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Seminaries & the Nature of Truth

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.

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Written by paul-burkhart