Posted by: Billy Marsh | September 14, 2009

Theological Education: The Academy, The Bible, and the Church

For so long now there has been a divide between the Christian academy and the Church. Rather than co-laborers, they have at times worked together more so as co-belligerents. Post-Reformation, theology increasingly became a specialized enterprise resulting in it turning into a compartmentalized discipline rather than retaining its place as the “Queen of the Sciences”. I don’t believe that this was ever the explicit intention of the scholarly community. Like most historical phenomenons, the cause cannot be reduced to a single factor. As I noted in a previous post, the common man is just as much to blame insofar as he has sustained an indifferent attitude towards serious theological engagement in general. Current theological movements (e.g. theological interpretation, biblical theology, and canonical approach) within academia are steadily trying to resolve this rift though their efforts are so new that their fruit has yet to be seen in the every day local church.

Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present ~ Gerald BrayWhen I began reading the “Introduction” to Gerald Bray’s textbook on the history of biblical interpretation, I was moved by his concern over this same matter, and that out of his conviction, he produced this work. In just a few paragraphs, Bray bestows an abundance of wisdom related to the problem of the over-specialization of theology and the distance it creates between the academy and the church. However, it is the prerogative of the church itself to be interested in matters of faith, the Bible, and theology; therefore, the church remains supremely responsible for investigating and contending for its own faith.

Bray opens his Biblical Interpretation: Past & Present centered on this discussion, but narrows it to the topic of hermeneutics and the popularity of its study in the 20th century and on into the 21st century. The problem with its growth both in the academy and in the publishers’ market, however, is that “much of it is inaccessible to non-specialists and confusing to students (7).” In other words, just because more people are interested in studying the Bible doesn’t mean that the church at large is maturing in its knowledge of how to approach Scripture. Based upon Bray’s critique, it seems that what has happened in some circles is that scholars began writing books for one another rather than for the benefit of the practice of God’s people.  Bray continues, “A high percentage of the academic work currently being produced has little bearing on the life of the church, and is remote from the concerns of the average Christian.”

Once again, professional theologians should not be stuck solely with the blame, yet the truth stands that much of their writing, especially in contemporary biblical interpretation, cannot be penetrated apart from acquiring some level of expertise in the matter. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the chasm between the scholarly community and the common church congregation continues to widen as the disciplines grow in sophistication, thereby shutting down the attempts of the 40+ hour-a-week laymen at partaking in these discussions, thus fostering and adding to the already present mood of anti-intellectualism in the body of Christ. Bray recognizes this trend and comments:

At a time when churchgoers want to hear a clear word from God, scholars appear to be confusing issues and muddying the waters of biblical study to the point where even professional theologians find it difficult to follow what they are saying.

When the church is deprived from access to quality higher-Christian education, the result is that pastors and leaders are left to their own, and remain stymied in their own theological world despite their varied levels of effectiveness in the local church. A pastor who is the primary shepherd for a flock of let’s say 200 people doesn’t have the free time to pioneer the usefulness of speech-act theory or the validity of the multi-faceted nature of meaning in Scripture, and therefore, remains dependent upon someone in the academic community to provide him with an accessible aid or textbook on the matter so that he can bring a fuller and more mature hermeneutic to the table that does better justice to the nature of the Bible itself. However, if all the resources that speak on these very pertinent and beneficial issues continue to consist of a vocabulary that requires a specialized dictionary and careful decoding, along with the necessary time to read its total 400 pages, then the pastor will forever pass it and the valuable theology it offers by.

Again Bray sees this as a reality in the relationship between the academy and the church when he writes:

New methods of reading the text are constantly being explored, but with little interest being shown in their long-term viability as principles to guide interpretation. Meanwhile, the preaching and teaching work of the church goes on with less and less input from the world of biblical scholarship. Too often the result is a weak, emotionally based Christianity which has little intellectual content and no staying power.

Bray’s evaluation should not go unheeded by either side. Having held a place inside Christian education for close to a decade, I am more than aware that a large portion of textbooks devoted to a proper reading of Scripture and healthy methods of doing theology are some of the most difficult works I’ve ever had to read. And this comes from someone who is constantly reading in those fields. On the other hand, having grown up in the type of church culture that I did, I believe with all my heart that church leaders in every respect need to wake up to a broader and unavoidable theological world, and begin to take the initiative in seeking out higher Christian education, whether it be in a seminary classroom or in one’s own spare time in his armchair.

Both sides need to come to at least two basic conclusions. First, notwithstanding the place of the local church, the universal body of Christ encompasses all confessing true believers in Christ. As Paul affirms, there is one body, one faith, one Spirit, and one God and Father of all (Eph 4:3-6). When Christian scholarship and the life of the church fail to go hand in hand, then we have compartmentalized the faith to our own detriment. The church will suffer. The Bible is the Church’s book; thus, when it serves primarily as an object of study and exudes obscurity instead of serving as the means to knowing and loving God, its purpose has been betrayed and the body of Christ is cut off from its clear and life-giving light. Second, the everyday churchman must not delude himself into thinking that pure theology is always the simplest formula. Likewise, the professional theologian must not always equate quality scholarship with impenetrable sophistication. In his message to the 2009 Gospel Coalition, D. A. Carson exhorted future scholars to remember “that there are people out there.” In view of God’s infinite nature, surely we shouldn’t expect that what we know of him could be explained, exhausted, and resolved with only a good ol’ boy simplicity. On the other side, in the wisdom and love of God, we shouldn’t believe that in order to do justice to his revealed Word and to  acquire an in depth comprehension of theology, a person is required to read 4 books a week, take 12 years of specialized Christian academic training, and to have written a dissertation that no one can read nor wants to read, except other nerds (I include myself here) within your own discipline who are functioning at that level.

I appreciated Bray’s comments and that he opened his book on the history of biblical interpretation this way. It encourages me all the more to want to take up the torch within my place in Christian history in making sense of Scripture for the sake of the bride of Christ, for the hope of the lost, and for the glory of God. What are your thoughts on this issue?



  1. Outstanding post Billy, and yeah, you have hit the nail on the head once again. We need not only theologians in the academy, we need pastor theologians who can, not water it down, but translate it to the average member of the local church. Furthermore, we as church leaders, need to cultivate a love for study amongst the members entrusted to us as undershepherds in Sunday School and Home Care Groups or Bible Studies.

  2. Thanks. It’s definitely the responsibility of both parties. The main question for me is how do we get scholarship into the local church in an accessible way without dumbing it down and without spoon-feeding our churches. This goes back to what you’re saying, namely, that we need to cultivate a love for study amongst our members. I’m very interested in trying to figure out this dynamic with realistic expectations.

  3. When I was a youth, I actually listened to the sermons from the pastor and youth ministers. the guys who fed my soul as a teen would quote from CH Spurgeon, AW Tozer and Leonard Ravenhill and others. That sparked an interest in me that led to more serious study in college.

    So at least one way, then, to spark an interest in the congregation is to offer up pertinent quotes in our sermons, lessons etc. Thinkin’ you and Bret Rodgers ought to do something with the book nook on thecity similar to what you do here on your blogs.


  4. how can I add to bookrmark your blog? would you like to visit mine? regards!

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