded; the subtle concessions are rewarded. We dare not deny the obvious. Some evangelicals now present the arguments once made by liberals–only a half-century delayed.

At the end of his glorious exposition of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in Romans 1-11, the Apostle Paul writes a song of praise to God:

Oh, the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and

knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments

and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind

of the Lord, or who has become His counselor?

Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to

Him again? For from Him and through Him and

to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

This doxology–this climactic declaration of praise and wonder and glory–is precisely directed at God’s glory evident in His wisdom and knowledge. These are immeasurably rich, infinite, and inexhaustible. In Him, wisdom and knowledge are combined so that we cannot know the one from the other. We have no right to question God’s wisdom, or His economy of salvation. We have no ground from which to launch an investigation into the strategies of the Most High God. His judgments are unsearchable, and His ways are unfathomable.

Modern theology can be seen as one vast exercise in second-guessing the mind of God. The clear declarations of the Bible are seen as hypotheses to be considered, thought experiments to be debated–anything but eternal truths to be received with gratitude, defended with honor, handled with respect, passed down faithfully from generation to generation, and directed always to God’s glory.

Paul did not argue that God’s ways are hard to decipher, but that they are impossible to trace. He did not argue that God’s wisdom is superior, but that His wisdom is infinitely rich and deep. Modern theology is a massive demonstration of what the Greeks called hubris. It is overreaching of the most egregious sort. As the African American tradition reminds us, our arms are too short to box with God. Look at the current literature in theology. Review the latest so-called biblical scholarship from the academic guilds and societies. Visit the divinity schools and seminaries of liberal Protestantism and confused evangelicalism, and you will find boxing matches aplenty, with cheering in the stands, one-sided energy in the ring, and judgment waiting in the wings. Be not deceived, for God is not mocked.

The contemporary debate over the so-called “openness of God” amounts to nothing more (or less) than such an exercise in second-guessing God, and thereby reducing Him to a more manageable and user-friendly deity. With breathtaking arrogance, these theologians claim that God is so glorious that He does not have to be omniscient, which is akin to arguing that the Titanic was so glorious that it didn’t have to float. The God of the Bible is not standing by ready with “Plan B” when “Plan A” fails. He knows all things, even foreknows all things. Theologians may debate how the divine foreknowledge is linked to the divine will, but never has any orthodox Christian theologian affirmed that God’s omniscience is partial, limited, or blind. As Professor Bruce Ware rightly notes, such a theology is an argument for God’s lesser glory.

But the Bible’s consistent testimony is to God’s greater glory. And believers throughout the ages have testified of God’s great glory manifest in His omniscience, His wisdom and knowledge, and the infinity of the divine Mind.

The Apostle Paul then turns to the Old Testament for two important questions. Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor? Earthly kings, presidents, and emperors are surrounded by a coterie of aides, advisors, strategists, media experts, pollsters, and the like. The heavenly throne is surrounded by the bene Elohim who continually praise God and testify of His glory. They offer no advice. None is needed.

Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to Him? God is the sovereign Creator of the universe, the source of all that is, and the sustainer of all things. No one can give anything to God in any genuine sense, for all things are His, and come from Him. Most clearly, God is never in debt to His creature for any reason.

Finally, Paul expresses the consummate summary of the divine glory expressed in all creation–and manifest supremely in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen. This is the great unbroken circle of God’s praise and glory. All things were created by Him. All things are sustained even now by Him. All things will find their destiny by His judgment to His greater glory. To Him–and to Him alone–be the glory forever. Amen.

This brings us to the starting point, and the ending point, of all true theological reflection. The biblical worldview is framed on all sides by the great reality of God’s glory. In this frame we find our identity as sinners seeking to rob God of His glory. In this frame we find salvation through the glorious redemption of the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is beheld the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, and in whose cross we glory. In this frame we find our purpose in this life and in the life to come–to glorify God and praise His name forever.

All of life is to be lived in this frame. All theology is to be defined by this frame. All our teaching and preaching and study and writing and learning and striving and witnessing and living are to be done to the greater glory of God.

This frame defines the Christian worldview and thus the task of theological education. Most problems and controversies in theology could quickly be solved by asking this question: How can we most purely, most truthfully, most biblically, and most eagerly define and describe the glory of God and His ways toward us? Asking that question and answering it truthfully would amount to a revolution in theological education.