I hail from a long line of medical doctors. Although none of us has ever had formal medical training, we are all perfectly confident that we can diagnose ourselves and prescribe a remedy. My grandmother ("Big Mama"), in fact, created a concoction which she called "the remedy." No fancy names to befuddle patients and overwhelm them with a foreign vocabulary. Just "the remedy." Since we were, generally speaking, hypochondriacs, the remedy seemed to work. Only in my adulthood did I learn that it consisted mainly of cheap bourbon and coconut shavings. (We were Southern Baptists: whiskey could only be justified for medicinal use.)
Of course, if anything serious happened, we went to a hospital like everybody else. There too we assured patient and not-so-patient physicians and nurses that we had a pretty good idea what it was and what would solve it—we just needed the doctor's signature for a prescription.
By now, readers are probably questioning my mental as well as physical health. However, I can assure you that I am not quite as foolish these days, especially after becoming a father of four. A bad doctor will kill you, but so will self-diagnosis. We all look for the best doctors in town and when there is a serious illness, we try to find the most qualified specialist.
There is nothing wrong with using the means that God has provided to improve and prolong our life, but we will all die regardless of the care we receive. After this, the judgment. Those who are in Christ will be raised to life everlasting, while the rest will be raised to everlasting death. How much more important it is, therefore, that there be well-trained physicians of the Word.
I'm often reminded of this point these days, when the familiar sentiment of Pink Floyd's anthem, "We Don't Need No Education," seems to be more common than ever. Americans especially love practical leaders who can "get the job done" over scholars who spend a lot of time reading. Long before the "Jesus Movement" of the 1970s, many evangelicals disparaged churches of the Reformation for their educated ministry. Radical Anabaptists like Thomas Muntzer mocked Luther for wanting "to send the Holy Ghost to college." Calvin sharply rebuked these sects for their assumption that the Spirit works immediately and directly, apart from his Word and a ministry trained and ordained to declare it in Christ's name. The nineteenth-century revivalist Charles Finney, though ordained in the Presbyterian Church, came to criticize his denomination for its insistence on an educated ministry. Since, according to his essentially Pelagian theology, salvation is not a miracle of God's grace but a planned, pragmatic consequence of the right use of techniques, personal power and charisma trumped formal training. If one has the inward call of the Spirit (the "anointing") and a cleverness in practical matters, what need is there of an outward call of the church through training and examination? A good conversion experience made up for any lack of knowledge. Ignorant of church history, many of these evangelists unwittingly repeated past errors; ignorant of the biblical languages, proper methods of interpretation, and theology, their exegesis was often only superficially connected with the biblical text.
We would never tolerate a medical doctor who, instead of addressing our acute illness, told personal stories and anecdotes. Yet many Christians tolerate preachers who do the same, "dressing the wound of my people as though it were not serious," as the self-appointed prophets in Jeremiah's day.
The real provocation for this article, though, came from re-reading Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy (Zondervan, 2004). In this book, McLaren, a leader in what is now called the Emergent Church (or Emerging Church) movement, calls evangelicals to abandon their historical commitments to the Reformation's "solas." He says that while evangelicals in the past have been committed to "an errorless Bible" that is a sufficient authority for faith and practice, we must see tradition, reason, and experience as authoritative alongside Scripture. Furthermore, he adds that we have a lot to learn from the texts and teachings—but especially the lives—of people from other religions. Concerning liberal Protestants, McLaren says, " applaud their desire to live out the meaning of the miracle stories even when they don't believe the stories really happened as written. (I find it harder to be sympathetic with those who take pride in believing the miracles really happened but don't seek to live out their meaning.)" (61). McLaren admits, "I am consistently over-sympathetic to Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, even dreaded liberals, while I keep elbowing my conservative brethren in the ribs in a most annoying—some would say ungenerous—way. I cannot even pretend to be objective or fair" (35). Indeed, he has mostly positive things to say about the Anabaptist heritage, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, liberation theology, and liberalism. "Why not celebrate them all?", he asks. "What if we enjoy them all, the way we enjoy foods from differing cultures? Aren't we glad we can enjoy Thai food this week, Chinese next, Italian the following week, Mexican next month, and Khmer after that?" (66). Evident throughout his book is McLaren's assumption that the gospel is about our love and good works, not God's. Our goal should not be to convert Jews, Buddhists, and Moslems to Christianity but to make them better Jewish, Buddhist, and Moslem followers of Christ, he argues.
