When Your Theological Formulations Are Challenged

In my first year of seminary, I was in a New Testament class with an eccentric and somewhat unorthodox professor who enjoyed challenging various long-held theological assumptions and beliefs with the goal of helping us freshly think through these issues (everything from gender roles to homosexuality to the afterlife). I can’t say that I agree with him on everything (or most things for that matter), but I enjoyed his fresh approach and the way he encouraged us to think critically about how we use and interpret the Bible.
Anyway, I recall a discussion in which our professor encouraged us to consider various views relating to hell and eternal punishment, including universalist perspectives. As most folks in the class (including myself) had roots in the reformed evangelical tradition, suffice it to say the dialogue got quite lively.
Let me say upfront that I have absolutely no problem with engaging vigorously on these topics, even and especially when we disagree. This is, after all, part of what is supposed to happen in an academic setting–challenging each other’s views and sharpening our own.
That said, that discussion bothered me tremendously as it became tense, heated, and even hostile. As some students challenged the professor and each other, many comments were made sarcastically, derisively, and with a general tone of disrespect–and even anger–towards those who held differing views.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t leave with a thoroughly bad taste in my mouth. The entire experience left me wondering what causes such frequent tension and hostility in these kinds of conversations, especially in seminary settings.
As Christians, we are persistently tempted to place our faith in something other than God himself. For students of theology, I think this temptation often comes in the form of basing our belief and faith in God on our particular intellectual understanding of Him, rather than putting our faith solely in Jesus himself.
In seminary, the temptation is all the greater to do this. It’s the air we breathe, the water we drink, the life we live for those years. The primary source of your soul’s formation is theological training. This is glorious and dangerous all at once.
Having all of the answers to our theological questions and confusions doesn’t require faith; not having them does. Thus, we find it much easier (and safer) to bank our faith in God on various “proofs” of His existence as well as our own particular brand of theology. This is, I think, one of the main struggles for us in seminary.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting our beliefs and theology don’t matter. What I am suggesting is that at the end of the day, as the Apostle Paul said to the Corinthian church, we now see dimly on many of these issues. There will surely be disagreement and varying perspectives on even important theological matters.
Practically, we should recognize that orthodox Christianity has room for all kinds of divergent viewpoints on a number of difficult questions—even within the same theological tradition in the same seminary.
Can I offer a theory as to why we do this? The defensiveness and hostility that all too often characterizes these seminary discussions often arise because people sense threats to the theological formulations that make God and Christianity more clear and secure to them. This might be why so many Christians refuse to even engage these difficult discussions, and those that do are often unable to do so without strong negative emotions.
So what’s the solution? I think it begins with understanding how prone we are to put our faith in theological systems and our particular intellectual understanding of God. I think it continues as we engage mystically and personally with God the Holy Spirit.
In doing so, especially as we press forward in seminary environments, the hope is that our faith would be in Christ and Christ alone as we learn to live more by faith than by (intellectual) sight. Salvation after all is found not in our theological system, but in the risen Jesus himself.
By Paul Burkhart – Paul Burkhart lives in Philadelphia, PA. He is a deacon at Liberti Church and is currently working on his M.Div. through the Newbigin House of Studies at Western Theological Seminary. He works in social work, mainly in the areas of mental health and street homelessness. He blogs at The Long Way Home.

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