“Of all vocations the Christian ministry is the most sacred, the most exacting, the most humbling.”
Sir William Robertson Nicoli
I could almost smell the fear as I entered the room. I made my way down the center aisle and took my seat with the others. Small talk abounded as we waited for the victim to be brought in to face his interrogators. We had all been through this before and I’m sure no one believed that this would be any different. It wasn’t. The scene was all too familiar to those somewhat jaded individuals who had assembled for the occasion. The victim was ushered to the front of the room and introduced. The ordination council had begun.
The council proceeded as all councils do. The candidate takes an interminable amount of time recounting the testimony we had all been given in written form weeks ago. Then the questioning begins, interspersed with gems of wisdom from the assembled veterans of councils past. “If you could be happy doing anything else, you’d better do that,” the candidate is told, with either the gravity of a Doctor informing a patient that he is terminal or the levity of one taken with his own cleverness. Ha, ha, ha. What a card.
I have come to wonder why we continue to go through this process. By the time the council is over, do we really know any more about this man’s qualifications for ministry than when we began? The same questions seem to be asked at every council, and the same answers, or lack thereof, are given. Few of the responses leave the impression that they come as the result of any degree of thoughtfulness. Rather one is left with the impression that the candidate is quoting from something with a title like “Theology Made Easy”. And I leave once again feeling as though we didn’t do our jobs.
With every council I attend I come away more and more concerned with the state of the pastorate. It seems that in reaction to the perception of an overly academic emphasis in pastoral training, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. We now have seminary graduates who know all of the latest ministerial techniques and all of this year’s most popular church growth strategies, but who no longer have a grasp of how to think biblically or how to do theology.
There was a time when pastors were expected to be theologians. In fact, many of the greatest theologians of the church, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, etc., were first and foremost, pastors. It is increasingly obvious that things have changed dramatically. Theologians speak to one another through academic journals. Pastors are counselors and administrators and fund-raisers and it is expected that neither will infringe on the other’s territory. We have become so consumed with the “practice” of pastoring that we are neglecting the foundation of that practice. If the day of the Pastor-Theologian has indeed vanished, never to return, the church will be all the poorer because of it. When theology is relegated to a back room in the ivory tower, the church will inevitably loose its moorings and begin a slow, nearly imperceptible drift into error and impotence. Henri Massis, in his Defense of the West, believes this has already occurred. “Because it turned away from theology…not only has the west no truth to give the world, but the world throws back at it its own follies.”
We are witnessing what David Wells calls the “process of reduction”. The reduction of the meaning of theology to reflection in the academy, and to practice in the evangelical church. We no longer ask questions of truth. We ask, “Does it work?”. If so, then it must be O.K. We have become men of pragmatism, instead of men of the book.
Edward Farley has, I believe, correctly observed that “In today’s seminaries the theological student neither studies divinity nor obtains scholarly expertise in theological sciences, but instead trains for professional activities.” Ministry has fallen from its place of honor to a mere profession, and theology is no longer the empress of the sciences, as Luther called it, but merely courtier, hovering about on the fringes waiting for the remote possibility it may one day be needed.
We have lost sight of the fact that without our theology, the methodology is meaningless. Why should we bother to grow a church if, when the people have come, we have nothing to feed them? Why do we marvel at the shallowness of our people when we stand in the pulpit and quote Larry Burkett instead of Augustine; James Dobson instead of Jonathan Edwards?
“Could you tell me the difference between immanence and transcendence and what theological errors would result from an over-emphasis on each?” the candidate was asked. “I’m sorry,” he replied. “I’m not familiar with those concepts.” A recent seminary graduate, who was already serving in the pastorate, and he was unfamiliar with basic foundational principles of Theology Proper. He passed anyway.
Am I overreacting? I hope so. I hope things aren’t as bad as they seem. But when I look back over the history of the church, I wonder. Once there were men whose power came from the Holy Spirit and the content of their faith. There were men who weren’t concerned with the latest methodologies and faddish techniques. There were men who knew the truth of God, and proclaimed it boldly. There were men who could think and reason and communicate the deep things of God to their people. Once there were men who knew what the important things were.
Eric Hoffer said, “True doctrine is a master key to all the world’s problems. With it the world can be taken apart and put together.” Somehow we have become deceived, having become convinced that the key lies elsewhere. And so we find ourselves on our knees. Regretfully, we are not on our knees in prayerful anguish over the revealed truth of God, but rather we are on our knees, groping in the dark, for a mythical key that doesn’t exist.