McLaren even has a little room for Reformed Christians at the food court. "When I was growing up," says McLaren, "there was anti-intellectualism rampant in Evangelical Christianity. At that time it was mostly in the Reformed churches (Presbyterian, Christian Reformed, etc.) that one found much intellectual vigor and life of the mind" (187). However, this is where the complements end. The author takes apart the Calvinist "TULIP" petal-by-petal. He says that if they want "to participate in a generous orthodoxy" (i.e., his own blend of properly balanced traditions), Reformed people will have to drop their "fondness for reductionism, epitomized by their love for the Latin word sola (only), seen in what are often called Reformation mottoes: sola Scriptura, sola fide," and so forth (198).
This book is so full of distortions, confusion and self-contradiction in his interpretation of history and theology that it can only be taken seriously by post-evangelicals looking for a reason to take their parents and pastors to court. Yet McLaren himself fends off any criticism that might be offered with a self-deprecating concession, namely, that: I myself will be considered by many to be completely unqualified to write such a book of theology, being neither a trained theologian nor even a legitimate pastor if legitimacy is defined by ordination qualifications in a bona fide denomination. Rather I am only a lowly English major who snuck into pastoral ministry accidentally through the back door of the English department and church planting, and whose graduate education consisted of learning how to read. In other words, I am a confessed amateur" (34). One doubts, however, that many evangelicals will actually be among those readers who will be put off by such a confession. Instead, American evangelicals will be likely to celebrate his competence precisely because he has not been "tainted" by formal seminary training. Yet the ironic, playful, eclectic, and whimsical style in which McLaren does theology without actually doing theology is as dangerous in pastoral practice as it is in the practice of medicine. While we are not meant to take ourselves seriously, the gospel is not a game. It's a matter of life and death. Children play games, but eventually come to learn that life calls for more serious reflection. In Ephesians 4, Paul reminds us that our ascended King has poured out on his church the gift of pastors and teachers so that we will not be "tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine."
Through Jeremiah, Yahweh sternly rebukes the false shepherds and false prophets who dare to speak when they have not been sent and stubbornly declare their own word as God's. In John 10, Jesus said that he was the Good Shepherd and that his sheep listen to him rather than following interlopers who come in through the back door. Paul reminds us that the gospel ministry is not a free-for-all. "How shall they preach unless they are sent?", he asks in Romans 10. Furthermore, his epistles (especially to Timothy) are chock-full of instructions concerning the proper qualifications of those who are to be ordained by the laying on of hands.
To be sure, the church's history (and present) is littered with examples of many who received an excellent education and were examined, approved, and ordained, who nevertheless led God's people astray. In fact, especially since the Enlightenment, university divinity schools and theological faculties have borne much of the responsibility for converting sons of evangelical families and churches into skeptics. Yet we do not abandon a formally educated ministry any more than we abandon doctors and hospitals in spite of run-ins with "quacks" and "hacks" in the medical profession. Rather, the Christian faithful, for their own health, must insist upon rigorous training in sound, confessional seminaries and examinations on the floor of classis and presbytery. The proper response to bad education is good education, not abandoning formal training altogether.
As you know, at seminaries like Westminster Seminary California, the choice between being a pastor and being a scholar is regarded as a false one. We are training pastor-scholars. Just as your doctor needs to be professionally trained as well as practically experienced, those who watch over your soul for Christ's sake need tools for lifelong ministry that they do not have simply by virtue of having a stirring personal testimony. They will one day give an account for their flock. The stakes are too high and Christ's promise too wonderful to settle for an unprepared ministry. My hope is that through their prayers and gifts churches will cherish the seminaries that serve them, support the men in seminary who will one day occupy their pulpits, and hold both accountable to the faith that must be clearly articulated and defended in each new generation.
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